The American Revolution was an unusually cerebral revolution. Its heroes included philosophers as well as soldiers. Its political leaders combined sophisticated political thought with political action in a way not seen in this country since. Their ideas — and their stubborn determination to make those ideas the foundation of effective government — still resonate around the world.
Few of these men have had a more lasting impact than George Mason, the retiring Fairfax County planter who served a mentor to George Washington and influenced a generation of Virginia revolutionaries.
In the spring of 1776 Mason represented Fairfax County in the Virginia Convention, which had taken the place of the colonial House of Burgesses and was preparing a constitution for the new commonwealth. Assigned to a committee to draft a bill of rights, he grumbled about parliamentary procedures and "useless" committee men and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights more or less on his own. It became, and remains, one of the most influential and widely-imitated assertions of natural and civil rights.
"All men are born equally free and independent," Mason began, "and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they can not by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Aristocrats, cautious go-slow men, and closet Tories blanched at the opening words, certain that Mason was inviting a slave insurrection. The "monsters," Mason's ally Thomas Ludwell Lee wrote, "kept us at bay on the first line." But Mason's words survived to become the first official act that led, through gradual, halting, and painful steps, to the abolition of slavery and the acknowledgment of human rights for all.
Mason's Declaration went on to assert that the power of government "is derived from the People," who retain "an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible Right" to "reform, alter or abolish" any government at will. Mason also outlined the most basic civil rights, including the rights to a speedy trial by jury, and against self-incrimination, unlawful seizure of property, and unjustified imprisonment,
Each provision was subjected to debate. Patrick Henry convinced the convention to drop Mason's ban on ex post facto laws. A quiet young delegate from Orange County -- twenty-five year old James Madison -- unsuccessfully urged the convention to broaden the article on religious toleration. The Declaration that emerged from this debate has been described as one of "the world's most memorable triumphs in applied political theory." Its author, the French philosopher Condorcet wrote, had earned "the eternal gratitude of mankind."
Mason's Declaration of Rights sounds much like the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, may have derived the famous assertion of the inalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" from Mason's formulation. But there are subtle and important differences between the two documents, as there were between Mason and Jefferson as political thinkers.
Mason tells us that people have the right to the "means of . . . pursuing and obtaining happiness." Jefferson mentioned only a right to the pursuit, which seems empty by comparison.
For neither man was pursuit synonymous with mere seeking. Pursuit involved following. Even today one pursues a fleeing criminal or a course of study. In the 18th century pursuit implied even more strongly a correct path toward a goal. So when Mason and Jefferson tell us that people have a right to pursue happiness, they do not mean that people have a right to seek happiness however they like. They mean for us to pursue happiness by cultivating virtue.
Nor was happiness as vague a goal as it now seems. Happiness did not mean pleasure, though 18th-century thinkers held that happiness ought to be pleasant. For thinkers like Mason, a person achieved happiness when his condition fit his character, talents and abilities. Mason believed that people have a fundamental right to the "means" to reach this happy condition.
But what did Mason mean by "means"? Means is now treated as a synonym for assets; we describe a poor person as having limited means. In the modern idiom, Mason seems to be asserting that a person has a right to the assets he needs to obtain happiness. The Virginia Declaration can thus be read as a prescription mandating a whole range of public entitlements. But this is a misreading of Mason. In the early modern world, means usually meant methods. Remember the classic Machiavellian formula: the ends justify the means.
Mason's "means" include the whole range of legal protections that allow a free society to flourish. And they include, mostly explicitly, the "means of acquiring and possessing property," which Jefferson left out of the Declaration but which Mason understood was one of the most fundamental rights of all.
Rights and Responsibilities
Mason's Declaration differs from Jefferson's in another important respect. Jefferson asserts the inalienable rights of mankind, but does not mention our responsibilities. Mason makes it clear that our natural rights have corollary responsibilities. "No free government," Mason wrote, "or the Blessings of Liberty can be preserved to any People, but by a firm adherence to Justice, Moderation, Temperance, Frugality, and Virtue and by frequent Recurrence to fundamental Principles."
Of these characteristics, Mason regarded virtue — by which he meant a willingness to subordinate private desires for the good of the community — as paramount. Pursuit of self interest in opposition to the public good, Mason wrote before the Revolution, is "not only mean & sordid, but extremely short-sighted and foolish." He wished all men to be free; but he insisted that we must use freedom wisely.
The key to the difference between Mason and Jefferson lies in their different visions of republican society. Jefferson's drew his inspiration from the liberal tradition associated with John Locke and the social thought of the Scottish Enlightenment, which stressed the moral common sense of the individual. Mason's vision drew more inspiration from the republicanism of Ancient Rome — an austere, often martial spirit that idealized voluntary attachment to the good of the state.
Mason's revolutionary idealism substituted civic responsibility for obedience to kings and lords as the basis for an ordered society. More than two hundred years later, his challenge remains vital to freedom: do we have enough virtue--enough willingness to sacrifice our private desires--to protect our liberty? Can our republic survive our selfishness?
The Bill of Rights
Mason served in the Virginia House of Delegates through much of the Revolutionary War, but finally withdrew from office in 1781 and refused to be lured out again until 1786, when he agreed to go to Philadelphia to attend the Federal Convention.
Mason was one of the most active framers of the Constitution, but at the last moment he refused to sign the document because it contained no bill of rights. Madison and other delegates assured him that a bill of rights was entirely unnecessary — that the Constitution delegated only specified powers to the federal government, and thus possessed no power to encroach on personal liberty.
Mason knew better. He placed liberty before the Union, and he knew that the federal government would wield enough power to deprive Americans of their natural and civil rights. "The security of our liberty and happiness is the object we ought to have in view in wishing to establish the union," he argued. "If instead of securing these, we endanger them, the name of the union will be but a trivial consolation."
Virginia ratified the Constitution over Mason's objections by a majority of one vote. But Mason's objections to the Constitution were published all over the nation, and excited widespread demand for a bill of rights. When the First Congress convened in New York in 1789, Congressman James Madison — converted at last to Mason's point of view — introduced a series of amendments to the Constitution that formed the Bill of Rights. It was the crowning achievement of Mason's public life.
Condorcet and the other European admirers of the American Revolution praised the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, but few of them knew his name. Unlike his counterparts - Washington, Jefferson, and Madison among them — Mason does not seem to have devoted much attention to his historical memory. He was content to leave us his accomplishments.
And although George Mason preferred not to leave his Fairfax County plantation, his influence has been felt around the world for more than 200 years, by millions of people. Mason's ideals are invoked wherever oppressed people assert their inalienable rights. In Birmingham and Selma, in Castro's prisons and Tiananmen Square. Mason's legacy lives wherever people raise their voices to insist on the fundamental truth that all people "are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights." Friends of liberty are all his disciples.
Historian Jack D. Warren, Jr., writes extensively about the Founding Fathers. His book The Presidency of George Washington was published in November 2000. He was a member of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the University of Virginia. Between 1995 and 2000 he was Assistant Editor of The Papers of George Washington. Mr. Warren also wrote A Covenanted People: The Religious Tradition and the Origins of American Constitutionalism (Providence, RI, 1987).
This article was originally published in the Gunston Gazette (Gunston Hall Planation's Membership Newsletter), vol. 6, no. 1 (2001): 6-8.