George Mason held men, women, and children in bondage until the end of his life. He was likely the second largest enslaver in Fairfax County (after George Washington). Mason’s lengthy last will and testament listed 36 enslaved workers by name as property to pass along to his children. The will does not manumit, or bequeath freedom to, any of the people Mason kept in slavery.
And yet, Mason’s writings reveal his intense dislike of the institution of slavery. He was outspoken and consistent in his disapproval. George Mason clearly presents us with a paradox: Why did this prominent gentry slave owner argue in the public forum against the institution of slavery, yet free none of his own slaves? Examine Mason’s words for yourself in the following excerpts.
In Scheme for Replevying Goods and Distress for Rent (December 23, 1765)
The Policy of encouraging the Importation of free People & discouraging that of Slaves has never been duly considered in this Colony, or we shou’d not at this Day see one Half of our best Lands in most Parts of the Country remain unsetled, & the other cultivated with Slaves; not to mention the ill Effect such a Practice has upon the Morals & Manners of our People: one of the first Signs of the Decay, & perhaps the primary Cause of the Destruction of the most flourishing Government that ever existed was the Introduction of great Numbers of Slaves – an Evil very pathetically described by the Roman Historians – but ’tis not the present Intention to expose our Weakness by examining this Subject too freely.
In Last Will and Testament (March 20, 1773)
I give and bequeath unto each of my four Daughters. . . and to each of their heirs for ever, when they respectively arrive to the Age of Twenty One Years, or Marry which ever shall first happen the following Slaves with their Increase respectively from the date of this my Will. To my eldest Daughter Ann the four Following Slaves and their increase. To wit, Bess (the Daughter of Cloe) and her child Frank, mulatto Priss (the Daughter of Jenny) and Nell (the Daughter of Occoquan Nell) To my Daughter Sarah the three following slaves with their increase, to wit, Hannah and Venus (the Daughter of Beck) and Mulatto Mima (the Daughter of Jenny) to my Daughter Mary the following Slaves with their Increase To Wit, Ann and Nell, the Daughter of House Nell, and little Jenny (the Daughter of Jenny) To my Daughter Elizabeth the three following Slaves with their Increase to wit, Vicky the Daughter of Occoquan Nell, Sarah (the Daughter of great Sue) and Rachel (the Daughter of Beck). . .
I give and bequeath unto my Son George Mason and his heirs for ever when he arrives to the Age of twenty one years, or Marrys, which ever shall first happen, the seven following Slaves, to wit, Alice, Bob Dunk, yellow Dick, Bob (the son of Occoquan Nell) Peter (the son of Great Sue) Judy and Lucy; together with all the Slaves which shall properly belong to and reside at my two upper Quarters in Dogues Neck Adjoining to the Great Marsh at the time of my Death. . .
In Extracts from the Virginia Charters (July 1773)
[Slavery is] that slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentlemen here is born a petty Tyrant. Practiced in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity, & all the finer feelings of the Soul. Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man, which the Hand of Nature had implanted in us, for great & useful purposes. Habituated from our Infancy to trample upon the Rights of Human Nature, every generous, every liberal Sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our Minds. And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers. The Laws of impartial Providence may even by such Means as these, avenge upon our Posterity the Injury done a set of Wretches, whom our Injustice hath debased almost to a Level with the Brute Creation. These Remarks may be thought Foreign to the design of the annexed Extracts – They were extorted by a kind of irresistible, perhaps an Enthusiastick Impulse; and the author of them conscious of his own good Intentions, cares not whom they please or offend.
In the Fairfax County Resolves (July 18, 1774)
RESOLVED that it is the Opinion of this Meeting, that during our present Difficulties and Distress, no Slaves ought to be imported into any of the British Colonies on this Continent; and we take this Opportunity of declaring our most earnes Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.
In Virginia Declaration of Rights (First Draft, May 1776)
That all Men are born equally free and independant, 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 pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.
Speech at the Constitutional Convention, as recorded by James Madison in his Notes of the Constitutional Convention (August 22, 1787)
This infernal trafic originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Govt. constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union. . . Slavery discourages arts & manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich & strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities. . . [It is] essential in every point of view that the Genl. Govt. should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.
In Objections to the Constitution (November 22, 1787)
[The new constitution is inadequate because t]he general legislature is restrained from prohibiting the further importation of slaves for twenty odd years; though such importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of defence.
In Journal Notes of the Virginia Ratification Convention Proceedings (June 17, 1788)
The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind. Yet by this constitution it is continued for twenty years, As much as I value an union of all the states, I would not admit the southern states into the union, unless they agreed to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade, because it would bring weakness and not strength to the union. And though this infamous traffic be continued, we have no security for the property of that kind which we have already. There is no clause in this constitution to secure it; for they may lay such a tax as will amount to manumission. And should the government be amended, still this detestable kind of commerce cannot be discontinued till after the expiration of twenty years. For the fifth article [of the Constitution], which provides for amendments, expressly excepts this clause. I have ever looked upon this as a most disgraceful thing to America. I cannot express my detestation of it. Yet they have not secured us the property of the slaves we have already. So that “they have done what they ought not to have done, and left undone what they ought to have done.”
In Thomas Jefferson’s Record of a Conversation with Mason on the Federal Convention (September 30, 1792)
The const[itutio]n as agreed to till a fortnight before the convention rose was such a one as [Mason] w[oul]d have set his hand & heart to. . . With respect to the import[atio]n of slaves it was left to Congress. This disturbed the 2 Southernmost states who knew that Congress would immediately suppress the import[atio]n of slaves. Those 2 states therefore struck up a bargain with the 3 N. Engl[an]d states, if they would join to admit slaves for some years, the 2 Southernmost states w[oul]d join in changing the clause which required 2/3 of the legislature in any vote. It was done. These articles were changed accordingly, & from that moment the two S[outhern]. states and the 3 Northern ones joined Pen[nsylvania]. Jers[ey]. & Del[aware]. & made the majority 8. to 3. against us instead of 8. to 3. for us as it had been thro’ the whole convention. Under this coalition the great principles of the Const[itutio]n were changed in the last days of the Convention.