George Mason and the American Revolution

When tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies first began, George Mason was devoting his time to the operations of his plantation and to his land ventures with the Ohio Company. Mason was the treasurer of the Ohio Company, an organization that invested in land located in the Ohio River Valley. The Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies, unofficially began in 1753. The fighting between Great Britain and France (and France’s Indian allies) on American soil was, in Mason’s words, disastrous for the company’s land claims. The war was precipitated by competing French and British claims of the Ohio country.  In 1753, the French began to build more forts throughout the country and declared that any English who traded or trespassed there would be made prisoners.  The British quickly mobilized, and much of the Ohio country land claimed by the Ohio Company was used for military purposes.  Roads established by the company became military transport lines, and an Ohio Company  trading post at the forks of the Ohio River became Fort Duquesne and later Fort Pitt.  Once the British gained control of Fort Pitt, various Virginia groups sought further western land grants, and claims soon overlapped between military and private interests, as well as between competing land companies.  Also, Governor Dinwiddie promised Ohio Company land to Virginians who fought in the campaigns. To further complicate the issue, boundary disputes between Pennsylvania and Virginia involved lands around Fort Pitt claimed by the Ohio Company.

Mason was in the midst of trying to reaffirm the original Ohio Company charter when the British government concluded the Seven Years War by the Peace of Paris Treaty signed on February 10, 1763.  Even after the fighting had ended, Britain had maintained troops in the colonies to prevent expansion beyond the frontier created by the Proclamation of 1763. The war had proved costly for Great Britain and the remaining troops further increased the financial burden. Consequently, government officials in England began looking for new sources of revenue and decided the colonists should contribute to their own defense. Thus British Parliament began to pass a series of acts aimed at generating revenue. They started on April 5, 1764 with the Revenue Act (or Sugar Act) that imposed various import duties on foreign cloth, sugar, indigo, and coffee brought into the colonies. On April 19, 1764, they passed the Currency Act that prohibited plantation colonies from issuing money. One year later, they passed the Stamp Act that required purchase of tax stamps to be affixed to newspapers, pamphlets, documents, playing cards, licenses, dice, etc. And in May 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act that required colonies to provide food and lodging for British Soldiers.

The colonists, who resented the closing of the frontier and doubted the British troops’ ability to protect anyone, declared the acts unjust and an infringement on the colonists’ rights to assess their own taxes. As early as 1764, the Virginia General Assembly had declared that only the House of Burgesses had the right to tax Virginians, thus setting the tone for future conflicts. In the summer of 1765, colonists reacted to British Parliament’s acts, especially the Stamp Act, by adopting resolutions protesting the taxation policy, boycotting all stamped paper, and by banding together to intimidate those who tried to collect the tax or who did not comply with resistance. In December 1765, George Mason drafted a plan that gave landlords a means of evading the Stamp Act, an action that propelled him into active participation in the protests against British colonial regulations.

In late February 1766, a group of merchants in London sent a letter to the colonists, directed specifically to the merchants of New York, that admonished the colonists for their combative reactions to taxation, and pleaded with them to comply with the demands of, and express gratitude to, their Mother-Country. The letter was published in several colonial newspapers, including the Virginia Gazette (Purdie) on May 16, 1766. In early June 1766, after reading the letter, George Mason responded to what he saw as their unfair criticism:

. . .There is a Passion natural to the Mind of man, especially a free Man, which renders him impatient of Restraint. Do you, does any sensible Man think that three or four Millions of People, not naturally defective in Genius, or in Courage, who have tasted the Sweets of Liberty in a Country that doubles it’s Inhabitants every twenty Years, in a Country abounding in such Variety of Soil & Climate, capable of producing not only the Necessarys, but the Conveniencys & Delicacys of Life, will long submit to Oppression; . . . Such another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou’d produce a general Revolt in America. . .

Meanwhile, however, the colonists learned in May that Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act, but then passed the Declaratory Act that asserted Parliament’s right to make laws for the colonies. In their celebration over the Stamp Act’s defeat, they mostly ignored the Declaratory Act.

One year later, on June 29, 1767, Parliament Passed the Townshend Revenue Acts that imposed import duties on British glass, red and white lead, painter’s colors, paper, and tea and suspended the New York Assembly for not complying with the Quartering Act. In February 1768, Boston leaders wrote the Circular Letter that called for colonies to join in opposing Great Britain’s recent policies. Many colonies formally approved the letter in their assemblies. In April 1768 the Virginia General Assembly formally protested the Townshend Acts and in May 1769, in an address to the King, the Virginia House of Burgesses once again claimed their exclusive right to levy their own taxes. In response to this defiant act, the British governor dissolved the Virginia Assembly on May 19, 1769.  The Assembly, however, reconvened at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg and took up discussion of nonimportation.

Throughout the previous year, other colonies had been implementing nonimportation agreements and associations that pledged citizens to boycott British goods until grievances were redressed. Virginia joined these colonies that spring, and George Mason was a key contributor to this process of protest. He, George Washington, and other leaders had been writing back and forth exchanging ideas on how nonimportation should proceed, and on April 5, 1769 Mason wrote to Washington about what effect that policy might have on Virginia and the tension with Great Britain:

Our All is at Stake, & the little Conveniencys & Comforts of Life, when set in Competition with our Liberty, ought to be rejected not with Reluctance but with Pleasure. . . it is amazing how much this (if adopted in all the Colonys) wou’d lessen the American Imports, and distress the various Traders & Manufacturers in Great Britain–This wou’d quickly awaken their Attention–they wou’d see, they wou’d feel the Oppressions we groan under, & exert themselves to procure us Redress. . .

On May 18, George Washington presented to the burgesses at the Raleigh Tavern a set of nonimportation resolutions that had been drafted by him and George Mason a few days before.  The burgesses adopted this plan, which became known as the Virginia Association.  Mason provided further thoughts about nonimportation on June 7, 1770, in a letter to Richard Henry Lee. Mason expressed contempt for those who, for their own personal gain, did not comply with nonimportation:

Every Member of Society is in Duty bound to contribute to the Safety & Good of the Whole; and when the Subject is of such Importance as the Liberty & Happiness of a Country, every inferior Consideration, as well as the Inconvenience to a few Individuals, must give place to it; nor is this any Hardship upon them; as themselves & their Posterity are to partake of the Benefits resulting from it.

Tensions escalated between Great Britain and the Colonies during the Spring of 1770. On March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre occurred when a crowd of colonists and British Troops clashed in front of the Customs House in Boston. Apparently, snowballs and rubbish were thrown at the soldiers, and at some point, the soldiers opened fire, killing three men and wounding others, some fatally. At about that time, however, in April 1770, British Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts, but retained the tax on tea. Royal Governor Bernard of Massachusetts also called the Massachusetts Assembly into meeting again. Colonists, despite the continued tax on tea, felt that Parliament had finally redressed their grievances and ended their embargo on British Goods. The years between 1770 and 1772 proved a period of commercial prosperity for the colonies and tensions between Great Britain and the colonies eased somewhat.

In early December 1770, in a letter written most likely to George Brent, Mason expressed some optimism, yet remained cautious, about the future:

We are not without Hopes that, when Men’s Passions have had time to cool & Reason takes Place, this most desireable End may be attain’d, & that happy Harmony restored which for more than a Century produced such mutual Benefits to both Countrys . . . But shou’d the oppressive System of taxing us without our Consent be continued. The Flame, however smother’d now, will break out with redoubled Ardour, & the Spirit of Opposition (Self-defence is its’ proper Name) wear a more formidable Shape then ever-more formidable, because more natural & practicable. . .
. . .We have always acknowledged we are always ready to recognize the Sovereignty of Great Britain but we will not submit to have our own Money taken out our Pockets without our Consent; because if any Man or any Set of Men take from us without our Consent or that of our Representatives one shilling in the Pound we have not Security for the remaining nineteen. We owe to our Mother-Country the Duty of Subjects but will not pay her the Submission of Slaves.

During 1771 and 1772, Mason had turned his attention to Ohio Company affairs, buying headrights for lands and reviewing Virginia’s charter laws. In the Fall and Winter of 1772, however, a series of incidents occurred that intensified the colonists’ suspicions about Great Britain’s motives, and returned George Mason’s attention to the colonies’ situation. Customs Commissioners from England had remained in the colonies, overseeing revenue ships that continued to exact tolls from small vessels transporting goods to shore. The Gaspee Incident on June 10, 1772, when Rhode Islanders burned one of those revenue ships that had grounded, heightened tensions. Furthermore, In Massachusetts, Royal Governor Hutchinson announced that the judges of the Superior Court would receive their salaries from customs revenues.  Hutchinson’s own salary had come from customs revenues since 1768, and this angered colonists because it dissociated royal officers from the assembly.

Responding to these developments, citizens of Boston formed a Committee of Correspondence in October 1772, with the purpose of preparing a statement of colonial rights, listing violations, and communicating these with other towns and colonies, hoping they would follow suit. This action succeeded in evoking resentment and ire towards Great Britain once again and a new set of hostilities erupted. On May 10, 1773, British Parliament passed the Tea Act that gave the East India Company a monopoly on tea imported by the colonists and reasserted Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. The Boston colonists responded by staging the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773. Parliament, in turn, punished Boston in March and April 1774, by passing the Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) that closed the port of Boston, restricted Massachusetts government and town meetings, and quartered British troops in Boston. This act outraged colonists across America and proved the pivotal point in the conflict, as many believed they could not go back to peaceful relations with Great Britain.

In May 1774, Mason traveled to Williamsburg to obtain concessions for his land grants, and coincidentally was present when, on May 24, 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a resolution declaring June 1 (the day the Port of Boston was to be closed) a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in Virginia. Mason fully supported this endeavor and instructed his friend Martin Cockburn to, “tell my dear little family that I charge them to pay strict attention to it, and that I desire my three eldest sons, and my two eldest daughters, may attend church in mourning , if they have it, as I believe they have.” On May 27, Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s royal governor, again dissolved the General Assembly for its defiant act, and again, the delegates met at Raleigh Tavern to continue their business.  There, they proposed an annual “general congress” of all the colonies and formed a new nomimportation association. They also instructed each county to hold elections for a special August meeting of the House of Burgesses, called the Virginia Convention.

In July 1774, Fairfax County freeholders met to choose their representatives. They elected George Washington and Charles Broadwater and while the freeholders adjourned to consider ways of forcing Great Britain to redress American grievances, Washington met with George Mason at Mount Vernon. Here the two men and others wrote the Fairfax County Resolves in response and opposition to the Intolerable Acts. It stated the actions to be taken against British aggression, and represented a sharp turn in British-American relations, as they went farther than most protests by recommending that a continental congress devise “a general and uniform Plan for the Defence and Preservation of our common Rights . . .”  Resolution number two stated:

2. Resolved that the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which it’s very Existence depends, is the fundamental Principle of the People’s being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves; who are affected by the Laws they enact equally with their Constituents; to whom they are accountable, and whose Burthens they share; in which consists the Safety and Happiness of the Community: for if this Part of the Constitution was taken away, or materially altered, the Government must degenerate either into an absolute and despotic Monarchy, or a tyrannical Aristocracy, and the Freedom of the People be annihilated.

That summer, other colonies agreed to send delegates to the conference proposed by Virginia to discuss recent events and to form some concerted action against Great Britain. From August 1-6, 1774, the delegates at the first Virginia Convention chose delegates for the colony-wide convention. On September 1, 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and delegates there agreed to boycott all British Goods, to send petitions of grievances to the king, and to meet again in the coming year. Meanwhile, George Mason served on the Fairfax County Committee of Safety that had been created to enforce the Fairfax Resolves.  There, he oversaw the formation of an independent militia company for Fairfax County. In April 1775, his remarks on annual elections for the company reflected his political philosophy on the eve of the Revolution.

We came equals into this world, and equals shall we go out of it. All men are by nature born equally free and independent. To protect the weaker from the injuries and insults of the stronger were societies first formed; . . . Every society, all government, and every kind of civil compact therefore, is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community. Every power, every authority vested in particular men is, or ought to be, ultimately directed to this sole end; and whenever any power or authority whatever extends further, or is of longer duration than is in its nature necessary for these purposes, it may be called government, but it is in fact oppression . . .In all our associations; in all our agreements let us never lose sight of this fundamental maxim–that all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people. We should wear it as a breastplate, and buckle it on as our armour.

On April 19, 1775 shots were fired at Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution officially began. On May 10, 1775 the Second Continental Congress convened.  George Washington had been chosen to represent Virginia at this conference, so George Mason was selected to replace Washington as a Fairfax County delegate to the third Virginia Convention, scheduled to meet in Richmond in July.  On June 15, the Second Continental Congress placed George Washington in charge of the Continental Army. Now Washington’s seat at the Second Continental Congress stood vacant, so in August 1775, George Mason was appointed to take Washington’s seat at the Second Continental Congress. Mason refused, however, and was instead appointed to Virginia’s Committee of Safety in charge of raising a militia for Virginia’s defense. The Committee of Safety also became responsible for carrying on the functions of government when Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, departed Virginia for safer ground. George Mason reluctantly agreed to serve Virginia in this capacity.

Mason continued to hold a seat at the fourth Virginia Convention that met in Williamsburg on December 5, 1775, and again at the fifth and final Convention that met in May, 1776. On May 15, 1776 the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia advised the Colonies to establish their own governments.  The Virginia Convention responded by passing a resolution calling for a direct act by the Continental Congress to strike for independence. The delegates also appointed a drafting committee to write a bill of rights and a constitution for Virginia. George Mason headed the committee and Edmund Pendleton wrote Thomas Jefferson a few days later, “The Political Cooks are busy in preparing the dish, and as Colo Mason seems to have the Ascendancy in the great work, I have Sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it’s end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals . . .” 9 In late May 1776, Mason submitted a first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights to the Committee, and on May 27, 1776, the committee added onto Mason’s draft and submitted it to the Convention. While waiting for the Convention to adopt his Declaration of Rights, Mason wrote a first draft of the Virginia Constitution and submitted it to the Convention. On June 12, 1776, the final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was passed. And on June 28, the Convention adopted the final draft of the Virginia Constitution.

The other colonies followed Virginia’s lead and established their own constitutions and bills of rights. Many borrowed freely from Mason’s ideas and words. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, representing Virginia at the Second Continental Congress, had proposed a resolution formally declaring the colonies independent. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted Lee’s proposal and on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was formally announced to the world. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence echoes many of the ideas put forth in Mason’s Declaration of Rights. This reflects the shared philosophy between many of the founding fathers, such as Jefferson, Mason, Washington, and Madison.

Following the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress immediately began to prepare a new compact to unite the thirteen colonies and on November 17, 1777, passed the Articles of Confederation. In February 1781, Maryland became the last colony to ratify the Articles. In that same year, General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, ending the hostilities of the American Revolution. And in 1783, the Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and the United States formally ended the American Revolution. In 1777, George Mason had been elected a delegate to Virginia’s new government that he had helped create, and he continued to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates until 1780, when he did not attend the session in the new Capitol of Richmond due to poor health. He had also remained on Fairfax County’s Committee of Safety. In 1781, he retired from public life, yet continued to remain involved in the affairs of Virginia and the new nation. Six years later, despite poor health and his aversion to long trips, George Mason traveled to Philadelphia for the Federal Convention of 1787, and became one of the leading contributors to the formation of the United States Constitution.