“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus began the first of the Ten Amendments, or Bill of Rights, which were approved Sept. 25, 1789.
“The Father of the Bill of Rights” was George Mason of Virginia. George Mason was the richest man in Virginia, owning 15,000 acres. When George Washington was chosen to be the commander of the Continental Army, George Mason was drafted by the citizens of Virginia to fill Washington’s place in the Continental Congress. George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which Jefferson drew from to write the Declaration of Independence.
George Mason stated before the General Court of Virginia: “The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.”
George Mason’s phrase was mirrored by Jefferson’s: “The laws of nature and nature’s God.”
At the Constitutional Convention, George Mason called for an end of the slave trade, desiring to immediately ban any more slaves from being brought into the country and that slavery should not spread into new states. He called slavery a “slow poison” and argued for the gradual emancipation of all slaves.
On Aug. 22, 1787, George Mason stated: “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”
George Mason argued in favor of citizens being armed, as he stated at Virginia’s Ratifying Convention, 1788 (3 Elliot, Debates at 380): “When the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised … to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.”
George Mason remarked on “Annual Elections for the Fairfax Independent Company” (The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, ed Robert A. Rutland, Chapel Hill, 1970): “(The Colonies were) all democratic governments, where the power is in the hands of the people and where there is not the least difficulty or jealousy about putting arms into the hands of every man in the country. (European countries should not) be ignorant of the strength and the force of such a form of government and how strenuously and almost wonderfully people living under one have sometimes exerted themselves in defense of their rights and liberties and how fatally it has ended with many a man and many a state who have entered into quarrels, wars and contests with them.”
George Mason was one of 55 founders who wrote the U.S. Constitution, but was one of the few who refused to sign it because it did not end the slave trade and did not put enough limits on the federal government’s power. He warned that the federal judiciary would attempt to usurp powers from the state governments.
Other anti-federalists included:
- Virginia Governor Patrick Henry
- Future Governor of Massachusetts Samuel Adams
- Future fifth U.S. President James Monroe
- Richard Henry Lee
- Robert Yates
- George Clinton
- Melancton Smith
- Arthur Fenner
- James Winthrop
- Luther Martin
- the famous woman writer, Mercy Otis Warren
Thomas Jefferson also advocated many anti-federalist views.
George Mason and the other anti-federalists tried to prevent the Constitution from being ratified as they feared that too much power concentrated into the hands of the Federal Government would result in the same trampling of individual rights that King George III perpetrated.
President Dwight Eisenhower admitted as much at a Governors’ Conference, June 24, 1957: “The National Government was itself the creature of the States. … Yet today it is often made to appear that the creature, Frankenstein-like, is determined to destroy the creators.”
George Mason’s opposition to the Constitution cost him his friendship with George Washington.
When the Constitution was ratified, George Mason led the effort to insist that limitations or “amendments” put in place which would restrict the power of the new federal government.
George Mason stated: “There is no declaration of rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several states, the declarations of rights in the separate states are no security.”
George Mason’s role was acknowledged by Jefferson, April 3, 1825: “The fact is unquestionable, that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness.”
George Mason is commemorated by a bas-relief of him in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Preamble of the Bill of Rights stated: “The States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added. … Resolved … that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.”
George Mason originally suggested the wording of the First Amendment be: “All men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular sect or society of Christians ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”
In a glimpse into his personal life, George Mason recorded his wife’s death March 9, 1773, inside their 1759 Family Bible: “About three o’clock in the morning, died at Gunston-Hall … Mrs. Ann Mason, in the thirty-ninth year of her age; after a painful and tedious illness of more than nine months, which she bore with truly Christian Patience and resignation, in faithful hope of eternal Happiness in the world to come. … For many days before her death she had lost all hopes of recovery, and endeavour’d to wean herself from the affections of this life, saying that tho’ it must cost her a hard struggle to reconcile herself to the hopes of parting with her husband and children, she hoped God would enable her to accomplish it. … An easy and agreeable companion, a kind neighbor, a steadfast friend, a humane mistress, a prudent and tender mother, a faithful, affectionate and most obliging wife; charitable to the poor and pious to her Maker, her virtue and religion were unmixed with hypocrisy or ostentation.”
George Mason University in Virginia is named for him.
George Mason wrote in his last will and testament: “I, George Mason, of “Gunston Hall”, in the parish of Truro and county of Fairfax, being of perfect and sound mind and memory and in good health, but mindful of the uncertainty of human life and the imprudence of man’s leaving his affairs to be settled upon a deathbed, do make and appoint this my last Will and Testament. My soul, I resign into the hands of my Almighty Creator, whose tender mercies are over all His works, who hateth nothing that He hath made and to the Justice and Wisdom of whose dispensation I willing and cheerfully submit, humbly hoping from His unbounded mercy and benevolence, through the merits of my blessed Savior, a remission of my sins.”
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