George Mason and Original Intent

By December 11, 2017Blog

Every fact bearing upon the character and service of the statesmen whose genius created a model form of human government should receive a warm greeting from those who are proud of the growth, progress, and prosperity of the republic. The harmonious working of the component parts which enter into the life of the country is to-day the result of the intelligent labors of a small group of men over a hundred years ago. Like the rays of the sun which give light to the world, a government which proves capable of maintaining the purpose for which it was established, and protects the liberties of its citizens, should be hailed and imitated by mankind in every clime.

The sword of Washington carved success upon the standards of the new republic. The pen of Jefferson declared in immortal phrase our independence of Great Britain. The young eagle was pluming for his flight among the nations of the globe. But how should he so adjust his wings as to carry with nice balance, upon pinions of freedom, the glorious mission of establishing a government of the people, to replace the power of the tyrant?

Among the eminent patriots of those days, whose minds grasped this great problem, the subject of this book stands out in bold relief. A most remarkable man was George Mason! His conception of the authority of the citizens to control the government, and that the government existed only by their will and consent, was thorough and complete.

His warning as to the exercise of undelegated powers by either Congress or the President was truly prophetic. He desired to erect a republic whose strength at the centre was only great enough to carry out the object for which it was created; while the creator—the States themselves—should be left undisturbed in the exercise of all power not specified as having been relinquished. He had a full appreciation that the safety of the States was indeed the safety of the Union. He was the champion of the States and of the people. His signature, as one of the delegates from Virginia, was not attached to the Constitution, as it came from the hands of its framers in 1787, only because, in his opinion, that instrument did not completely guard the safety of the States.

His great labors may not be as widely established in the public mind as those of some others of the same period, because he persistently declined public positions in the federal councils, where his conspicuous talents would easily have kept him in the front rank of public knowledge and esteem. In the hearts of the students of his country’s history, his name and fame occupy a place second to none. He was indeed the people’s man in a people’s government. The tent of his faith was pitched upon the bed-rock of the freedom of the citizen. Great was his belief in the security of a purely republican form of government. Sublime was his reliance in the power of the people. If Madison was, as John Quincy Adams said, “the Father of the Constitution,” to Mason we are certainly indebted for those features which embrace sovereignty of the States, and protect the inalienable rights of their inhabitants. He was at once “the Solon and the Cato, the law-giver and the stern patriot, of the age” in which he lived. Marvellous was his wisdom, and great his intellectual force and breadth; and both were exerted to form a constitution which should have, traversing its length and breadth, broad, clear, comprehensive lines, separating the delegated powers conferred on the general government from those reserved to the States.

In the great battle fought by learned opponents in the Convention called by Virginia to ratify this Constitution, it will be remembered that George Mason bore a most prominent part. He believed, with a great orator of American liberty, that this Constitution in its first principles, was “highly and dangerously oligarchic”; and that a government of the few is of all governments the worst. He insisted upon such amendments as would forever obliterate the ” awful squint towards monarchy “; and so great was the effect of his arguments, that the wisdom of a John Marshall, the oratory of an Edmund Randolph, the persuasive grace of a Henry Lee, the logic of a Madison, supported by the great reserve force of Washington, could secure the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia, by a majority of only ten votes in some one hundred and sixty-eight cast; and then only after nine States (the number sufficient) had already endorsed it. Among the intellectual giants composing this Convention, Mason was in the ranks of the opposition, strongly favoring specific limitations to the powers conferred by the Constitution upon the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial departments of the government. By his side was Patrick Henry; and supporting these two leaders were such men as Benjamin Harrison, James Monroe, and William Grayson. Mason’s power of expression, must also have deeply impressed his opinions upon the minds of some of the great leaders of that day. Madison pronounced him the ablest debater he had ever known; and Jefferson declared he was the wisest man of his generation. It is most significant, therefore, that the former in drafting the famous Virginia Resolutions of 1798, following the doctrines of Mason, laid down the principle that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of powers not granted by the Constitution, the States have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose in arresting the progress of the evil; while Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolutions declared that no State was bound to tamely submit to undelegated and unlimited powers by any man or body of men on earth. Such were the views of the Father of the Constitution, and the author of the Declaration of Independence in 1798, some ten years after the adoption of the Federal Constitution. That a great majority of the people of the United States sustained these opinions of Mason, Jefferson, and Madison, is manifested by the fact that, after their expression, the two last named held for eight years, respectively, the office of Chief Magistrate by the people’s suffrages.

Virginia was not the only State so construing the Constitution. It will be remembered that the Massachusetts Legislature condemned as unconstitutional the Embargo Act of 1807, just as Kentucky and Virginia had, the Alien and Sedition laws. The government of Connecticut had recommended nullification as being within the power and authority of the State, as did South Carolina; and we are told that the Hartford Convention of December 14, 1814, which was attended by delegates from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont, was prevented from recommending the secession of those States from the Union, only by the termination of the war with England, which was seriously damaging their commercial interests.

The withdrawal of some of the States from the Union in 1861 was in accordance with the theories of the Fathers of the Government, endorsed in the earlier history of the republic by the great masses of the people. If success crowns the efforts of a people struggling for their rights and liberties, the world applauds; if they are unsuccessful, the world frowns.

This life of Mason is proper and opportune. A period in our history has been selected, to which we ought more frequently to recur, by calling attention to the services of a man with whose career we should become more familiar. When Washington presented the Non-Importation Resolutions of 1769 to the Virginia Assembly, pledging the Virginia planters to purchase no slaves that should be brought into the country after the first of November of that year, Mason wrote them for him. He was the author, too, of the famous Non-Intercourse Resolutions, which were reaffirmed by the Continental Congress in October, 1774, as well as by the Constitution of Virginia, with its Declaration of Rights. In regard to this celebrated bill, a wise writer has stated that there was more wisdom and concentration of thought in one sentence of it, than in all former writings on the subject.

We have before us the life of a patriot who labored by tongue and pen to erect a bulwark between Federal power and State rights, so strong, that the hand of an oppressor could never take away the liberties of the people. “The people should control the Government, not the Government the people,” was his war-cry. If we strictly adhere to these safe principles of government, we shall discharge our whole duty to the republic, and make it what our forefathers intended it should be—” the glory of America, and a blessing to humanity.”

Originally published as the Introduction to The Life of George Mason 1725-1792 (1892) by Kate Mason Rowland.

Fitzhugh Lee

Fitzhugh Lee (1835-1905) was a Confederate general, governor of Virginia, diplomat, grandson of Light Horse Harry Lee, and nephew of Robert E. Lee.

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