When the Stars and Stripes have been lowered, the fireworks flamed out, and the hot dogs and lemonade grumbling in the deep this 4th, pardon me for asking you to ponder a forgotten founding father.
The Virginia nobleman George Mason is worthy of remembering alongside the more famous George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
He has a good name — one I have been proud of for accidental and historical reasons both. No blood relation to my knowledge, the wise 18th American is my political kin nonetheless.
Mason was there in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for the steamy summer of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Sadly, he is more notorious than famous. He was one of three who refused to sign the new Constitution.
The things we say “no” to shape our destiny as much as the things we say “yes” to. Mason believed the new Constitution gave too much power to the federal government and did not offer enough protection for individuals.
As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the elder statesman drafted the Declaration of Rights, from which Jefferson drew to write the Declaration of Independence. The famous “unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” phrase is practically lifted from Mason’s pen.
When the Founders finally got round to drafting a Bill of Rights to tack onto and strengthen the new Constitution, they turned to Mason’s handiwork again. Madison rode on horseback up the long drive of Mason’s estate to personally show the aged man that his hopes were being realized in the new amendments. Mason was characteristically cantankerous, wishing the new protections went further but giving qualified blessing.
My namesake was a passionate opponent of slavery, calling it “slow Poison … contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People.” And yet, as many so-called Enlightened men of his age, he remained a slaveholder to the end.
My son saw me reading the recent article on George Mason in the Smithsonian. He said he learned about him in school, and he remembered being ashamed that Mason was one of the largest slaveholders in early America.
Indeed, unlike his boyhood friend George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will, Mason made no such provisions. Maybe he was worried about his offspring going broke; maybe he paternalistically thought his slaves not ready for freedom.
Either way, a man whose name brings pride to my family also brings shame. Heroes are never unmixed saints.
If he doesn’t know it already, my son will find out sooner or later how true that is of another George Mason. Humanity is like that.
May it be later rather than sooner.
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