George Mason and the origins of the Bill of Rights

Today’s post comes from Austin McManus with the National Archives History Office.

Come see our traveling exhibition, “Amending America: The Bill of Rights,” at George Mason’s Gunston Hall through October 21, 2017.

Portrait of George Mason (Courtesy of Gunston Hall)

One of the documents on display in the Rotunda in the National Archives is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Its serves as a prominent reminder of our right as Americans.

But the document that inspired the Bill of Rights, as well as its main author, George Mason, are lesser known.

Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, completed in June 1776, served as the basis for our nation’s Bill of Rights.

Mason was raised in a wealthy planter family in the Northern Neck region of Virginia. By his early 20s, Mason emerged as one of the wealthiest men of the colony and began a successful career as a businessman, lawyer, and public servant for his colony and, later, his country.

Portrait of Ann Mason (Courtesy of Gunston Hall)

Mason married Ann Eilbeck, the daughter of a wealthy family from Maryland, on April 4, 1750, and they had nine children. To house his large family, Mason hired  young English craftsman and indentured servant, William Buckland, to oversee the construction of his new plantation home, Gunston Hall.

Completed in 1758, Gunston Hall became Mason’s second love alongside his wife.

Before writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 and served on multiple committees pertaining to both regional and local concerns. Despite his colleagues holding him in high esteem, Mason did not attend sessions for most of his term and ended up not seeking reelection in 1761.

While he did not serve in government again until 1775, Mason remained at the center of Virginia politics. Typically at the behest of George Washington, he drafted responses to Great Britain’s various tax acts during the 1760s and 1770s for the House of Burgesses to use to urge colonists to boycott British goods and protests the acts.

Throughout his life, Mason avoided a career in politics in order to invest time in his plantation and family. Particularly after Ann’s death in 1773, he thought his job as a father was more important than dealing with the “useless Members” of the Virginia Convention.

Photograph of Gunston Hall, undated. (National Archives Identifier 57355877)

However, Mason reluctantly agreed to be a part of the Third Virginia Convention in May 1775 as the representative of Fairfax County, replacing his neighbor George Washington, who had become the commander-in-chief of the newly created Continental Army.

While in Richmond for the Convention that July and August, Mason’s primary job was to raise funds for an army to protect Virginia in the event of an invasion by the British Army. While serving at the Convention, Mason was so resistant to serving in government that he tried to resign but was refused. An illness forced him to return to Gunston Hall before the Convention’s end.

It was not until a couple years later in Mason’s public career that he made his most important contribution to the founding of the American republic.

As a member of the Fifth Virginia Convention in May 1776, Mason was part of a committee assigned to write a new constitution for Virginia as well as a declaration of rights.

The opening of Mason’s Declaration of Rights was not only influential in Jefferson’s introduction to the Declaration of Independence, but it also became the basis for the Bill of Rights:

The Virginia Declaration of Rights. Holograph manuscript, May 1776. (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

A Declaration of Rights is made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia. . . . That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first constitutional affirmation by a North American government that citizens have rights that the government cannot infringe upon or take away.

Mason’s belief in the freedoms of speech, of religion, and of assembly became the cornerstone of not only our Bill of Rights but our society’s conception of what having rights means in America.

Visit the National Archives Bill of Rights webpage to learn more about the history of the founding document.

Bill of Rights, 1791post treatment 00306_2003_001
Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 14080)

5 thoughts on “George Mason and the origins of the Bill of Rights

  1. I, too, love George Mason as well as his vision for the writing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, later the basis of our nation’s Bill of Rights. I never thought he was given the credit he deserved. I always heard that he was a good friend of George Washington.
    As a native Virginian, I am a direct descendant through George Mason Cooke and his second wife, Ann Jane Carter listed on the George Mason genealogy chart.

  2. While tracing my ancestry for DAR, I discovered that George Mason and his son, John, are my way back great grandfathers! Wow! I was completely surprised. I would love to have known them.

  3. If you’re a Mason fan, may I suggest that you visit his home in Gunston Hall, Mason, Neck, Virginia. It’s much smaller than Mount Vernon and less expensive, but still a delightful and authentic experience with its newly created grounds and gardens.

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