Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Patriot Who Refused to Sign the Constitution

The eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly and their expectations raised to a very anxious degree. May God grant that we may be able to gratify them, by establishing a wise and just government. George Mason, in a letter to his son.

Tempest at Dawn
George Mason
In the end, George Mason did not believe the Constitution established a wise and just government. He was one of only three delegates present in the final days of the convention who didn’t sign the document. The other two refused due to their personalities. Elbridge Gerry was mercurial and cantankerous by nature, and Edmond Randolph was afraid to be associated with something that might fail. George Mason, on the other hand, refused to sign based on his principles.

In early 1776, before the Declaration of Independence, Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights and framed Virginia’s constitution. George Mason was rightfully proud of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and pleased that it became a model for other states.

SECTION I. 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.

SEC. 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.

The document had sixteen sections, but these short paragraphs encompassed the Founding Principles. The concepts look familiar because Thomas Jefferson eloquently incorporated them in the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence.
Therein lies the rub. George Mason’s primary objection to the Constitution was the absence of a bill of rights. He not only refused to sign the document at the convention, he hotly fought against it during Virginia ratification, despite promises by James Madison and others to add a bill of rights in the first congress.
Although he believed a bill of rights was mandatory, he had additional objections to the Constitution. Among his other concerns, he believed the convention was giving the executive branch (president) too much power. On June 4, he made an angry speech to the federal Convention.
“We are, Mr. Chairman, going very far in this business. We are not indeed constituting a British government, but a dangerous monarchy, an elective one… Do gentlemen mean to pave the way to hereditary monarchy? Do they flatter themselves that the people will ever consent to such an innovation? If they do I venture to tell them, they are mistaken. The people will never consent!”
During the convention, Mason consistently argued for a three-person executive. In his mind, a one-person presidency was far too close to the monarchy they had just fought a bloody war to escape.
As owner of Gunston Hall, Mason was one of the richest planters in Virginia. He owned seventy-five thousand acres and over ninety slaves. Despite his membership in the planter class, Mason often expressed opposition to slavery. During ratification, however, he argued that the Constitution did not adequately protect slavery. This may, however, have been a political ploy to persuade slaveholding delegates to oppose adoption.
When his neighbor, George Washington was inaugurated, Mason remained pessimistic. In fact, he was so frustrated with a federal government that he believed was too strong, he retired from politics. This was the country’s loss. George Mason made great intellectual contributions to our founding. He unswervingly supported natural (inalienable) rights, both in Virginia and the nation. To a great extent, we owe him our gratitude for the first ten amendments.
What about the other two non-signers? Elbridge Gerry reversed his allegiance to become an ardent Federalist, but later bolted the Federalist Party to join the Jeffersonian Republicans. Edmond Randolph was a simpler sort. Washington promised him the position of Attorney General in his administration, and he became a keen supporter of the Constitution during the Virginia ratification.

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