The emancipation of the states of North America must ever be regarded as one of the most memorable events recorded in the annals of the human race. The revolutions, which have embroiled and desolated the great nations from which they sprang, are acknowledged to have received their first impulse from the principles and events of the American struggle. The grave has closed upon a great majority of the leaders in the American revolution; and the characters of the founders of our independence and freedom are beginning to be contemplated with the severe impartiality of a distant posterity. The passions which buoyed, annoyed, or infested their individual fame have subsided. Each is receiving a settled and mellow luster; and a just judgment is already busily engaged in assigning the decree of estimation and respect which a grateful posterity should continue to render to the memory of each of those whose efforts have obtained so many blessings and such everlasting glory for this nation.
Among the conductors of those important events, the name of George Mason, must always hold a distinguished place. An exhibition of character, in a public station, may be calculated to give an impression of the profoundest respect; but, the sincerest, and best affections of the heart can only be won by those traits, which are developed when the individual has been divested of the imposing forms and circumstances of place and office. It is for these reasons, as well as for the rays of light which they shed upon the most interesting portion of the history of our country, that I send you the following papers.
George Mason, their author, was an independent planter, resident in Fairfax county, Virginia, his native state, when the revolution commenced. He was a man endowed by nature with a vigorous understanding, which had been well cultivated by a liberal education. He was a sound constitutional lawyer, although he had not practiced or been bred to the profession. His mind had, evidently, been well stored from the best political writers of his time. In temperance he was, like the younger Cato, constitutionally stern, firm, and honest; and in all the affairs of life, in which he was engaged, as well private as public, he was habitually, minutely, and critically clear, punctual, exact, and particular. He was a member of the first conventions and assemblies elected by the people independently of the colonial authorities. He chose and valued most, the station of a representative of the people ; because he thought it most honorable, and one where he could be most useful; nor did he ever consent to accept of any other, but once, when he acted as a commissioner to adjust the navigation and boundary, between Maryland and Virginia. He was a man of the people in spirit and in truth; and every act of his life incontestibly evinces, that in their cause he never once, or for a single moment, trembled, hesitated, or wavered.
Many intelligent foreigners, and some of our own countrymen, whose judgments have been confused or perverted by aristocratic principles, entertain a belief, and propagate the opinion, that our liberties were principally established by the integrity, wisdom, and forbearance of our military leaders. To such it will be particularly instructive to attend to the first of the following letters from this venerable patriot; written at a time, and under circumstances singularly impressive and affecting. In a ripe old age, chastened by experience, when the hand of Providence had visited his household with such an affliction as to induce him to desire no more the return of hilarity to his heart, he seats himself in his closet to unbosom himself to his friend ; to tell him of his political opinions and principles and to speak of the sentiments, feelings, and probable fortunes of his country. This letter, which is so highly honorable to its author, furnishes conclusive proof, that all the chiefs, as well military as civil, were guided and qontroled by the people, and bears ample testimony to their virtue and their glory.
He was a member of the convention which formed the present constitution of the United States, and appears to have been deeply, and sincerely impressed with the magnitude of the undertaking. He was afterwards a member of the convention of Virginia by which it was ratified, which he actively and firmly opposed, without previous amendments. He was a most decided enemy to all constructive and implied powers. And it is remarkable, that he was the. author of some, and the warm advocate of every amendment since made to it. His friend and coadjutor, the illustrious Henry, poured forth the boundless wealth of his impassioned eloquence in opposition ; he charmed, enchanted, or won over many of his auditors to withhold their assent from the proposed plan of government. But, when Mason spoke, he seemed to cite his hearers severally to the bar of reason and truth, and imperatively to demand of them to produce the reason and grounds upon which they proposed to tolerate the pernicious principles he denounced. Henry delighted, astonished, and captivated. Mason stirred the house, and challenged every friend of the new constitution to stand forth; at the same time, that he made them feel, they would have to meet an antagonist whom it was difficult to vanquish, and impossible to put to flight; such was the clear, condensed, and dauntless vigor he displayed.
George Mason was a member of that convention of Virginia, which, on the fifteenth day of May, 1776, declared that state independent and formed the constitution by which it is still governed. And to him belongs the honor of having draughted the first declaration of rights ever adopted in America, of which the following is a copy. The few alterations made by the convention, which adopted it unanimously on the twelfth day of June, 1776, and made it a part of the constitution of Virginia, where it yet remains, are noted. This declaration contains principles more extensive, and much more perspicuously expressed than any then to be found in the supposed analogous instruments of any other age or country.
The English magna charta was, strictly speaking, a contract between an assemblage of feudal lords and a king, not a declaration of the rights of man, and the fundamental principles on which all government should rest. “It was not so much their intention to secure the liberties of the people at large, as to establish the privileges of a few individuals. A great tyrant On the one side, and a set of petty tyrants on the other, seem to have divided the kingdom; and the great body of the people, disregarded and oppressed on all hands, were beholden for any privileges bestowed upon them, to the jealousy of their masters; who, by limiting the authority of each other over their dependents, produced a reciprocal diminution of their power.”
The articles drawn up by the Spanish junta, in the year 1522, under the guidance of the celebrated Padilly, are much more distinct and popular in their provisions than those of the English magna charta. But, although it is admitted, that the principles of liberty were ably defended, and better understood, at that time in Spain, than they were for more than a century after, in England, the power of Charles Jth proved to be irresistible, the people failed in their attempt to bridle his prerogative, and their liberties were finally crushed.
The famous English bill of rights sanctioned by William and Mary on their ascending the throne, and which, under the name of the petition of rights, appears to have been projected many years before by that profound lawyer, sir Edward Coke, like magna charta, and the articles of the Spanish junta, is a contract with nobility and royalty, a compromise with despotism, in which the voice of the people is heard in a tone of disturbed supplication and prayer. But in this declaration of Mason’s, man seems to stand erect in all the majesty of his nature —to assert the inalienable rights and equality with which he has been endowed by his Creator, and to declare the fundamental principles by which all rulers should be controled, and on which all governments should rest. The contrast is striking, the difference prodigious. And when I read, at the foot of this curious original, the assertion of its author, that “This Declaration of Rights was the first in America;” I see a manly mind indulging its feelings under a consciousness of having done an act so permanently and extensively useful. And what feeling can be so exquisitely delightful? what pride more truly virtuous and noble?
The principles of liberty filled and warmed the bosom of this venerable patriot in that last hour, which is an awful, and an honest one to us all; in his last will, he speaks in his dying hour, and charges his sons, on a father’s blessing, to be true to freedom and their country. He was indeed and in truth one of the fathers of this nation. Therefore, let every son of free America, as he enters upon the busy scenes of life, hear and solemnly beseech Heaven to fortify him in the faithful observance of this sacred charge of one of the most worthy fathers of this country.
DECLARATION OF RIGHTS.
(Copy of the first draught by George Mason.)
A declaration of rights made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention ; which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government, unanimously adopted by the convention of Virginia, June 12th, 1776.
1. That all men are created equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights of which, they cannot, by any compact, deprive, or divest their posterity; (a) among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. – a. That all power is by God and nature vested in and consequently derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community. Of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of administration; and that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
4. That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge, to be hereditary.
5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicial; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, and return unto that body from which they were originally taken, and vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain and regular election, (a)—
6. That elections of members, to serve as representatives of the people in the legislature, ought to be free, and that all men having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to the community, have the right of suffrage; and cannot be taxed, or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the common good.
7. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised.
8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions, a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of his vicinage, without unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; and that no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land, or the judgment of his peers.
9. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
10. (This article was inserted by the convention.)
11. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.
12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
13. That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by the civil power.
14. (This article also was inserted by the convention.)
15. That no free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and, therefore that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate; unless under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or the safety of society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.
“This declaration of rights was the first in America; it received few alterations or additions in the Virginia convention, (some of them not for the better,) and was afterwards closely imitated by the other United States.”
The foregoing was copied verbatim from the original, the hand-writing of the author, col. George Mason, of Virginia, left in the possession of his son, gen. John Mason of Georgetown. In order to facilitate the comparison of it with that which was adopted by the convention, and is still in force, it has been thought proper to number the articles as in the adopted declaration, omitting the tenth and fourteenth which were inserted entire by the convention; and to place those words in italics, which were either expunged or altered, and to put a caret where others were added.
Letter From George Mason.
“Virginia, Gunston-hall, 1778.
“My dear sir.—It gave me great pleasure, upon receipt of your favor of the 23d of April, (by Mr. Digges) to hear that you are alive and well, in a country, where you can spend your time agreeably; not having heard a word from you, or of you, for two years before. I am much obliged, by the friendly concern you take in my domestic affairs, and your kind enquiry after my family; great alterations have happened in it. About four years ago I had the misfortune to lose my wife: to you, who knew her, and the happy manner in which we lived, I will not attempt to describe my feelings: I was scarce able to bear the first shock, a depression of spirits, a settled melancholy followed, from which I never expect, or desire to recover. I determined to spend the remainder of my days in privacy and retirement with my children, from whose society alone, I could expect comfort. Some of them are now grown up to men and women; and I have the satisfaction to see them free from vices, good-natured, obliging and dutiful: they all still live with me, and remain single, except my second daughter, who is lately married to my neighbor son. My eldest daughter (who is blessed with her mother’s amiable disposition) is mistress of my family, and manages my little domestic matters, with a degree of prudence far above her years. My eldest son engaged early in the American cause, and was chosen ensign of the first independent company formed in Virginia, or indeed on the continent; it was commanded by the present general Washington as captain, and consisted entirely of gentlemen. In the year 1775, he was appointed a captain of foot, in one of the first minute-regiments raised here; but was soon obliged to quit the service, by a violent rheumatic disorder; which has followed him ever since, and, I believe will force him to try the climate of France or Italy. My other sons have not yet finished their education: as soon as they do, if the war continues, they seem strongly inclined to take an active part.
In the summer of’ 75, I was, much against my inclination, drag’d out of my retirement, by the people of my county and sent a delegate to the general convention at Richmond; where I was appointed a member of the first committee of safety; and have since, at different times, been chosen a member of the privy-council, and of the American congress; but have constantly declined acting in any other public character than that of an independent representative of the people, in the house of delegates; where I still remain, from a consciousness of being able to do my country more service there, than in any other department, and have ever since devoted most of my time to public business; to the no small neglect and injury of my private fortune; but if I can only live to see the American union firmly fixed, and free governments well established in our western world, and can leave to my children but a crust of bread and liberty, I shall die satisfied; and say, with the psalmist, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” —To show you that I have not been an idle spectator of this great contest, and to amuse you with the sentiments of an old friend upon an important subject, I enclose you a copy of the first draft of the declaration of rights, just as it was drawn and presented by me, to the Virginia convention, where it received few alterations; some of them I think not for the better: this was the first thing of the kind upon the continent, and has been closely imitated by all the states. There is a remarkable sameness in all the forms of government throughout the American union, except in the states of South Carolina and Pennsylvania; the first having three branches of legislature, and the last only one; all the other states have two: this difference has given general disgust, and it is probable an alteration will take place, to assimilate these to the constitutions of the other states. We have laid our new government upon a broad foundation, and have endeavored to provide the most effectual securities for the essential rights of human nature, both in civil and religious liberty; the people become every day more and more attached to it; and I trust that neither the power of Great Britain, nor the power of hell will be able to prevail against it.
There never was an idler or a falser notion, than that which the British ministry have imposed upon the nation, that this great revolution has been the work of a faction, of a junto of ambitious men against the sense of the people of America. On the contrary, nothing has been done without the approbation of the people, who have indeed outrun their leaders: so that.no capital measure hath been adopted until they called loudly for it: to any one who knows mankind, there needs no greater proof than the cordial manner in which they have cooperated, and the patience and perseverance with which they have struggled under their sufferings ; which have been greater than you, at a distance can conceive, or I describe. Equally false is the assertion that independence was originally designed here: things have gone such lengths, that it is a matter of moonshine to us, whether independence was at first intended, or not, and therefore we may now be believed. The truth is, we have been forced into it, as the only means of self-preservation, to guard our country and posterity from the greatest of all evils, such another infernal government (if it deserves the name of government) as the provinces groaned under, in the latter ages of the Roman commonwealth. To talk of replacing us in the situation of 1763, as we first asked, is to the last degree absurd, and impossible: they obstinately refused it, while it was in their power, and now, that it is out of their power, they offer it. Can they raise our cities out of their ashes? Can they replace, in ease and affluence; the thousands of families whom they have ruined? Can they restore the husband to the widow, the child to the parent, or the father to the orphan? In a word, can they reanimate the dead?—Our country has been made a scene of desolation and blood—enormities and cruelties have been committed here, which not only disgrace the British name, but dishonor the human kind, we can never again trust a people who have thus used us; human nature revolts at the idea !— The die is cast—the Rubicon is passed—and a reconciliation with Great Britain, upon the terms of returning to her government is impossible.
No man was more warmly attached to the Hanover family and the Whig interest of England, than I was, and few men had stronger prejudices in favor of that form of government under which I was born and bred, or a greater aversion to changing it; it was ever my opinion that no good man would wish to try so dangerous an experiment upon any speculative notions whatsoever, without an absolute necessity.
The ancient poets, in their elegant manner of expression, have made a kind of being of necessity, and tell us that the Gods themselves are obliged to yield to her. When I was first a member of the convention, I exerted myself to prevent a confiscation of the and although I was for putting the country immediately into a state of defence, and preparing for the worst; yet as long as we had any well founded hopes of reconciliation, I opposed to the utmost of my power, all violent measures, and such as might shut the door to it; but when reconciliation became a lost hope, when unconditional submission, or effectual resistance were the only alternatives left us, when the last dutiful and humble petition from congress received no other answer than declaring us rebels, and out of the king’s protection, I, from that moment, looked forward to a revolution and independence, as the only means of salvation; and will risk the last penny of my fortune, and the last drop of my blood upon the issue: for to imagine that we could resist the efforts of Great Britain, still professing ourselves her subjects, or support a defensive war against a powerful nation, without the reins of government in the hands of America (whatever our pretended friends in Great Britain may say of it) is too childish and futile an idea to enter into the head of any man of sense. I am not singular in my opinions; these arc the sentiments of more than nine tenths of the best men in America.
God has been pleased to bless our endeavors, in a just cause, with remarkable success. To us upon the spot, who have seen step by step the progress of this great contest, who know the defenseless state of America in the beginning, and the numberless difficulties we have , had to struggle with, taking a retrospective j view of what is passed, we seem to have been treading upon enchanted ground. The case is now altered. American prospects brighten, and appearances are strongly in our favor. The British ministry must and will acknowledge us independent states.”
Extract of a letter from colonel George Mason, of Virginia (while serving in the general convention), to a friend in that state.
Philadelphia, June, 1787.
“The idea I formerly mentioned to you, before the convention met, of a great national council, consisting of two branches of the legislature, a judiciary and an executive, upon the principle of fair representation in the legislature, with powers adapted to the great objects of the union, and consequently a control in these instances, on the state legislatures, is still the prevalent one. Virginia has had the honor of presenting the outlines of the plan, upon which the convention is proceeding; but so slowly, that it is impossible to judge when the business will be finished; most probably not before August—festina lente (Make Haste Slowly) may very well be called our motto. When I first came here, judging from casual conversations with gentlemen from the different states, I was very apprehensive that, soured and disgusted with the unexpected evils we had experienced from the democratic principles of our governments, we should be apt to run into the opposite extreme, and in endeavoring to steer too far from Scylla, we might be drawn into the vortex of Charybdis, of which I still think, there is some danger; though I have the pleasure to find in the convention, many men of fine republican principles: America has certainly, upon this occasion, drawn forth her first characters; there are upon this convention many gentlemen of the most respectable abilities; and, so far as I can yet discover, of the purest intentions; the eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly, and their expectations raised to a very anxious degree.
“May God grant, we may be able to gratify them by establishing a wise and just government. For my own part, I never before felt myself in such a situation; and declare, I would not, upon pecuniary motives, serve in this convention for a thousand pounds per day. The revolt from Great Britain, and the formations of our new governments at that time, were nothing compared with the great business now before us; there was then a certain degree of enthusiasm, which inspired and supported the mind; but to view, through the calm sedate medium of reason, the influence which the establishments now proposed may have upon the happiness or misery of millions yet unborn, is an object of such magnitude, as absorbs, and in a manner suspends the operations of the human understanding.”
“P. S. All communications of the proceedings are forbidden during the sitting of the convention; this I think was a necessary precaution to prevent misrepresentations or mistakes; there being a material difference between the appearance of a subject in its first crude and indigested shape, and after it shall have been properly matured and arranged.”
An Extract From The Last Will And Testament Of Colonel George Mason, Of Virginia.
“I recommend it to my sons, from my own experience in life, to prefer the happiness of independence and a private station to the troubles and vexation of public business: but if either their own inclinations or the necessity of the times should engage them in public affairs, I charge them on a father’s blessing, never to let the motives of private interest or ambition induce them to betray, nor the terrors of poverty and disgrace, or the fear of danger or of death, deter them from asserting the liberty of their country, and endeavoring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born.”
Source: Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America. By Hezekiah Niles published 1822