The fireworks and burgers we all look forward to on Independence Day can make us forget the incredible history behind the celebration. As a public servant, I cannot help but reflect on the remarkable political events and the figures who took incredible risks to shape the government of our young country. The work of one local man in particular inspired the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. His name was George Mason.
Mason resided in Gunston Hall and actively involved himself in the Fairfax County community. He was elected into the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 alongside George Washington and Patrick Henry. He left his office a short time later due to illness and a reluctance towards politics. However, he was one of the greatest and most respected political thinkers of his time. A follower of the political philosopher John Locke, Mason firmly believed in the rights of individuals and was an early adopter of the Revolutionary cause. When the British began imposing taxes on the colonies, Washington asked Mason to draft official responses in protest. This resulted in the Fairfax Resolves, a countywide document that opposed the increasingly harsh British policies and called for an American “general congress, for the preservation of our Lives Liberties and Fortunes." While many counties wrote their own resolves, Mason’s was considered the most forceful and influential.
After the House of Burgesses was dissolved by the British governor in 1774, Virginians formed their own legislative body in protest called the Virginia Convention, which created a new government structure in Virginia. As a member of the convention, George Mason drafted the groundbreaking Virginia Declaration of Rights and the 1776 Constitution, which laid the “basis and foundation” for a government in Virginia. It called for a government based on individual liberty that only received its power from the people it served. The document opened with the bold statement “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights ...” Thomas Jefferson adopted similar language for our national Declaration of Independence. These radical thoughts, so deliberately laid out, sent a shockwave through the colonies and history changed forever.
When the fighting finally ceased years later it was time to build a stable government for the expansive territory the Americans had secured. Mason was once again invited to share his wisdom in building a government as a Virginia representative in the Constitutional Convention. Mason had a clear vision of what he would like to see in the Constitution. He strongly advocated for individual rights, popular elections, and a three-part executive branch. He was especially wary that the new government would too closely resemble England’s. As the convention went on, Mason’s concerns grew. He opposed the slave trade and wanted to see it eradicated in the new government. When he proposed a bill of rights to be included in the body of the constitution, his motion was rejected by a majority of the convention. These two key issues led Mason to vote against the Constitution. His was one of only three dissenting votes. Many elements of Mason’s philosophy, however, made their way into the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights. Establishing three branches of government, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and civilian military control were all elements from Virginia’s founding documents.
I hope you and your family have a safe and happy Fourth of July. I also hope you take some time to remember the history and people behind the holiday. Without the courage and conviction of people like George Mason, our country would not be the beacon of liberty it is today.