George Mason’s Opposition to Ratification of the Constitution

One of the more influential and articulate framers of the Constitution was Virginia’s George Mason.  In fact, prior to becoming one of the framers Mason had already authored Virginia’s constitution and, perhaps more important from the perspective of this column, the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  It was this latter document that provided much of the basis for Mason’s opposition to ratification of the American Constitution.  Unlike Virginia, America had no provisions for protecting the rights of the individual because the original Constitution contained none. Further, with its one-person executive Mason feared the president would become a monarch (he favored a three-man executive committee).

If Mason’s concerns about an American monarch sound far-fetched to the modern reader, understand that historians believe that George Washington could have become a de facto monarch had he so chosen at the time he voluntarily stepped down from the presidency. To the contemporary ear, the idea of a three-person executive committee rather than a one-person president probably sounds ridiculous.  After all, the best way to get nothing done is to assign work to a committee.  But Americans who routinely exercise their right to choose their own presidents can find it difficult to comprehend the foreboding specter of a tyrannical monarchy that hung over the proceedings of the framers and how much they feared the re-establishment in America of just such a monarchy.

Mason may have been willing to go along with ratification if the three-man executive had been his only concern, but it was the absence in the Constitution of anything like his Virginia Declaration of Rights that troubled him most.  Sections 1 and 2 of the “Declaration of Rights” should sound familiar to students of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights:

  • SECTION 1: 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 prosperity; namely, the employment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
  • SECTION 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.
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Historians of today—this writer included—should avoid trying to speak for the subjects of their research.  But in the case of Virginia’s George Mason, the historical record suggests that had the original Constitution contained the Bill of Rights or something similar, ratification would have gained an influential proponent.  As it was, Mason—frustrated with the deficiencies he saw in the Constitution—chose to retire from politics.  America, in turn, lost one of the leading intellectuals of the time.  Eventual passage of the Bill of Rights seems to validate, at least somewhat, Mason’s concerns about the Constitution.

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