During the early years of America’s existence, no state seemed to play a more vital role than that of Virginia. It was the oldest colony, and many of Virginia’s most prominent families could date their lineage back to the first colonists. It was only natural, therefore, for Virginians to lead the fight for independence. It was Virginia’s Patrick Henry who gave voice to American demands when he declared, “Give me liberty or give me death.” After fighting erupted, George Washington donned his uniform and charged into battle while Thomas Jefferson used his pen to defend the righteous struggle. Each is still remembered today and honored for his contributions to the cause of freedom. There was another Virginian, however, who was just as critical to the American Revolution’s success as his more famous compatriots. He was fiercely dedicated to liberty, and he fought against oppression of all kinds. He believed the true power of government rested in the hands of the people, and it was he who inspired others to see the Revolution through to the end. His name was George Mason. This is the story of his rise to lead Virginia’s fight against Britain’s harsh colonial policies.
As befitted a member of Virginia’s Tidewater elite, George Mason was the product of an aristocratic upbringing. He was born in December 1725 at Dogue’s Neck, Virginia, a peninsula jutting out into the Potomac River, to a family that had lived in Virginia since 1651. Both his grandfather and father were prosperous landowners, and by the time Mason reached adulthood, the family owned nearly 75,000 acres across Virginia and Maryland. He built a lavish home in Fairfax County known as Gunston Hall and devoted himself to growing tobacco and other crops. He even briefly served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Beneath his aristocratic demeanor, however, lay the heart of an English Whig. He read Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and cultivated an abiding love for individual liberty and classical republicanism. He opposed the established Anglican Church in favor of religious freedom and spoke out against slavery, even though he participated in the practice. It was clear he intended to stand with the oppressed rather than the oppressors, and it was not long before he put his philosophy into practice.
As with most colonists, it was not until Britain threatened his private affairs that Mason perceived the “mother country” as hostile to American interests. The first and perhaps most critical occurrence to awaken Mason involved the western movement into territory recently acquired from France during the French and Indian War. Like his friend George Washington, Mason saw vast opportunities in the Ohio River Valley. He had joined the Ohio Company and worked to promote settlement in the region, and he bought several tracts of land for himself. He was stunned, therefore, when King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763 outlawing white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Not only did the decree prohibit colonial migration, but it also essentially voided all of Mason’s hopes of creating a western real-estate empire. George was disheartened as he realized all his efforts had been for naught, and he vented his frustration by writing to other shareholders how the “proclamation was an express destruction of [the] grant” given to the Ohio Company. It was the first time Mason experienced the hand of tyranny, but it would not be the last.
George Mason was outraged by Britain’s efforts to administer its new North American empire, and his frustration only mounted as British authorities tightened their control. In 1764 Parliament passed the Currency Act, giving Britain oversight over Virginia’s monetary policy. The House of Burgesses could no longer issue paper money, and citizens could no longer use it to repay debts owed to British merchants. This also meant Mason and his neighbors could not obtain credit if they needed it. Mason recognized the new policy menaced the fragility of the colony’s finances, but he soon learned Parliament had adopted a second measure imperiling the colonial justice system. In an effort to crack down on smuggling, British officials passed the Sugar Act, which lowered the price of molasses, but the act also established a vice-admiralty court to try suspected smugglers. The court was located in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was given jurisdiction over all thirteen colonies, and more ominously, there was no impartial jury to hear the case. Instead, a crown-appointed judge determined whether the accused was guilty or innocent. This system placed the burden of proof on the defense, rather than the prosecution. Mason was unnerved when he realized colonial courts had become subservient to royal authority, but he was not quite ready to take an active role in colonial protests. That changed in 1765 with the passage of the Stamp Act.
Unlike previous British policies, including the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act was not a trade regulation but a direct tax on American colonists. The law required colonists to buy stamps for printed material, and those stamps carried a tax on them. As the crisis intensified, Mason kept up a steady correspondence with George Washington. Through that correspondence, Mason learned the House of Burgesses had resolved to oppose taxation without representation and had urged the creation of a Stamp Act Congress to oppose the new law. Mason supported the legislature, and he knew he could not sit on the sidelines any longer. He began studying English common law and discovered a way to sabotage the Stamp Act. Traditionally, tenants could recover, or replevin, seized property by posting a bond, but according to the Stamp Act, the tenant had to buy a stamp first and then appear before a local court. Many courts, however, were closed due to protests so the landlord could not sue the tenant and collect on the bond. In response, Mason proposed that a tenant submit a “confession of judgment” for back rent to a local justice of the peace, and the justice could enforce the judgment without convening the entire court once a reasonable amount of time had passed. The proposal was never adopted, but it did allow Mason to step onto the national stage for the first time. In the months that followed, he gradually became one of the primary spokesmen for American rights.
In March 1766 Mason and the rest of America learned Parliament had repealed the hated legislation, but British merchants publicly condemned the colonists for their protests and warned that the repeal had not truly solved the crisis. Mason was so incensed by the arrogant condemnations he took up his pen to defend the protests. He attacked the merchants for verbally disciplining the colonists as a schoolmaster would a disobedient pupil. He reiterated how Americans were loyal to the king and only wanted their birthright as British subjects. The protests were meant to show Britons that Americans were “descended from the same stock as themselves and nurtured in the same principles of freedom.” He then turned his attention to the new Declaratory Act, which stipulated Parliament could legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Mason declared that if the act was used to advance “unconstitutional” principles, namely the ability to tax without representation, then “to become ‘waste paper’ would be the most innocent use that could be made of it.” He concluded by warning how “another experiment as the Stamp Act would produce a general revolt in America.” He was soon proven correct, and he willingly shouldered the burden of leading the counterattack against the forces of oppression.
The political crisis was renewed in 1767 after Parliament adopted the Townsend Duties. The act not only imposed new taxes on imports and made royal officials independent of colonial legislatures for their salaries, but it also created the American Board of Custom Commissioners to force compliance with trade regulations. Though he detested the policies, Mason knew that Virginia and other Southern colonies were ill prepared to engage in economic warfare. Still, he was determined to try. He declared that America’s “all is at stake, and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected not with reluctance but with pleasure.” He immediately set to work drafting a nonimportation agreement, adding that the Townsend Duties would transform the colonists “from a free and happy people to a wretched and miserable state of slavery.” His proposal advocated a boycott of all goods taxed by the Townsend Duties as well as liquor, furniture and other luxury items. He even suggested Virginians “refrain from making tobacco.” With the exception of a tobacco strike, the House of Burgesses accepted his recommendations when they convened in May 1769. Though not as effective than it might have been, the boycott ultimately forced the British government to repeal all taxes except one on tea. In 1773 Parliament used that tax to its advantage when it passed the Tea Act, which gave the East India Company a monopoly on selling tea in the colonies. Like his brethren in Massachusetts, Mason was outraged by the latest injustice, and he applauded the resistance exemplified by the Boston Tea Party. Britain’s subsequent response — imposing martial law — convinced him that armed rebellion was the only option left if Americans wished to safeguard their rights.
By late 1774 George Mason saw that Britain would accept nothing less than colonial subservience to royal authority. Like his fellow Virginians, he scorned the closing of Boston harbor and the other “Intolerable Acts.” His neighbors in Fairfax County called on him to draft a statement of American rights. He used it as an opportunity to viciously denounce Parliament’s attempt to “introduce an arbitrary government into His Majesty’s American dominions.” He renewed his calls for a boycott of British goods as well as for a Continental Congress to protect American interests. Both proposals were adopted, but he argued it was also necessary to prepare for war. Throughout the winter of 1774-75 he and George Washington formed a company of militia, and he purchased gunpowder and ammunition with his own money. His efforts showed that he was now truly committed to the patriot cause, and he would sacrifice anything to see the colonies free of tyranny’s grasp.
By the time fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, George Mason had risen to become one of Virginia’s most respected statesman. It was only natural, therefore, that he was elected to serve in Virginia’s provisional government. He briefly served in the third state convention helping organize militias to fight the British and overseeing construction of defenses along the Potomac River, but he achieved his greatest success in the fifth convention a year later. Arriving at the convention on May 18, 1776, he drafted a state constitution while devoting most of his time to his famous Declaration of Rights. The Declaration began with the principle that governments were meant to serve their citizens, and citizens had the “right to reform, alter or abolish” the government when it failed to safeguard the national interests. To ensure the government remained responsive to those it served, he advocated frequent elections. Mason also provided a bill of rights, which enshrined rights such as trial by jury and the free exercise of religion. He provided both documents to the larger convention, which adopted them largely intact.
When his work was done, he secured a seat in the House of Delegates where he worked to establish financial stability and supply the war effort with men and materiel. Though not as dramatic as battlefield exploits, the long and arduous struggle for independence could never have been sustained absent efforts such as his. After the Revolution ended, he kept an eye on national affairs and attempted to help negotiate commercial conflicts between Virginia and Maryland. In 1787 he was chosen to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As the Constitution took shape, however, Mason feared it could become a tool to oppress Americans. He refused to support the document as too empowering and joined the Anti-Federalists in an effort to safeguard individual liberties. Ultimately, his efforts proved unsuccessful, and he retired to Gunston Hall where he lived until his death in October 1792.
Though he has largely been forgotten today, George Mason earned the right to stand beside his fellow Virginians as a national hero. He was at the forefront of the struggle from the beginning, and it was he who inspired others to action. Every battle for freedom requires those who can inspire and motivate the citizenry to join the fight. Time and again, it was Mason to whom his colleagues turned to express the principles they held dear. He remained dedicated to those principles even after the fighting ended. If Washington was the Sword of the Revolution, Jefferson the Pen, and Henry the Voice, George Mason was surely the Spirit of the Revolution.