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George Mason
Statesman

MASON, George, colonist, born in England: died in Stratford county, Virginia. in 1686. He was the first of the Virginian family of that name that came to this country. He lived in Staffordshire, and belonged to the family of Masons settled at Stratford-on-Avon. He commanded a troop of horse under Charles II., and, when the royalist forces were defeated at Worcester by Cromwell in 1651, Mason made his escape disguised as a peasant, and, embarking for this country, he landed at Norfolk, Virginia. 

He received a grant of land in Northumberland (afterward Stafford) county, Virginia, in 1655, for transporting eighteen persons into the colony. He was sheriff of Stafford county in 1670, and county lieutenant in 1675. Colonel Mason represented his county in "Bacon's assembly" in 1676. He was conspicuous in Indian warfare, and in Bacon's rebellion he espoused the popular side in the house of burgesses. In the acts of the assembly for 1675, 1679, and 1684, Colonel Mason is seen to be actively engaged in defending his frontier county against the Indians.

--His son, George Mason, frontiers man, born in Stafford county, Virginia, about 1670; do there in 1716, was justice of the peace in 1689-'99, and captain of rangers. In 1699-1700 he was county lieutenant of Stafford, under General Nicholson, and was engaged, as his father had been before him, in the defense of the Potomac region against the Indians. A copy of his will is preserved in the archives of the Virginia historical society.

--The second George's son, George Mason  legislator, born in Stafford county, Virginia, about 1690; died in Charles county, Maryland, in 1735, like his predecessors, was county lieutenant, receiving his commission from Governor Spotswood in 1719. For courtesies extended to the Scotch merchants and their agents in Virginia, he was complimented by being made a "burgess and gild brother" of the city of Glasgow in 1720. He represented Stafford county in the Virginia assembly in 1718-'23 and 1726. The county originally embraced all that part of the Northern Neck north of Westmoreland county. Colonel Mason owned estates on both the Maryland and the Virginia side of the Potomac, and he was living on one of his plantations in Charles county, Maryland, when he was drowned while crossing that river. The mother of the third George Mason was Mary Fowke, granddaughter of Colonel Gerard Fowke, of "Ounston Hall," Staffordshire, a royalist officer who came to Virginia at the same time with the first Colonel Mason. The third George Mason married, in 1721, Ann Thomson, daughter of Stevens Thomson, attorney-general of Virginia and granddaughter of Sir William Thomson, of London.

--The third George's son, George Mason, statesman, born in Doeg's (afterward Mason's) Neck, Stafford (now Fairfax) County, Virginia, in 1725; died there, 7 October, 1792, after his marriage built Gunston Hall, on the Potomac, which continued in the family until after the civil war. It is situated in Truro parish, which includes Mount Vernon. There he resided until his death. (See accompanying illustration.) 

 

In 1769 he drew up the non-importation resolutions which were presented by Washington in the Virginia assembly, and unanimously adopted. One of these pledged the Virginia planters to purchase no slaves that should be brought into the country after 1 November of that year. In support of the political rights of his native state, Mason printed a pamphlet entitled "Extracts from the Virginia. Charters, with Some Remarks upon Them," and at a meeting of the people of Fairfax, 18 July, 1774, he presented a series of twenty-four resolutions reviewing the whole ground of controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, recommending a congress, and urging non-intercourse with the mother-country. These were sanctioned by the Virginia convention in the following August, and substantially reaffirmed by the Continental congress in October of the same year. 

In 1775 the convention of Virginia desired to elect him as a delegate to congress, but he declined for family reasons. He was made a member of the committee of safety, which was charged with the executive government of the colony, and in 1776 he drafted the declaration of rights and the constitution of Virginia, which were unanimously adopted. James Madison pronounced Mason to be the ablest debater he had ever known. His talents in this direction were displayed in the first legislature that was held under the new constitution of Virginia, when he brought forward a measure that provided for the repeal of all the old disabling acts, the legalizing of all forms of worship, and the releasing of dissenters from the payment of parish rates. 


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In 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress, but declined to serve. Ten years later he was a member of the convention that framed the constitution of the United States. He took an active part in its debates, always being found oil the liberal side. In the discussion on the question whether the house of representatives should be chosen directly by the people, he maintained that no republican government could stand without popular confidence, and that confidence could only be secured by giving to the people the selection of one branch of the legislature. He also favored the election of the president by the people for a term of seven years with ineligibility afterward. Propositions to make slaves equal to freemen as a basis of representation and to require a property qualification from voters, met with his strong disapproval. 

He also spoke with great energy against the clause that prohibited the abolition of the slave-trade, declaring that, as slavery was a source of national weakness and demoralization, the general government should have power to prevent its increase. In some of his attempts to render the constitution more democratic, Mr. Mason was defeated in the convention, and when the instrument was completed he declined to sign it. He was especially dissatisfied with the extended and indefinite powers that were conferred on congress and the executive. On his return to Virginia he was chosen a member of the convention to which the constitution was referred for ratification or rejection, and, with Patrick Henry, led the opposition to its adoption, insisting on certain amendments These comprised a bill of rights and about twenty alterations in the body of the measure, several of which were afterward adopted. He was elected the first United States senator from Virginia, but declined, and retired to Gunston Hall, where he resided until his death. Mr. Mason is referred to by Thomas Jefferson as "a man of the first order of wisdom, of expansive mind, profound judgment, cogent in argument, learned in the lore of our former constitution, and earnest for the republican change on democratic principles." 

He is described, when fifty years of age, as of commanding presence and lofty bearing, of an athletic and robust frame, a swarthy complexion, with black hair sprinkled with gray, a grave face, and dark, radiant eyes. His statue stands, with those of Jefferson, Henry, and other illustrious Virginians, at the base of Crawford's colossal statue of Washington in front of the capitol at Richmond.

The fourth George's brother, Thomson Mason, lawyer, born in Virginia in 1733; died there in 1785, studied law in London and attained to eminence at the bar. He sat in the Virginia assembly for ten years before the Revolution, and took strong ground against the aggressions of the British government. As early as 1774 he published a series of papers in which he maintained the duty of open resistance to the mother-country. The early numbers of the seines were signed British American, but, with rare courage considering the circumstances, to the concluding one he appended his own name. In 1778 he was appointed a member of the first supreme court of Virginia, but he did not long occupy the bench. He was afterward one of the live judges of the general court. Subsequently he was nominated, with his brother, one of the revisers of the state laws by the senate, in 1779 and 1783 he was elected a member of the house of delegates, and served as chairman of the committee on courts of justice.

--Thomson's son, Stevens Thomson Mason, senator, born in Stafford county, Virginia, in 1760; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 May, 1808, was educated at William and Mary college. He served as a volunteer aid to General Washington at the siege of Yorktown, and was afterward a general of militia. He was a member of the house of delegates, sat in the State constitutional convention in 1788, and was then elected to the United States senate, where he served from 7 December, 1795, till 3 March, 1803. Much comment was caused by his action regarding the Jay treaty. John Jay had been sent to England in 1794 to negotiate a treaty that should settle all existing differences between the United States and Great Britain. In June, 1795, it was laid before the senate, and its provisions were fiercely discussed for a fortnight in secret session, when it was ratified by barely a constitutional majority, 20 to 10. The senate then removed the seal of secrecy from its proceedings, but forbade any publication of the treaty itself. Enough of its character, however, had been revealed to cause it to be violently attacked by the press, when Mason caused first a full abstract and afterward a perfect copy of it to be published in the Philadelphia "Aurora." For this action he was extolled by the Republicans (the Democrats of that day), but bitterly assailed by the Federalists. 

The popular clamor was so great against the treaty that its supporters were threatened with mob violence in the large cities, Alexander Hamilton being assaulted at an open-air meeting in New York. "These are hard arguments," he is said to have exclaimed as a stone struck him on the head. Mason was a warm personal friend of Thomas Jefferson, and always his stanch political ally. He enjoyed great personal popularity, and as an orator his exceptional command of wit, and sarcasm gained him a wide reputation.

--Another son of Thomson, John Thomson Mason, lawyer, born in Stafford county, Virginia, in 1764; died in December, 1824, studied law, was admitted to the bar, and in early life removed to Maryland, where he took high rank in his profession. The office of United States attorney-general was offered him by President Jefferson, and in 1806, by the state of Maryland, those of chief justice and attorney-general, all of which he declined, or occupied only for a brief period. In 1811 he refused the office of United States attorney-general a second time on its being offered to him by President Madison. In 1816 he was the Democratic candidate for United States senator, in opposition to Robert G. Harper, but lost the election by a single vote.

--Armistead Thomson, senator, son of Stevens Thomson Mason, born in Loudon county, Virginia, in 1787; died in Bladensburg, D. C., 6 February, 1819, was graduated at William and Mary in 1807, engaged in farming, and served as colonel of a cavalry regiment during the war of 1812. He subsequently became brigadier-general of Virginia militia. He sat several years in the state legislature, and in 1815 was elected United States senator, serving from 22 January. 1816, till 3 March, 1817, when he resigned, at the suggestion of his friends, to contest the strongly Federal congressional district of London. It was supposed that he alone could compete successfully with the opposing candidate, Charles ***II. Mercer, but he was defeated by a small majority. The contest was one of great personal bitterness, and gave rise to several duels, among them the encounter with his brother-in-law, John M. McCarty, which resulted in Mason's death at the age of thirty-two. The quarrel was an exceedingly violent one, and Mason insisted that his opponent should fight, while McCarty did all in his power to avoid a meeting. The latter at first proposed that muskets, charged with buckshot, should be used and the distance fixed at twelve feet. This was finally increased to six paces, and a single ball was substituted for buckshot. Colonel Mason fell at the first fire and died before he could be removed from the field. He left an only child, Stevens Thomson, who subsequently volunteered in the Mexican war, was promoted captain of rifles, and fell mortally wounded while making a charge on the enemy at Cerro Gordo.

--The fourth George's grandson, Richard Barnes Mason, soldier, born in Fairfax county. Va., 16 January, 1797; died in St. Louis, Missouri, 25 July, 1850, was appointed 2d lieutenant in the 8th United States infantry, 2 September, 1817. He was promoted 1st lieutenant in the same month, and made captain, 31 July, 1819, major, 1st dragoons, 4 March, 1833, lieutenant-colonel, 4 July, 1836, and colonel, 30 June, 1846. He was brevetted major, 31 July, 1829, for ten years' faithful service in one grade, and brigadier-general, 30 May, 1848, for meritorious conduct. He served in the Black Hawk war and commanded the United States forces in California, being ex-officio the first military and civil governor of that state.

James Murray Mason, senator, another grandson of the fourth George, born on Mason's island, Fairfax County, Virginia, 3 November, 1798 ; died near Alexandria, Virginia, 28 April, 1871, was graduated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1818, studied law, was admitted to the bar, and began to practice in Winchester, Virginia He was a member of the house of delegates from 1826 till 1832, of the Virginia constitutional convention in 1829, a presidential elector on the Jackson ticket in 1833, and was elected a member of congress as a Jackson Democrat, serving from 4 September, 1837, till 3 March, 1839. At the expiration of his term he was offered a reelection, but declined, and returned to the practice of his profession. 

In 1847 he was elected by the Virginia legislature United States senator, to fill an unexpired term, and was twice re-elected. His last term would have expired in 1863, but he left his seat early in 1861 on the secession of his state. During his term of fourteen years, although he made no notable speeches and was never regarded as a brilliant senator, he manifested a capacity for steady work, which made him a valuable member. For ten years he was chairman of the committee on foreign relations. A decided Democrat and a strict constructionist of the State-rights school, he vehemently opposed all anti-slavery agitation, and was the author of the fugitive-slave law of 1850. His arguments in its favor were characterized by much of the vindictive sectional feeling and partisan eloquence of that day. In the autumn of 1861 he was appointed, with John Slidell, Confederate commissioner to England, and set sail from Charleston for Cuba on 12 October. After remaining a few days at Havana, where they were formally received by the captain-general, the commissioners took passage on the British mail-steamer "Trent," and were passing through the Bahama channel when they were captured by Captain Charles Wilkes, brought to the United States, and subsequently confined in Fort Warren, Boston harbor. After his release, on 2 January, 1862, on the demand of the British authorities, Mr. Mason and his colleague sailed for Europe, where they continued to urge the recognition of the Confederacy until its final collapse. At the close of the war Mr. Mason went to Canada, where he remained three years, but he returned to Virginia in 1868, and resided there until his death.

Stevens Thomson Mason, governor of Michigan, grandson of Stevens Thomson, born in Loudoun county, Virginia, in 1811 ; died in New York city, 4 January, 1843, was taken to Kentucky by his father, John T. Mason, where he was educated. In 1831 he was appointed by President Jackson secretary of the territory of Michigan, and in that capacity, on the transfer of the governor, Lewis Cass, to the war department at Washington, he became acting governor. During this period a controversy began between Ohio and Michigan regarding their boundary-line. It excited intense interest and aroused bitter feelings, and thousands of troops were marched to the frontier in expectation of a bloody conflict. Governor Mason, throughout the entire controversy, though but a mere youth, acted with calmness, ability, and courage. In 1835, when the territory became a state, he was unanimously elected its first governor, and at the end of his term was re-elected. On leaving office in 1839 he retired from public life, and, removing to New York city, began the practice of the law.

-Stevens Thompson Mason's sister, Emily Virginia Mason, born in Lexington, Kentucky, 15 October, 1815, was educated at Troy female seminary, New York For several years before the civil war she resided in Fairfax county, Virginia, and when hostilities began she left her home near Alexandria and offered her services in the Confederate hospitals. She served as matron at Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Richmond, Virginia, successively. In order to obtain money to educate the orphan daughters of Confederate soldiers, Miss Mason collected and arranged "Southern Poems of the War" (Baltimore, 1867), which met with a very large sale. After the war she spent fifteen years m Paris, France, most of the time acting as assistant principal of an American school for young ladies. Miss Mason has written a "Life of General Robert E. Lee" (Baltimore, 1871), and has also edited the "Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia in 1782" (1871). - Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

 

A Voice of Dissent: George Mason
The following text and picture courtesy of the National Archives


As the delegates gathered at the Pennsylvania State House in May 1787 to "revise" the Articles of Confederation, Virginia delegate George Mason wrote, "The Eyes of the United States are turned upon this Assembly and their Expectations raised to a very anxious Degree." Mason had earlier written the Virginia Declaration of Rights that strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the first part of the Declaration of Independence. He left the convention bitterly disappointed, however, and became one of the Constitution's most vocal opponents. "It has no declaration of rights," he was to state. Ultimately, George Mason's views prevailed. When James Madison drafted the amendments to the Constitution that were to become the Bill of Rights, he drew heavily upon the ideas put forth in the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

The article "A More Perfect Union" provides an in-depth look at the Constitutional Convention, the ratification process, and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.


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