What you may not already know about George Mason

George Mason (1725–1792) was a wealthy planter and an influential lawmaker who served as a member of the Fairfax County Court (1747–1752; 1764–1789), the Truro Parish vestry (1749–1785), the House of Burgesses (1758–1761), and the House of Delegates (1776–1780). In 1769, he helped organize a nonimportation movement to protest British imperial policies, and he later wrote the Fairfax Resolves (1774), challenging Parliament’s authority over the American colonies. In 1775, Mason was elected to the Fairfax County committees of public safety and correspondence. He represented Fairfax County in Virginia‘s third revolutionary convention (1775) and in the fifth convention (1776), where he drafted Virginia’s first state constitution and its Declaration of Rights, which is widely considered his greatest accomplishment. As a member of the House of Delegates, he advocated sound money policies and the separation of church and state. Mason represented Virginia at the Mount Vernon Conference (1785) on Potomac River navigation and at the federal Constitutional Convention (1787). Although Mason initially supported constitutional reform, he ultimately refused to sign the Constitution, and he led the Anti-Federalist bloc in the Virginia convention (1788) called to consider ratification of the Constitution. After Virginia approved it, Mason retired to his elegant home, Gunston Hall, on Dogue’s Neck, where he died in 1792

There is much of value to learn about George Mason. For example, here are four contributions by Joseph Ziarko:


If there is one thing that you should know George Mason for it is that he wrote the first modern bill of rights. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights was penned by Mason and delivered to the Fifth Virginia Convention on May 27, 1776. Beginning “That all Men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights… among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety,” it is clear to see that these words would go on to inspire many others in the Revolution.

The document would continue to enumerate basic rights of jurisprudence, representative government, as well as a freedom of religion and a free press. It combined elements already found in governments and past Bills of Rights with new ideas and philosophies. And while many of the ideas contained within were not wholly original, it was the first time that they would be enshrined in a government document. It is no wonder that it would go on to inspire other states’ constitutions, the French Declaration of the Rights of Mankind, and even our Federal Bill of Rights.


As early as 1759, Mason would invest in a plan to establish a wine industry in Virginia. Writing to encourage other prominent Virginians, Mason would buy shares into Maurice Pound’s plan to plant vines, purchase equipment, and make wine. While this was not ultimately successful, it did not deter Mason from buying a share in Philip Mazzei’s plans to set up vineyards 15 years later. This too was unsuccessful (perhaps in part due to the Revolutionary War) which meant that Mason did not see a successful wine industry in Virginia in his lifetime. He would just have to settle for his brandies distilled on his property, not a bad consolation if you ask me.


Mason may be famous for refusing to sign the Constitution, declaring that he would “sooner chop off his right hand” than sign it. Knowing that, one might assume that he was completely against a Federal government, but Mason was one of the key figures at the Constitutional Convention. One of the 5 most frequent speakers, Mason gave a passionate speech early on calling for a new constitution and stronger national power. However, by the end of the Convention he had several major objections. He would go on to write these objections beginning with the greatest, “There is no Declaration of Rights” as well as expressing concerns with the lack of clarity on the new Federal Judiciary. These would be published without his consent, thus cementing his reputation as a chief Anti-federalist. However, Mason would find some vindication. Ultimately Americans would also insist on the necessity of a Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments would become our Federal Bill of Rights (and the Judiciary Act of 1789 addressed some of Mason’s judiciary concerns). Once those were ratified, Mason ultimately conceded that with a few other amendments he could “cheerfully put his Hand & Heart to the New Government.”


The position held and the cause he fought for longest in his life was the settlement of western lands. The Ohio Company was created with the goal to settle westward and Mason was admitted as a partner in June of 1749. He would be elected as treasurer that September, a position that he would hold until his death in 1792. The Company tried to navigate Royal grants, agreements with local tribes, and competing claims from other companies/colonies. While throughout the years there were times they seemed close to achieving success, two wars, old governments crumbling, new ones being created, and much more proved insurmountable. Though, like his investments in the wine industry, Mason did not see success with the Ohio Company, he would work to see greater success in the settlement of western lands. From 1780 to 1784, there were efforts from Virginia to cede western lands to the Congress. Begun in Virginia by Mason, Madison, and others, it would ultimately be achieved by Jefferson in 1784 leading to his famous Northwest Ordinance of 1784. An act that would lead to settlement of the Northwest Territory and ultimately 5 US states.

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Joseph Ziarko began working at Colonial Williamsburg in 2007 after graduating from Dickinson College with a degree in History and Theatre. He has been portraying George Mason as a Nation Builder since 2016. He is thankful to his parents and teachers for instilling a love of history in him.

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Here is some additional material to consider, provided by the The KidsKonnect Community:

o George Mason was born in 1725 in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was the fourth George Mason who used the name in the family. His ancestor, George Mason I, a former Cavalier, emigrated to the colonies in the 1640s and 1650s and settled in Stafford County, Virginia.

o His father, George Mason III, served in the House of Burgesses and as a country lieutenant. His mother, Ann Thomson Mason, came from the Yorkshire family in London and was the daughter of a former Attorney General of Virginia.

o The fourth George Mason was only 10 years old when his father died as his boat capsized while crossing the Potomac. His mother managed the family estates and raised him and his two siblings with his uncle, John Mercer, a Virginia lawyer. The lawyer reportedly had a 1,500-volume library, which became instrumental in his knowledge of politics.

o His mother chose their property in Chopawamsic Creek as her dower house, which became his and his siblings’ home while growing up.

o When he turned 21, he inherited his father’s enormous estate. This included thousands of acres of farmland in Virginia and Maryland, uncleared land in the western country, and his father’s slaves, which were said to be about 300.

o A certain Mr. Williams handled George Mason’s early education, but his uncle’s library had become his primary source of knowledge.

o At 23, he ran in an election for a seat in the House of Burgesses but was unsuccessful. He eventually won the coveted seat in 1758.

o In 1750, he married an artist Ann Eilbeck, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Charles County. They had nine children who survived to adulthood. He built Gunston Hall for his family in 1755, which became one of the finest homes in colonial America. Ann Eilbeck died in 1773.

o Mason was a proud owner and squire of his land. He devoted his time to the operation of his plantation and his land ventures. As a landowner, George Mason was very involved in community affairs with his neighbor George Washington.

o Great Britain decided to pass a series of acts to collect revenues from the colonists after the Seven Years’ War had proved to be very costly. According to them, colonists should contribute to their defense. They created the Revenue Act or Sugar Act and Currency Act in 1764. A year later, they passed the Stamp Act and the Quartering Act. The colonists declared these acts unjust and infringed their rights to assess their taxes. In 1764, the Virginia General Assembly announced that only the House of Burgesses had the right to tax the Virginians.

o In 1769, the two Georges teamed up when both were members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. They drafted a document known as Virginia Resolves to protest the British tax policies, devising a plan on how landlords could evade the Act by boycotting all stamped paper. This action became the beginning of Mason’s rebellious acts against British colonial policies.

o In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act 1773 to help the financially troubled British East India Company. This Act gave the company the right to ship its tea to North America directly and the right to export duty-free tea from Britain.

o The Tea Act received an unfavorable response from the colonists, who showed their resistance by organizing the Boston Tea Party. They boarded the tea ships in the harbor and dumped their cargo overboard.

o In 1774, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, also called Intolerable Acts by the American colonists, to punish colonial resistance to British policies, particularly those involved in the Boston Tea Party. It also restricted the colonists’ trade and increased British control.

o In response to the Coercive Acts, the colonists gathered at a meeting led by George Washington and adopted what became known as the Fairfax Resolves. The resolution, authored by Mason, suggested that a continent-wide congress should be organized to boycott the British imports.

o It also exposed the plan of British authorities to make the colonists second-class citizens. According to him, the Parliament considered them a “conquered country.” Mason insisted that they were “descendants of the conquerors and not the conquered.” The document implied a threat of further actions by the colonists if Parliament pressed against Americans’ rights and independence.

o On April 9, 1775, the American Revolution officially began. Washington proceeded to take charge of the Continental Army. Mason was appointed to take Washington’s seat at the Second Continental Congress. However, Mason refused and led Virginia’s Committee of Safety, which became responsible for raising a militia for Virginia’s defense. It also carried on the functions of the government when Virginia’s royal governor departed for safer ground.

o Mason and Washington had bonded for several years because of the proximity of their residences and their protests of British colonial policies. However, their alliance finally broke over their differences regarding the federal Constitution. Despite this, Washington still regarded Mason highly because of his intellectual abilities and sought his advice.

o In May 1776, the Continental Congress ordered each colony to draft a constitution appropriate for an independent state. Mason took charge of the committee, collaborating mainly with Thomas Ludwell Lee, creating the Virginia constitution and a bill of rights.

o Many considered the Virginia Constitution the first modern Bill of Rights. Mason’s words “all men are born equally free and independent” were adopted in state constitutions from Pennsylvania to Montana.
Mason made the longest journey of his life to attend the federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787.

o Mason participated enthusiastically. He convinced the convention to require a two-thirds majority to adopt laws regulating foreign commerce.

o Mason also proposed the Great Compromise, that the seats in the United States Congress be based on population. At the same time, each state would have equal representation in the Senate.

o While enjoying his success in the Great Compromise, his colleagues’ refusal to end the foreign slave trade dismayed Mason.

o On September 12, Mason offered the Bill of Rights for the new Constitution, but the delegates unanimously voted to reject his offer. The convention adjourned on September 17. However, Mason refused to sign the Constitution. He drafted a document titled “Objections to the Constitution,” starting his complaint with “there is no Declaration of Rights.”

o Mason resigned from the Fairfax County Court after an act was passed requiring the officeholders to take an oath to support the Constitution. He also refused a seat in the Senate, although it was mainly because of his declining health.

o In December 1791, a fellow Virginian, James Madison, introduced the Bill of Rights, derived from Mason’s Declaration of Rights, in the first session of the new Congress.

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To learn more about George Mason’s life and work, please click here.

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