Born in December 1725, George Mason was a planter, a botanist, a musician, a thinker, and a politician. He was one of the three delegates to the US Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the Constitution and instead wrote “Objections to this Constitution of the Government.” Historians have virtually forgotten him and it looks Thomas Jefferson and James Madison may have been given undue credit for George Mason’s contributions to American democracy. In George Mason, William G. Hyland Jr. argues that George Mason should have a place in the highest ranks of the Founders, not on account of the prestige of high office or the glamor of the battlefield, but because he is the father of our liberties. George Mason’s contributions to the preservation of Americans’ freedom and the structure of our republican government are irreplaceable.
America was founded on three political documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. William G. Hyland Jr. says that George Mason had a decisive role in writing all three of these documents. Mason was an able constitutionalist and has left an indelible footprint on the founding of our nation. Mason was the dean of the intellectual rebels in Virginia. The creation of the American experiment is Mason’s true enduring legacy. William G. Hyland Jr. writes “But his contribution has been obscured by the accidents of history and his self-effacing character. Mason’s creative capacity lies buried in the inner folds of the man’s personality, beyond the reach of traditional biographical methods of discernment.” He argues that the real significance of George Mason’s role in the founding of the United States can be seen in the documents he drafted and the public stands he took — all in defense of American’s rights, lives, and liberty. Mason drafted the Constitution of Virginia, which shattered the old myth of divine right and proved that men could handle their own affairs. Mason understood more than most that necessary powers must be given to a government — but he also knew that the price of increased government power was decreased liberty. Mason’s political works were the creation of a genius that was democratic at heart. His Fairfax Resolves in 1774 had helped stir the Revolution, and his Virginia Declaration of Rights was the precursor to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Yet Mason could write of his devoted family, “At my time of life, my only satisfaction and pleasure is in my children, and all my views are centered in their welfare and happiness.”
Discussing the legacy of George Mason, William G. Hyland Jr. says that Mason’s most influential achievement was his framing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document espousing human rights for individuals, and the precursor to both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Historians of religious liberty rightly credit the major contributions to Jefferson and Madison, but Mason’s writings on religious freedom are neglected or overlooked altogether. This is an indefensible omission. Few men were more engaged than Mason in the struggle to establish the free exercise of religion, starting with his authorship of Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason eloquently and succinctly formulated the principles that would govern the debate on religious freedom in Virginia and the new United States.
There is a disagreement among historians about how much respective weight to assign to political theory and personal leadership for the success of the American Revolution. But they all acknowledge Mason’s remarkable contributions to American history. William G. Hyland Jr. says that Mason was one of the first political philosophers of the American Revolution, and the most influential. And his personal leadership of the anti-federalist cause gave us the Bill of Rights. He quotes scholar Josephine Pacheco who has argued that Mason may not have signed the Constitution, no one contributed more to the actual document than did Mason. He should be rightly considered one of the fathers of our national government.
George Mason is a fascinating study of the role of one of our founding fathers who is also the father of our liberties. William G. Hyland Jr. successfully shows that George Mason was one of our most important founding fathers, yet least known. It is an authentic personal and political portrait of someone who fought for our liberties. With his unmatched credentials as a historian, William G. Hyland Jr. has tried to give George Mason his rightful place in history. Anyone interested in early American history and the role of George Mason will enjoy it. This is a very meticulously researched and nuanced study. At the same time, it a very enjoyable read even for lay readers. William G. Hyland Jr. fills many gaps in scholarship on the life and work of George Mason.