285 Candles: George Mason, the Man, Celebrates a Birthday

Posted: December 6, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: December 6, 2010 at 8:35 am

By Laura Jeffrey

This article was originally published in 2005 and is reprinted here with slight modifications. Robert Hawkes Jr., Professor Emeritus of History and Dean Emeritus of the former School of Continuing and Alternative Learning, who is quoted here, passed away in 2008.

George Mason is turning 285 years old this year. But if the so-called “reluctant statesman” were still alive, he wouldn’t want a big national fuss. Instead, he would enjoy a private celebration at his beloved Gunston Hall, with plenty of family members on hand to help him blow out all those candles on his birthday cake.

And it probably wouldn’t bother Mason a bit that he is not always recognized as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that guarantee individual liberties.

Mason “didn’t enjoy politics,” said historian Robert Hawkes Jr. (now deceased). “He wasn’t interested in having a national reputation. He didn’t need the adulation and recognition of others. He just simply wanted the freedom to have the kind of life he wanted.”

Landholder and Family Man

George Mason commissioned a portrait painted by John Hesselius of Annapolis, Md., around the time of Mason’s first marriage in 1750. This is a copy painted by D.W. Boudet of the original, which was ruined.

George Mason was born on Dec. 11, 1725, on his family’s plantation in Fairfax County. When he was 10, his father died in a sailing accident. Young George was taken under the wing of his uncle, John Mercer, an attorney with an extensive law library (the Prince William Campus’ library is named after him). Mercer encouraged George to learn everything he could about law.

When Mason was 21, he assumed responsibilities for his family’s extensive land holdings in Virginia and Maryland. Four years later, Mason married 16-year-old Ann Eilback, who came from a very prominent family in Charles County, Md. By 1759, construction was completed on Gunston Hall, their plantation home on the Potomac River 20 miles south of Washington, D.C.

Mason played an active role in running the plantation. He also was involved in other business dealings, including fisheries, ferry operations and land speculation. And he thrived in his role as husband and father. George and Ann had 12 children, nine of whom survived to adulthood.

“George respected Ann’s mind and her intellect as well as her wonderful nurturing qualities,” said Donna Bafundo, MEd ’78, retired director of Mason’s University Scholars program and a former docent at Gunston Hall. “He was really very, very devoted to his wife.”

In the early 1770s, Ann gave birth to a set of twins, the couple’s 11th and 12th children. They died shortly after birth. Ann herself fell ill and died in March 1773 at the age of 39. Mason “was just broken-hearted,” Bafundo said.

Two years later, the American Revolution began. Mason was a single father with many business obligations, but he still found time to serve his country. In 1776, he became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He drafted a Declaration of Rights for the Virginia Constitution.

By including those rights, “Mason … made a declaration that the new government they were establishing … would acknowledge that these rights existed in nature,” Hawkes said. “The constitution didn’t create these rights; it didn’t establish them. It was a declaration. Mason established an American creed that has been a goal and an aspiration for all of us since.”

In 1780, Mason married Sarah Brent, a single woman in her 50s. “He was very devoted to his children,” Bafundo said. “And he saw the need for them to have a motherly figure in their lives. He also missed the companionship of a wife.”

Proposing the Bill of Rights

Mason enjoyed being at home, and he had health problems that caused him discomfort. “He really didn’t want to be bothered” with politics, Bafundo said. “He didn’t want to run for public office. He didn’t want to have to go anywhere.”

Nevertheless, in the summer of 1787, Mason traveled to Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He found himself at odds with many of the other delegates, including his friend and neighbor George Washington. Mason opposed the compromise that permitted the continuation of the international slave trade. But most significantly, he objected to granting so much power to the new government.

Mason proposed adding a Bill of Rights that would recognize the power of the people. He even offered to write it. But on Sept. 12, 1787, his proposal to include the bill was defeated. Upset and angry, Mason left town. Mason’s actions permanently ended his friendship with George Washington. Five days later, the delegates adopted the U.S. Constitution.

Mason returned to Gunston Hall, but he continued to push for the Bill of Rights. “George Mason was a vigorous defender of liberty,” Bafundo said. “He acted from the purest motives of honesty and love for his country. People’s approval did not matter to him.”

He wrote a three-page letter explaining his position, and it was published in the Pennsylvania Packet. But in 1788, the Constitution was ratified by conventions in nine of the original 13 states, thereby securing its adoption.

Still Marching Toward Mason’s Goal

Eventually, during the First Federal Congress, James Madison introduced a Bill of Rights. Similar in language and intent to Mason’s proposal, it included rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly and noted that the list was not comprehensive. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified. One year later, on Oct. 7, 1792, Mason died. He was 67 years old.

“In some ways, all of American history has been a slow, halting struggle to march toward that goal of a society where people have opportunity without discrimination based on race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or other things,” Hawkes said.

“Mason … set that as a goal for the nation, unfulfilled in his lifetime and unfilled in our day. But it’s … a symbol of what we stand for, what our aspirations are, and what I think we’re making progress toward.”

Almost 300 years after his birth, how would Mason want to be remembered?

“He was a private and modest man, and yet he was a revolutionary,” Bafundo said. “He was wealthy, but he stood up for the common man. He sacrificed the friendship of many by standing up for what he believed in. And he loved his family.”

The university will hold a birthday celebration in honor of George Mason on Thursday, Dec. 9.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu