Sunday, March 20, 2011

George Mason the Man

George_MasonImageGeorge Mason University, the NCAA’s Cinderella men’s basketball team of five years ago, was defeated by top-ranked Ohio State in this year’s tournament tonight.  Although the game ended a brilliant 27-win season, which included a winning streak of 16 games, the Patriots were often considered underdogs.

This state university, which has more than 30,000 students on four Northern Virginia campuses, has achieved a considerable reputation in several fields, despite only becoming a university 39 years ago. 

And yet, it is sometimes overshadowed in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area by Georgetown and George Washington University.  In Virginia, it is frequently eclipsed by its one-time parent institution, the University of Virginia, located about 100 miles to the west.

It is perhaps ironic that GMU is less well known than these institutions because it seems to parallel the historical status of its namesake, 18th-century statesman George Mason. 

Although a notable contributor to the revolutionary era, Mason’s legacy is secondary to that of George Washington from nearby Mount Vernon, and another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia.  Both were friends and colleagues of Mason’s.

Born in 1725, Mason was seven years older than Washington and much older than Jefferson and James Madison.  Like these men, he was an aristocrat and plantation owner who saw the need for public service but, as one biographer noted, was a “reluctant statesman.”

He rarely served in public office and his contribution was often behind the scenes.  Overarching all his work was a commitment to individual freedoms and a desire to limit the role of government.

Mason may have rendered his most important service in 1776 when he drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a strong embodiment of Enlightenment thought and a firm articulation of legal protections.  The final document was a precursor of the later Bill of Rights.

Sections called for property rights, freedom of the press and of religion, no unreasonable bail, trial by jury, a prohibition against unlawful search and seizure, and no excessive or inappropriate criminal punishment.  There also was a section regarding the separation of three branches of government.

Eleven years later, Mason attended the Constitutional Convention as one of the seven-member Virginia delegation.  Because of what he considered a lack of legal safeguards as identified in a bill of rights, Mason was one of four Virginians who did not sign the Constitution.

Madison, the prime architect of this framework of government, wrote:  “Col. Mason left Philada. in an exceeding ill humour indeed.”  Mason became one of the anti-federalists who was opposed to ratification because of absent guarantees.  In the end, these men, including Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, helped to secure the Bill of Rights and acquiesced in the adoption of the Constitution.

Mason died in 1792, ten months after the Bill of Rights became effective.  Perhaps his legacy was diminished by his opposition to the Constitution, but his impact was significant—even if only for influencing the first ten amendments to the document.  George Mason was a selfless patriot, and the university which adopted his name made a fine selection.

For information on Mason’s home, Gunston Hall, see:  http://www.gunstonhall.org/

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