George Mason served as a delegate to the Virginia Legislature from 1775 to 1781. He had contributed greatly to the formation of Virginia's government, both in his drafts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Virginia's State Constitution, and also in his leadership on Virginia's Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War. In 1781, however, George Mason withdrew from the Virginia legislature, claiming poor health, but he continued to participate in Virginia politics. In a letter to his son George, Jr., in 1783, he wrote, ". . . I have been for some time in Retirement, & shall not probably return again to public Life; yet my Anxiety for my Country, in these Times of Danger, makes me sometimes dabble a little in Politicks, & keep up a Correspondence with some Men upon the public Stage." Five months later, he wrote to his friend Arthur Campbell,
I retired from public Business from a thorough Conviction that it was not in my Power to do any Good, & very much disgusted with Measures, which appeared to me inconsistent with common Policy and Justice. I see from the Acts which have been passed since, the same System has been still pursued; Yet this has not extinguished my Love for my Country; and if I recover tollerable Health, and shou'd find just Cause to think I can do any important public Service, I will return again to the Assembly. 
Mason had become disturbed by some of the proceedings of the Virginia Assembly and wrote to several delegates warning them of the dire state of the government. He wanted legislative revisions and hoped to influence their actions. To his friend, and Virginia delegate, William Cabell in May 1783, he wrote:
Happiness & Prosperity are now within our Reach; but to attain & preserve them must depend upon our own Wisdom & Virtue. I hope the Assembly will revise several of our Laws, and abolish all such of them as are contrary to the fundamental Principles of Justice. This, & a strict adherence to the Distinctions between Right & Wrong for the future, is absolutely necessary, to restore that Confidence & Reverence in the People for the Legislature . . . Frequent Interferance with private Property & Contracts, retrospective Laws destructive of all public Faith, as well as Confidence between Man & Man, and flagrant Violations of the Constitution must disgust the best & wisest Part of the Community, occasion a general Depravity of Manners, bring the Legislature into Contempt, and finally produce Anarchy & public Convulsion. 
Mason's primary concerns about government, both Virginia's and the new nation's, were aimed at preserving the rights and liberties of individuals above all else. While he wanted a strong nation, he feared giving the government too much power, and for this reason, had become a strict constructionist of the Articles of Confederation. Mason was particularly alarmed by the Continental Congress's appeal for the states to levy more taxes to support the army and to retire the public debt. He felt the central government was overstepping its bounds in not adhering to the specific powers delegated by the Articles of Confederation. On May 30, 1783, Mason drafted a letter of instructions to the Virginia General Assembly delegates on behalf of the Fairfax County Freeholders. He wrote:
We desire and instruct you strenuously to oppose all encroachments of the American Congress upon the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the separate States; and every assumption of power, not expressly vested in them, by the Articles of Confederation. . . . And in particular we desire and instruct you to oppose any attempts which may be made by Congress to obtain a perpetual revenue, or the appointment of revenue officers. Were these powers superadded to those they already possess, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitutions of Government in the different States would prove mere parchment bulwarks to American Liberty 
Although Mason continued to "dabble" in politics out of concern for the nation, he still believed his service was not essential in 1784, when he refused to serve in the Virginia Assembly. He wrote to his neighbor and friend, Martin Cockburn, in April:
I have been lately inform'd that some People intend to open a Pole for me at the Election to-morrow for this County. I hope this will not be offered; for as I have repeatedly declared that I can not serve the County, at this time, as one of it's Representatives, I shou'd look upon such Attempt, in no other Light than as an oppressive & unjust Invasion of my personal Liberty; and was I to be elected under such Circumstances, I shoud most certainly refuse to act; let the Consequences be what they will . . . If ever I shou'd see a Time, when I have just Cause to think I can render the Public essential Service, and can arrange my own Domestic Concerns in such a Manner, as to enable me to leave my Family, for any Length of time, I will most chearfully let the County know it. 
He did agree, however, to serve on a Virginia-Maryland commission to settle questions concerning navigation of the Potomac River, and in January 1786, was appointed as a delegate to a national conference on trade and regulation of commerce that was set to meet in Annapolis in September 1786. He was excused from this meeting, however, for poor health, but in December 1786, was elected a delegate to a Federal Convention to meet in Philadelphia in May, 1787, for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. This time, he felt compelled to serve. By now, he believed the government under the Articles of Confederation was "approaching to Dissolution" and that "some of its Principals have been found utterly inadequate to the Purposes for which it was establish'd . . . ." Once again, Mason put on his politician's hat, and he set off for Philadelphia in the Spring of 1787, where the delegates would "obtain and preserve the important objects for which [the Articles of Confederation] was instituted--the protection Safety & Happiness of the People." 
Federal Convention of 1787
George Mason arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 17, eager to revise the Articles of Confederation. On May 20, 1787, he wrote to his son George:
It is easy to foresee that there will be much Difficulty in organizing a Government upon this great Scale, & at the same time reserving to the State Legislatures a sufficient Portion of Power for promoting & securing the Prosperity & Happiness of their respective Citizens. Yet, with a proper Degree of Coolness, Liberality, & Candour (very rare Commodities by the Bye) I doubt not but that it may be effected. 
While Mason was optimistic about what the Convention might accomplish, he was an impatient politician who had little time for the social scene carried on by the other delegates in Philadelphia. On May 27, 1787, he wrote to George:
I begin to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city [Philadelphia]. It would take me some months to make myself master of them, and that it should require months to learn what is not worth remembering as many minutes, is to me so discouraging a circumstance as determines me to give myself no manner of trouble about them. 
Despite this, Mason was humbled by the great task set before him and the other delegates. He wrote that the fight for independence and the formation of a new government were nothing compared to "the great Business now before" the delegates. The creation of a new constitution would influence "the Happiness or Misery of Millions yet unborn" and the thought of this responsibility "suspend[ed] the Operations of human Understanding." 
Throughout the Convention's proceedings, Mason participated fully in the deliberations that gradually created the Constitution, making no fewer than 136 speeches on the convention floor. As the hot summer dragged on, he became increasingly alarmed over several aspects of the new government. While he agreed that the government was not functioning effectively under the Articles of Confederation, he wanted to prevent it from having too much power. He believed they could do this by placing most of the powers of government in the House of Representatives, which would be directly elected by the people.
Mr. Mason, argued strongly for an election of the larger branch by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principle of the Gov't. . .It ought to know & sympathise with every part of the community. . .  May 31, 1787
Mr. Mason was of the opinion that the appointment of the Legislature coming from the people would make the representation actual, but if it came from the State Legislatures it will be only virtual.  May 31, 1787
He thought money bills and taxes should originate only in the House of Representatives to prevent Senators, who were not elected directly by the people, from gaining too much power and influence.
. . .the 1st branch [representatives] would be the immediate representatives of the people, the 2d. [senators] would not. Should the latter have the power of giving away the people's money, they might soon forget the source from when they received it. We might soon have an aristocracy.  July 6, 1787
. . .the Senate did not represent the people, but the States in their political character. It was improper therefore that it should tax the people. . .the Senate is not like the [House of Representatives] chosen frequently and obliged to return frequently among the people. They are to be chosen by the [States] for 6 years, will probably settle themselves at the seat of Gov't. will pursue schemes for their own aggrandizement-- will be able by [wearying] out the H. of Reps. and taking advantage of their impatience at the close of a long Session, to extort measures for that purpose.  August 13, 1787
He wanted Congress, rather than the President, to appoint Federal Judges, since the judges had the power to impeach the president.
The mode of appointing the Judges may depend in some degree on the mode of trying impeachments of the Executive. If the Judges were to form a tribunal for that purpose, they surely ought not to be appointed by the Executive.  July 18, 1787
He thought Congress should have the power to declare war and to regulate the national militia.
Mr. Mason was [against] giving the power of war to the Executive, because [it was] not safely to be trusted with it; or to the Senate, because [it was] not so constructed as to be entitled to it. August 17, 1787
Mr. Mason introduced the subject of regulating the militia. He thought such a power necessary to be given to the [General] Government. August 18, 1787
Mason was also very concerned about protecting the government from corruption and rule by a few select interests. He argued against a single executive, instead supporting power vested in three persons, one from each section of the country.
Mr. Mason was of opinion that it would be so dangerous for the Executive in a single Person to negative [veto] a Law that the People will not accept of it. June 4, 1787
The other delegates rejected this idea, so Mason acquiesced to power vested in a single executive. But he then motioned for an executive council chosen from various sections of the country, a motion that was also rejected.
"That it be an instruction to the Committee of the States to prepare a clause or clauses for establishing an Executive Council, as a Council of State, for the President of the U. States, to consist of six members, two of which [are to be chosen] from the Eastern, two from the middle, and two from the Southern States, with a Rotation and duration of office similar to those of the Senate; such Council to be appointed by the Legislature or by the Senate." September 7, 1787
To further ensure that the executive did not become too powerful, Mason also supported limiting the President's tenure to one term.
He considered an Executive during good behavior as a softer name only for an Executive for life. And that the next would be an easy step to hereditary Monarchy. July 17, 1787
He conceived at the same time that a second election ought to be absolutely prohibited. Having for his primary object, for the pole-star of his political conduct, the preservation of the rights of the people, he held it as an essential point, as the very palladium of Civil liberty, that the great officers of State, particularly the Executive should at fixed periods return to that mass from which they were at first taken, in order that they may feel & respect those rights & interests . . . July 26, 1787
Furthermore, he supported the impeachment power as a check on the President.
No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice? July 20, 1787
Mason also thought members of Congress should be excluded from holding federal offices.
Col: Mason. Instead of excluding merit, the ineligibility will keep out corruption, by excluding office-hunters. September 3, 1787
As the delegates continued to compromise, Mason began to fear that sectional interests would control congress. Therefore, one of his primary concerns centered around navigation and trade laws. In the interests of Virginia, first, and of the South in general, he argued that bills regulating navigation and trade should be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses, rather than the simple majority favored by northern states. He believed southern interests would be in jeopardy if only a simple majority in Congress regulated trade.
The Majority will be governed by their interests. The Southern States are the minority in both Houses. Is it to be expected that they will deliver themselves bound hand & foot to the Eastern States, and enable them to exclaim, in the words of Cromwell on a certain occasion--"the lord hath delivered them into our hands." August 29, 1787
Col: Mason expressing his discontent at the power given to Congress by a bare majority to pass navigation acts, which he said would not only enhance the freight, a consequence he did not so much regard--but would enable a few rich merchants in Philada N. York & Boston, to monopolize the Staples of the Southern States & reduce their value perhaps [fifty percent]--moved a further provision "that no law in nature of a navigation act be passed before the year 1808, without the consent of 2/3 of each branch of the Legislature"  September 15, 1787
The other delegates, however, rejected this motion by a vote of seven to three, with one state abstaining.
On the issue of ratifying the proposed Constitution, Mason believed the people, rather than state legislatures, should do the job.
Col. Mason considered a reference of the plan to the authority of the people as one of the most important and essential of the Resolutions. The Legislatures have no power to ratify it. They are the mere creatures of the State Constitutions, and can not be greater than their creators. July 23, 1787
Mason also believed a bill of rights should preface the Constitution:
. . . He wished the plan had been prefaced with a Bill of Rights, & would second a Motion if made for the purpose. It would give great quiet to the people; and with the aid of the State declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours. September 12, 1787
He seconded Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry's motion for a committee to prepare a bill of rights, yet some argued that individual state declarations were sufficient to protect the rights of individuals. Mason countered that "The Laws of the U.S. are to be paramount to State Bills of Rights." The motion was voted down, however, ten to zero, with Massachusetts abstaining.
While some of Mason's concerns were favorably addressed, there were many others that caused him enough distress to declare, on August 31, 1787, "that he would sooner chop off his right hand" than see the Constitution, as it then stood, passed. Around September 16, Mason formally wrote sixteen objections to the Constitution and passed it around to several colleagues. Among other concerns, he opposed the lack of a bill of rights, supported direct representation in the House, wanted an executive council to advise the President, opposed the Vice President's relationship with the Senate, opposed the President's power to grant pardons, wanted two-thirds of both houses, rather than a simple majority, to pass navigation and commercial laws, opposed a standing army in time of peace, opposed the restrictions placed on state governments, opposed the continued importation of slaves for at least twenty years, and opposed what he considered the many excessive powers of the Congress (especially the Senate), Judiciary, and the Executive. He believed the Constitution would "produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy," or most likely "vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other."
At this point, Mason hoped that state conventions would deliberate over the Constitution and make suggestions for improvement, and that the Federal Convention would meet a second time to revise the offending articles. On September 15, 1787, Randolph motioned for a second convention and Mason seconded it.
Col: Mason 2ded. & followed Mr. Randolph in animadversions on the dangerous power and structure of the Government, concluding that it would end either in monarchy, or a tyrannical aristocracy; which, he was in doubt, but one or other, he was sure. This Constitution had been formed without the knowledge or idea of the people. A second Convention will know more of the sense of the people, and be able to provide a system more consonant to it.
However, every state delegation opposed Randolph's motion, and instead, voted to submit the Constitution, as it then stood, to state legislatures for either ratification or rejection. The Constitution was signed by every delegate but three: Eldridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason. Mason could not bring himself to sign a document that he believed granted the government too much power, and did too little in preserving individual rights.
Mason left Philadelphia angry at how the events of the Federal Convention's final weeks were carried out, particularly at how the Federalists got the majority they needed to approve the Constitution. The Eastern states made a compromise with two Southern states that allowed the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, to the advantage of the Southern states, and required only a simple majority to pass navigation and commerce laws, to the advantage of the Eastern states. As noted before, Mason saw this as dangerous for Southern interests, and was very bitter over its enactment.
On May 26, 1788, Mason wrote to Thomas Jefferson and enclosed a copy of his objections. He wrote:
Upon the most mature Consideration I was capable of, and from Motives of sincere Patriotism, I was under the Necessity of refusing my Signature, as one of the Virginia Delegates; and drew up some general Objections; which I intended to offer, by Way of Protest; but was discouraged from doing so, by the precipitate, & intemperate, not to say indecent manner in which the Business was conducted, during the last Week of the Convention, after the Patrons of this new plan found they had a decided Majority in their Favour, which was obtained by a Compromise between the Eastern, and the two Southern States, to permit the latter to continue the Importation of Slaves for twenty odd Years; a more favourite Object with them than the Liberty and Happiness of the People. 
By November 1787, Mason had decided to fight against unconditional ratification of the Constitution. He still hoped to amend the offending parts and expected the Virginia ratifying convention to insist on another Federal Convention before ratification became final. Between the end of the Federal Convention and the beginning of the Virginia ratifying convention, Mason was vilified in the press and by rumors that circulated throughout Virginia. He was labeled an anti-federalist, and was accused of letting his ego get in the way of his sensibilities. Despite these setbacks, Mason campaigned in the less Federalist Stafford County and won a seat to the ratifying convention, scheduled to begin on June 2, 1788.
The Virginia ratifying convention deliberated for three weeks, during which Mason argued for and against various points in the Constitution. He submitted resolutions that, among other things, would have: provided for a bill of rights; asserted state sovereignty over issues not expressly covered by the Constitution; created a Council to assist in the administration of Government; required a two-thirds vote for passage of any navigation or commerce laws; and required consent of two-thirds of both houses to command the Army or Navy. Ultimately, however, the Federalists won, and the Constitution, without any alteration, was ratified, once again, without George Mason's support.
Nonetheless, we should not overlook George Mason's tremendous contribution to the formation of the Constitution. His absolute commitment to the protection and preservation of the rights of individuals motivated his objections to the Constitution, and even in the twilight of his life, he continued to believe he had acted in the best interests of the country. Though disturbed at how his opposition had affected his relationships with men such as George Washington and James Madison, he wrote to his son, John, in the spring of 1789,
In this important trust, I am truly conscious of having acted from the purest motives of honesty, and love to my country, according to that measure of judgement which God has bestowed on me, and I would not forfeit the approbation of my own mind for the approbation of any man, or all the men upon earth. 
Click footnote number to return to text.
1. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:761.
2. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:775-6.
3. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:775-6.
4. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:781.
5. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 2:799-800.
6. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:903-4.
7. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970) 3:880.
8. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:884.
9. Robert A. Rutland, The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:892-3.
10. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 39.
11. Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:57.
12. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 120.
13. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 443.
14. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 315.
15. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 476.
16. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 478.
17. Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:109-10.
18. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 601.
19. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 312.
20. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 371.
21. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 331.
22. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 572.
23. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 549-50.
24. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 650.
25. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 348.
26. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 630.
27. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 566.
28. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:991-3.
29. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 651.
30. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:1045. [full letter]
31. Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 3:1142.