- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

“George Mason sensed the moment,” wrote sportswriter Jon Siegel in Monday’s edition of The Washington Times, in reference to the final minutes of George Mason University’s stunning upset over No. 1 seed University of Connecticut. Truer words could not have been written by Mr. Siegel in reference to that “moment,” a capstone to one of the most momentous chapters in NCAA history. The same exact sentence could be applied to another “moment” in history, one with ramifications affecting the lives of everyone mesmerized by George Mason basketball’s “Cinderella” year.

In the sultry days of September 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were putting their finishing touches on a document they had labored and wrangled over for the entire summer. A draft of their handiwork, the new Constitution of the United States, had been prepared for their review and final approval.

One delegate at the Constitutional Convention was faced in September 1787 with grave misgivings over the convention’s final product. When the time came for the delegates to affix their signatures to the document, “George Mason sensed the moment.”

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The Constitutional Convention — a body of men Thomas Jefferson called “demigods” — consisted of highly renowned figures, including multiple signers of the Declaration of Independence, leaders of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and brilliant rising stars James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Like the university his name now graces, George Mason was not well known outside of Virginia. In fact, just as the name “George Mason” today looks a bit odd on NCAA “March Madness” charts, George Mason wasn’t exactly a household name in 1787 either. Unlike so many politicians today who gravitate to the limelight and dedicate their entire careers to personal advancement, George Mason never strayed too far from home, did not seek titles, and did not covet power or fame.

A lifelong Virginian, George Mason served at various times as an Anglican vestryman, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and leader of the Fairfax militia. He co-authored the Fairfax Resolves, one of the earliest protest documents against British tyranny, and served in the Virginia Convention that formally broke the colony’s organizational ties to Great Britain. In that capacity, he was the primary author of Virginia’s first constitution and Declaration of Rights. James Madison would call Mason a “Master Builder” for his great work. Thomas Jefferson added that Mason was “of the first order of greatness.” In fact, Jefferson borrowed liberally from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights when crafting the Declaration of Independence.

Victory over the British in the American Revolution gave Mason hope that his services would no longer be needed in public life. He was mistaken. Like his neighbor George Washington, he played a role in trying to manage interstate relations and commerce issues in the absence of a strong central government. In 1786, Mason reluctantly agreed to represent the Commonwealth of Virginia the following summer in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

The aging George Mason was eager to get to work when he arrived in Philadelphia, and showed little patience for the delays caused by formalities and politicking.

He wrote to his son: “I begin to grow heartily tired of the etiquette and nonsense so fashionable in this city.”

Mason nevertheless respected the awesome task before the delegates, and threw himself fully into his duties. He backed James Madison’s Virginia Plan, yet worked hard to carefully limit the powers of the national government. He furiously condemned the African slave trade, and played a key role in defining the impeachment process.

Yet despite months of hard work, when the “moment” came, George Mason withheld his signature from the Constitution. Mason voiced several reasons, including the document’s compromise on the slave trade (Mason wanted it abolished immediately). However, his primary objection was that it did not contain a bill of rights. To the dismay of many, including his close friend George Washington, Mason returned to Virginia and joined Patrick Henry in opposing the Constitution’s ratification.

Though the Constitution was ultimately ratified, Mason’s fight was not in vain. Calls for a national guarantee of civil rights could be heard throughout the country. When James Madison was elected to the First Congress under the new Constitution, he introduced 12 amendments to the Constitution, 10 of which were soon approved and became known as the Bill of Rights. Madison’s amendments drew heavily from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Mason would live to see the national Bill of Rights approved by Congress and ratified by the states in 1791, but would die peacefully the year following. It was a quiet and lonely end at Gunston Hall that capped a lifetime of humble, dedicated service. Like the NCAA “Cinderella” team that today bears his name, George Mason truly was “of the first order of greatness.”

Brian Tubbs is a high school history teacher, freelance writer and GMU alumnus.

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