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The Other Side of George Mason

April 17, 2006

In "George Mason: Protectionism at its Worst," T. Norman Van Cott makes the case that despite Mason's important contribution to America's revolution and to the principles of American government (particularly in the Virginia Declaration of Rights), his involvement in the slavery issue reflected nothing more than self-seeking. I do not disagree with his analysis of Mason's positions on slavery. However, I would like to remind readers of his useful insights as well, which are not rendered valueless by his rent-seeking actions (a malady which afflicted not just a few founding fathers).

Mason's most famous contributions come from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as a model for many other important documents of the revolutionary era. Its insights include the following:

"...all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights...the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

"...men...cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent or that of their representatives so elected, not bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented..."

"...no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles."

George Mason also made other valuable contributions to thought on liberty and its intended role in America. While far from an exhaustive list, here are some of them:

"...liberty...these rights have not been forfeited by any act of ours, we cannot be deprived of them without our consent, but by violence and injustice; We have received them from our Ancestors, and with God's leave, we will transmit them, unimpaired to our posterity."

" Our all is at stake, and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected not with reluctance but with pleasure."

"...we will not submit to have our own money taken out of our pockets without our consent; because if any man or any set of men take from us without our consent or that of our representatives one shilling in the pound we have not security for the remaining nineteen. We owe to our mother country the duty of subjects but will not pay her the submission of slaves."

"All men are by nature born equally free and independent. To protect the weaker from the injuries and insults of the stronger were societies first formed...Every society, all government, and every kind of civil compact therefore, is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community. Every power, every authority vested in particular men is, or ought to be, ultimately directed at this sole end; and whenever any power or authority whatever extends further...than is in its nature necessary for these purposes, it may be called government, but it is in fact oppression."

"We...have endeavored to provide the most effectual securities for the essential rights of human nature, both in civil and religious liberty..."

"...when unconditional submission, or effectual resistance, were the only alternatives left us...I from that moment looked forward to a revolution and independence, as the only means of salvation; and will risk the last penny of my fortune and the last drop of my blood upon the issue."

"I charge [my sons]...never to let the motives of private interest or ambition to influence them to betray, nor the terrors of poverty and disgrace, or the fear of danger or of death deter them from asserting the liberty of their country, and endeavoring to transmit to their posterity those sacred rights to which themselves were born."

"...if I can only live to see the American union firmly fixed, and free governments well established in our western world, and can leave to my children but a crust of bread and liberty, I shall die satisfied..."

"Happiness and prosperity are now within our reach; but to attain and preserve them must depend upon our own wisdom and virtue...Frequent interference with private property and contracts, retrospective laws destructive of all public faith, as well as confidence between man and man, and flagrant violations of the Constitution must disgust the best and wisest part of the community, occasion a general depravity of manners, bring the legislature into contempt, and finally produce anarchy and public convulsion."

There is a tendency to shun those who have not remained "pure" in their adherence to those principles. George Mason is one of those who have been largely ignored as a result. It is important to call attention to such failings. However, it is also important to remember that the validity of someone's insights is not disproved because they are sometimes abandoned when the personal "price" paid is high. It simply proves Lord Acton's insight into power's corrupting influence. As a result, in cases such as that of George Mason, we need to be on guard against throwing out the baby of useful insights into liberty with the dirty bathwater that comes from abandoning those insights.

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