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George Mason (1725-1792)

60 min

Students will:

  • understand Mason’s view of the rights of Virginians
  • analyze Mason’s objections to the Constitution
  • evaluate the importance of Mason’s contributions to the Founding
  • appreciate Mason’s devotion to personal liberty and states’ rights

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of George Mason.

    George Mason was a Virginian dedicated to the principles of individual liberty and states’ rights. He was the primary author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. These documents influenced the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. He opposed the U.S. Constitution based on the fact that it did not adequately protect the rights of the people.

George Mason’s ideas helped to shape the Founding documents of the United States, but few Americans remember him today. The words he used when writing the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution of 1776 inspired the nation’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Mason was an associate of fellow Virginians George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, the last of whom called Mason “a man of the first order of greatness.”

Though he detested politics, Mason believed that it was his duty to protect the rights of his fellow citizens. He therefore entered public life and took an active role in shaping the governments of his state and nation. He was an eloquent advocate for individual freedom and states’ rights. He also spoke out against the institution of slavery, though he owned hundreds of slaves who toiled on his Gunston Hall plantation.

Mason spent the last years of his life fighting to ensure that the newly minted Constitution would guarantee the rights of the people. Though the Bill of Rights was eventually approved, Mason was unsatisfied, believing that it failed to protect the people’s rights adequately. Faithful to his principles, he retired to his plantation a defeated man, choosing not to serve as Virginia’s first senator to avoid joining a government he feared could be the beginning of the end of liberty in the United States.

Bring the class together as a whole and have each group share its responses to Handout C.

  1. Have the students assume Mason’s persona and compose a one-page essay in which they compare one or more of the clauses of the Virginia Declaration of Rights with the relevant clauses of the Constitution. The students should accurately convey Mason’s satisfaction or displeasure with each of the Constitution’s clauses.
  2. Have the students assume Mason’s persona and compose and present a one-page speech that he could have made at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in opposition to the Constitution.

Mason made the following comments at the Virginia Ratifying Convention:

Was there ever an instance of a general National Government extending over so extensive a country, abounding in such a variety of climates, &c. where the people retained their liberty? I solemnly declare, that no man is a greater friend to a firm Union of the American States than I am: But, Sir, if this great end can be obtained without hazarding the rights of the people, why should we recur to such dangerous principles?


  1. Students could first paraphrase Mason’s comments:

    A country as large and diverse as the United States cannot be governed by a strong national government without compromising the people’s liberty. I am in favor of a union of the states, under a plan that ensures the people’s rights. But this plan risks those rights.

  2. At the time of the American Founding, most political thinkers shared Mason’s belief that liberty was more easily preserved in a small republic than in a large one. (This was the belief of many ancient political philosophers.) Students can write an essay in which they take a stand on this issue and support their position with four or five points.

Student Handouts

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