Ronald G. Shafer
On Dec. 15 America will celebrate the ratification of the Bill of Rights. It's also a good time to remember the man behind this bedrock of our individual liberties.
That would be Virginia's George Mason, the Rodney Dangerfield of America's Founding Fathers. Like the late comedian, Mason doesn't get enough respect because his contributions have been overshadowed by those of more famous Founders.
In May 1776, Mason was the main author of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, which he largely wrote in a room at the Raleigh Tavern right here in Williamsburg. The document declared that all men by nature are "free and independent, and have certain inherent rights," including "the enjoyment of life and liberty." Sound familiar? Thomas Jefferson adapted much of the wording when writing his more famous Declaration of Independence
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Mason was one of only three delegates to vote against adopting the Constitution. He unsuccessfully sought provisions to protect the rights of individual citizens against a strong federal government. Jefferson, who was in Paris as the U.S. ambassador to France, agreed that "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to …"
James Madison, who had dismissed Mason's arguments at the Constitutional Convention, eventually changed his mind. As a member of the first Congress, in 1789 Madison wrote the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which together form the Bill of Rights. Madison's amendments were taken largely from Mason's earlier writings, which had called for freedom of religion, freedom of the press and maintaining a "well regulated militia" trained with arms.
Mason, who had predicted the amendments would be "milk and water propositions," expressed "much satisfaction" with the final results. Under the Constitution, the amendments had to be ratified by three-fourths of the 14 states. The Bill of Rights became the law of the land on Dec. 15, 1791, when Virginia appropriately became the 11th state to ratify. After seeing his dream come true, Mason died the next year at the age of 66.
In the history books Madison got most of the credit for creating the Bill of Rights. Mason became a forgotten Founding Father with little recognition save for George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. As Americans celebrate our cherished Bill of Rights this month, it's time that old George Mason got the respect that he rightly deserves.
Shafer, a James City County resident, is the former Washington Political Features Editor at The Wall Street Journal