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Bill of Rights Day Has Special Significance at Mason Law

Mason Law Students at George Mason Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

A Reflection on the Passage of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791



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

The name George Mason is not one that many Americans outside our region would recognize, but his place in our nation's history is of immeasurable importance, especially on December 15 of each year when we recognize Bill of Rights Day.

Mason was a plantation owner who made his home at Gunston Hall, one of Northern Virginia's loveliest historic dwellings, which stands in close proximity to Mount Vernon, former home of George Washington. Mason and Washington were neighbors and close friends for most of their lives until political differences drove them apart late in life.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, friend and contemporary of Mason, "The fact is unquestionable, that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness." Often referred to as the "Forgotten Founder," Mason originated many of the core concepts and much of the language that later were incorporated in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights through his earlier substantial contributions to the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia. A delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Mason ultimately refused to sign the Constitution, which he believed gave too much power to a central government absent a bill of rights to guarantee individual liberty. His dissent arose in part, too, from what he perceived as the Convention's reluctance to deal more harshly with the institution of slavery. Mason's refusal to sign the new Constitution cost him greatly, as he lost the friendship of Washington and others over his refusal to endorse the document in its final form.

In the year prior to his death, Mason saw his desire to incorporate a protection of individual rights come to fruition with the passage of the federal Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

Writer George Grant had this to say about Mason: "A rationalist who had little faith in the workings of governmental bodies, Mason fought passionately for the freedom of the individual - citizen or slave; and he was largely responsible for ensuring that protection of the rights of the individual would be such an essential part of the American system."

It is a fitting tribute to Mason that Virginia's largest university, and this School of Law, bear his name, ensuring that America's "Forgotten Founder" in fact is remembered for the magnitude of his contribution to our guarantee of individual freedom.