Founders and the Constitution
George Mason (1725-1792)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of George Mason. They will learn about Mason’s views on rights, his objections to the Constitution, and his devotion to personal liberty and states’ rights.
Freedom of Religion
The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
We claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours, we can not be deprived of them without our Consent, but by Violence & Injustice; We have received them from our Ancestors and, with God’s Leave, we will transmit them, unimpaired to our Posterity. - George Mason (June 6, 1776)
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.
In this lesson, students will learn about statesman George Mason. They should first read as background homework Handout A—George Mason (1725–1792) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: George Mason on Liberty. As a preface, there is Handout B—Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to compose either an essay comparing the Virginia Declaration of Rights with relevant clauses of the Constitution, or a two-paragraph speech that Mason could have made at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. Extensions provides an opportunity for thought as students are asked to consider whether liberty is more easily preserved in a small republic than in a large one.
- 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
- Handout A—George Mason (1725–1792)
- Handout B—Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: George Mason on Liberty
- Handout D—Student Answer Bank
- Copy of the Declaration of Independence
- Copy of the United States Constitution
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—George Mason (1725–1792) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- 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.
Context 10 min.
Briefly review with students the mounting crisis in the relationship between America and Great Britain between 1763 and 1776.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Distribute Handout B—Context Questions. Be sure that the students understand the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
- Divide the class into equal groups. Assign each group one of the clauses of Handout C—In His Own Words: George Mason on Liberty. (For a small, advanced class, each clause may be assigned to one student.)
- Give each group the job of paraphrasing its assigned clause in one to two sentences. At the bottom of each clause are vocabulary words that will help the students understand the document.
- Once the groups believe that they understand their assigned clauses, give each group a copy of the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and a copy of the United States Constitution and the first ten amendments. Ask each group to match its assigned clause with a similar clause/section of one or more of these documents.
- Handout D—Student Answer Bank can be used with this activity. Handout D lists specific clauses and amendments in which the students can find their matches. (Advanced students can probably find the appropriate matches without the answer bank.)
Wrap-up Discussion 5 min.
Bring the class together as a whole and have each group share its responses to Handout C.
Follow-Up Homework Options
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Copeland, Pamela C., and Richard K. MacMaster. The Five George Masons: Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.
Miller, Helen Hill. George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
Rutland, Robert A. The Papers of George Mason. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Rutland, Robert A. George Mason: Reluctant Statesman. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961.
Tarter, Brent. “George Mason and the Conservation of Liberty.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99 (1991): 279–304.
“The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison: July 11.” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
“George Mason, Remarks on Annual Elections for the Fairfax Independent Company.” The Founders’ Constitution Volume 1, Chapter 18,
Document 5. <http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch18s5.html>.
“George Mason, Virginia Ratifying Convention, 4 June 1788.” The Founders’ Constitution Volume 1, Chapter 8, Document 37.
Gunston Hall Plantation. <http://gunstonhall.org/>.
“Virginia Declaration of Rights.” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School.
By George Mason
- The Virginia Constitution (1776)
- The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)
- Objections to This Constitution of Government (1787)
- Handout A: George Mason (1725-1792)
- Handout B: Context Questions
- Handout C: George Mason on Liberty
- Handout D: Student Answer Bank
- Thematic Essays