Remarks of The Chief Justice
Dedication of George Mason National Memorial
April 9, 2002, 11:00 a.m.
This is a fitting spot for a national memorial to George Mason -- overlooking the tidal basin and within view of the Washington Monument, honoring our first President, George Washington, and the Jefferson Memorial, honoring Thomas Jefferson. Washington was, of course, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Jefferson is noted as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Washington's Secretary of State, and our third President. George Mason's contributions to our new republic were less visible, but nonetheless of great importance. This memorial will, I hope, help to educate visitors to Washington about him.
George Mason was born in 1725 in what is now Fairfax County, Virginia. His father died when he was a boy and John Mercer, a noted legal scholar and Mason's paternal uncle, helped to raise and educate him. Although Mason was politically active, especially during the American Revolution, he was plagued by poor health his entire life and preferred the privacy of his home in Virginia, Gunston Hall, to public life.
In May of 1776, as support for declaring independence from Great Britain was growing, George Mason served as the primary drafter of the Virginia Constitution and Declaration of Rights. The rights enumerated in this declaration include many of those that were ultimately incorporated in the first ten Amendments to our Constitution -- known as the Bill of Rights. The Virginia Declaration began with a statement that all men are born free and have certain inherent rights, including the enjoyment of life and liberty, the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing happiness and safety. Thomas Jefferson modeled the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence on this statement.
Mason's declaration of rights also described a separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. He called for those accused of crimes to be able to confront witnesses against them, to have a right to a speedy trial and to a jury, as well as the right not to give evidence against themselves. Mason also called for freedom in the exercise of religion, freedom of the press and jury trials in civil cases. Many states followed Virginia's lead and adopted similar declarations of rights. But when it came time for the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, no declaration of rights was included.
Mason was a member of the Virginia delegation to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. The Virginians, led by James Madison, met each day to sketch out what came to be known as the Virginia Plan, the foundation of our Constitution. Mason's trip to Philadelphia was the farthest he ever ventured from Fairfax County, underscoring the importance he attached to drafting a Constitution. Yet, by the end of August, Mason said "he would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." On September 12, Mason argued that a Bill of Rights should be added, but a motion to do so was unanimously defeated. Five days later the convention adopted the Constitution; Mason was one of only three delegates present who refused to sign it.
Back home in Virginia, Mason campaigned against ratification of the Constitution, in part because it lacked a declaration of rights. Mason also had other objections to the Constitution as drafted -- including the compromise allowing the slave trade to continue for twenty years -- but his focus on the declaration of rights helped to speed passage of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
George Mason's influence did not stop at the boundaries of our young republic. In 1789, the French adopted a declaration of the rights of man -- Déclaration des droits de l'homme -- which was based upon Mason's declaration. The Marquis de Condorcet, who heavily influenced the French declaration of rights, wrote in Ideas on Despotism, that "[t]he first Declaration of Rights that is entitled to be called such is that of Virginia . . . its author is entitled to the eternal gratitude of mankind."
This memorial is a lasting expression of our continued gratitude to George Mason. Thank you.