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George Mason, Gunston Hall, and Copyright Laws

George Mason, the founding father with a REAL copyright infringement claim

George Mason never made it to the White House.  In fact, he never even tried.  As a landed Virginia gentleman and planter, Mason was expected to participate in the colonial political system, but he preferred the part of his life that left him out of politics.  He served in the Colonial House of Burgesses prior to the Revolution and was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.  His home, Gunston Hall, is within a “day’s carriage ride” of Washington’s Mount Vernon and close enough to D.C. that getting to it required engaging Beltway traffic.

Despite the congestion on I-495 and his lack of Commander-in-Chief credentials, Gunston Hall made it on this year’s tour.  Why?  Mason’s contributions may have been obscured by the passage of time but that does not reduce their impact.  We live with his words and legacy every day and in fact, given the impact of the American Constitution on world history, I would posit that millions more have felt the effects of his ideas.  So for that reason, I stopped by Gunston Hall on a ridiculously hot and humid July morning.  Here is what I learned.

Who was George Mason?

A couple of years ago I was in D.C. taking my usual walk around the National Mall.  I had just left the FDR Memorial and was headed toward the Jefferson Shrine and the tidal basin when I noticed a lovely pagoda tucked away behind a small garden.  Under that pagoda, I discovered a statue of George Mason, sitting on a cement bench.  It had been there since 2002, but somehow, I had always missed it.  Not this day.  It was December, so the garden was bare but the day was beautiful – almost 75 degrees – and I had plenty of time.  So I spent a few minutes with George Mason, the founding father every bit as important as “the other guys” with bigger memorials, but forgotten nonetheless.

After the Boston Tea Party (1773), civic and economic life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony became quite precarious.  We know that Boston Harbor was closed and the British Crown sent troops to enforce Parliament’s laws that the colonists felt infringed on the personal liberties afforded to them as British subjects.

Students of the American War of Independence understand the events that led to the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord.  We tend to think of those events as occurring in rapid succession culminating in Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781.  But that was not the case.  Key events happened over a long period of time and important incidents are sometimes forgotten.  One of these forgotten events is attributed to George Mason and changed the way generations of American citizens have thought about their rights and relationship to their government.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

Upon hearing of the civil and economic disruptions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mason, was gravely concerned.  At that time, the colonies were separate and distinct from one another.  They were all British colonies of course, but culturally and economically disparate.  Mason, like his contemporaries, had been educated and influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, those that stressed classic liberal ideas of equality, freedom, and the ability to self-govern.  He feared that the unrest in New England with the resulting crackdown by the Crown and abridgment of rights would spread to the Virginia Colony.

It was this concern that led Mason and his peers to Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, to discuss and in effect proactively proclaim their natural rights.  On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Convention unanimously adopted a Declaration of Rights, written and introduced by George Mason of Gunston Hall.  See if anything here rings a bell.

A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention, which rights do pertain to them, and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government.

  1. THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
  2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration; and that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
  3. That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge, to be hereditary.
  4. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judicative; and, that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burthens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.
  5. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented, for the public good.
  6. That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised.
  7. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favour, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty, nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land, or the judgement of his peers.
  8. That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  9. That general warrants, whereby any officer or messenger may be commanded to search suspected places without evidence of a fact committed or to seize any person or persons not named, or whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive, and ought not to be granted.
  10. That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.
  11. That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
  12. That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and be governed by, the civil power.
  13. That the people have a right to uniform government; and therefore, that no government separate from, or independent of, the government of Virginia, ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.
  14. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
  15. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

My own understanding of Enlightenment (European and Scottish) thinkers is at best, limited.  Contextually, however, it is important to remember how revolutionary these ideas were during the second half of the 18th century.  The ideology expressed here was in stark contrast to the antiquated ‘Divine Right of Kings.’  The latter had been the prevailing thought and justification for law and order dating back centuries.  These ideas were markedly different and while we, in 2018 can read and call out the contradictions and hypocrisy inherent in public policy based on them, we should not dismiss the impact that they had on the colonies at the time.  Nor should we dismiss their impact to world history.

These rights as submitted and unanimously accepted by the Virginia Convention made their way into the Declaration of Independence and ultimately into our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  That is, of course where my reference to “copyright infringement” comes into the story.  We do not think of George Mason as the “guy whose words inspired Jefferson and Madison.”  And I suspect that these ideas were milling about in other minds of the time, most of whom would show up in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to hammer out a new government.  But George Mason was the first to put these ideas on paper and the first to shepherd them into law.

Ironically, Mason’s obscurity is in part due to his refusal to sign the Constitution at the end of that long, hot summer.  He was one of only a few delegates (the tour guide said 3) who demanded the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and we know that those would only be proposed and ratified after it was clear they were necessary to get enough states’ ratification on the Constitution itself.  Mason’s “Declaration of Rights” was influential to what James Madison eventually produced, that which became the Bill of Rights.  But Mason’s refusal and active campaign against the Constitution’s ratification, left him alienated by his contemporaries and pushed to the fringe of American history.

Today, I have noticed a renewed interest in Constitutional history and not from the usual perspectives.  In the past, the discussion has been strict versus loose interpretation, originalist or progressive.  Now the focus is more “back to basics.”  What does the Constitution say and why does it say it?  Why do we have rights that are not enumerated in the amendments?  Why is it important to understand judicial philosophy and Supreme Court decisions?

I would encourage everyone, as I always do, to learn more about subjects of interest to you.  I’m currently listening to the podcast, “Constitutionally Speaking” with Jay Cost & Luke Thompson.  I believe they are both conservative writers, but the podcast is a deep dive into the Constitution.  It focuses (at least so far) on the failures of the Articles of Confederation and how those failures forced the newly formed states to consider a national government to replace the old confederation.  It digs into some of the key players – some of whom are not household names.  I am only on episode 8 of 26 so have a long way to go .  I’ve also downloaded a couple of books on George Mason, which interestingly are harder to find than you might think.

George Mason lived out his life at Gunston Hall.  When he died, he owned almost 100,000 acres and yes, slaves.  Like so many of his generation, Mason recognized the inherent contradictions of slavery and his Declaration of Rights.  He, like his contemporaries, did not have a plan to deal with the complexities of dissolving an antiquated and immoral institution nor how to transition to a free labor economy.  He and his peers did what we continue to do:  kick the can down the field and hope that the issue solves itself.  In 1787, the hope was that slavery would eventually die out as it was an inefficient and expensive method of labor.  And that probably would have happened had technology not come along and give us the cotton gin.

So that’s a little bit of George Mason.  I’m sure I will learn more as I read his biographies and finish up the podcast.  History has given him the short end of the stick but perhaps with this post, you will come away with the realization that there is always more to the story.  And when it comes to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and our Bill of Rights, a good portion of the “rest of the story” is George Mason.


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