Thank This Forgotten Founding Father for Your 'Pursuit of Happiness’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
His writings were a key part of everything from the pursuit of happiness to the impeachment clause.
By Nick Fouriezos
There was a lot that the Founding Fathers didn’t get right with their first stab at creating a nation from scratch. Protecting slavery remains its greatest sin, of course. And the Electoral College? Yeah, that has faced its fair share of criticism of late.
But one positive thing the founders did was create a promise: not just a right to life and liberty but also the “pursuit of happiness,” an assertion that likely seemed absurd given the monarchies that still reigned at the time. And what’s more, that promise came from an unlikely author — a sickly Virginian who was one of only three convention delegates not to sign the U.S. Constitution in 1776.
Before becoming what historians have called “the Forgotten Founder,” George Mason grew up in colonial northern Virginia, born in 1725 to a tobacco farmer who died when Mason was just 10 years old. His mother took him and his two siblings to live with their uncle, John Mercer, a wealthy lawyer who owned one of the largest libraries in Virginia. Day after day, Mason would pore over the 1,500-volume strong collection, soaking up the beliefs of English and French philosophers such as John Locke and Montesquieu.
Years later, their words, particularly with respect to individual liberties, would shape his. In May 1776, Mason — by then not just a tobacco farmer but also a pioneer in the Virginia wine industry — was asked to help draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights. His words may seem familiar: They begin with the assertion “that all men are born equally free and independent” and with “natural Rights,” including “the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty … and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”
It wasn’t an easy task. Time was of the essence, as the colonies were already warring against England, not to mention the fact that he was dealing with poor health — he had a lifelong battle with gout, among other things — that caused him to arrive late to the Virginia convention in the first place. Once written, the document was whisked off to Thomas Jefferson, who was in Philadelphia. A native Virginian himself, Jefferson had been drafted by John Adams to be the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and his preamble drew heavily on Mason’s vision, although he simplified those unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“He coined some really important phrases in the Constitution,” says William Hyland, a lawyer and author of George Mason: The Founding Father Who Gave Us the Bill of Rights. “He actually wrote the impeachment clause, he put in the phrases ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ and ‘aid and comfort of enemies’ to define treason.”
Mason’s place in American history seemed secured, and he understood the importance of the moment, writing in a letter to his son that “the eyes of the United States are turned upon this assembly” and that he hoped to gratify them “by establishing a wise and just government.” But when he arrived in Philadelphia himself, he was dismayed. He feared that the first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, gave too much power to the federal government. That it didn’t adequately work to end slavery (although he, like other Founding Fathers, owned dozens of slaves). And, most crucially to Mason, it did not include a Bill of Rights — a document guaranteeing the personal freedoms he held so dear.
And so, not only did Mason refuse to sign the Constitution, he also embarked on a a crusade with Patrick Henry — yes, he of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” fame — to convince states not to ratify it until a Bill of Rights was included, among other things. They failed, and as a result, Mason’s political career “was kind of curtailed,” Hyland says. His stance soured his relationships with friends such as George Washington, a lifelong neighbor, and he never ran for president, unlike other fellow Virginians and Founding Fathers Jefferson and James Madison.
Still, Mason’s influence was undeniable, that of a gadfly who eventually earned his bite. His heated opposition, and publication of his “Objections” at the 1787 convention (which created the Constitution we have today), essentially forced Madison to pass the first 10 Bill of Rights. It was ratified in 1791; Mason died a year later. But before his passing, he wrote that although he had a few disagreements, he could now “cheerfully put my Hand & Heart to the new Government.” And despite rarely receiving proper praise, his ideas went on to shape modern democracies across the world.