"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty…and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
These words are from the first article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the preamble to the Virginia Constitution, penned by George Mason (1725-1792) in May of 1776. This quote may sound familiar to you because it is very similar to the preamble to the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson in June of 1776. Both of these men were strongly influenced by the writings of the British natural law philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who wrote, "… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."
Jefferson's preamble is considered to be one of the most well-known sentences in the English language, while the name George Mason is relatively obscure. Jefferson referred to Mason as "the wisest man of his generation." Mason, the reluctant statesman, preferred staying with his family at his Virginia plantation home, Gunston Hall, to the world of early American politics. He attended the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 but refused to sign the federal Constitution, partly because it did not contain a Bill of Rights to protect individual freedom. His reluctance is credited with leading to the first ten amendments which are strongly based on his original declaration of rights. For this reason Mason is often referred to as the "Father of the Bill of Rights."
You can honor this forgotten founder by visiting his memorial which is set in a garden area with beautiful flowers and a circular pool. It is located just south-west of the Jefferson Memorial. His statue sits poised with his cane, his books, and a look of enlightenment upon his face.
George Mason Memorial. Photo by Nathan King.