George Mason and the Fairfax Resolves
On a steep bluff below the fall line of the Potomac River, the town of Alexandria, Virginia was founded on July 13, 1749. The founding trustees included the men who bought lots at the auction held in 1749. Among them were John Carlyle, William Ramsay, Lawrence Washington (George Washington's half brother), and Colonel William Fairfax. Another one of Alexandria's founding trustees was George Mason.
Most people have heard of George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax County, Virginia. Perhaps they remember GMU's basketball team making an epic Final Four run in 2006. That improbable tournament performance thrust George Mason into the national spotlight. For a period of time, the name George Mason was on the tip of everyone's tongue (at least in the college basketball world). However, it is doubtful that March Madness fans knew anything about Mason as a founding father. He is often considered a "forgotten founder."
So what about the universities' namesake? Who was George Mason and why is he considered a "forgotten founder"?
Mason did not serve as an officer or soldier during the American Revolution. He didn't travel far from his home at Gunston Hall. As a result, he never served as a representative to the Continental Congress. He did serve as a representative to the Constitutional Convention (1787), and famously voted against the US Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Although Mason was a friend of George Washington in their early years, they had a falling out later in their lives. Washington supported the Constitution and its ratification. On the other hand, Mason had strong objections. However, Mason was vindicated when the Bill of Rights was later adopted in 1791.
So why should we consider Mason a founding father?
George Mason was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Virginia Bill of Rights, and Virginia Constitution. The language in the preamble of the US Bill of Rights was derived nearly verbatim from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights served as the framework upon which the Bill of Rights was written. Thus, Mason's influence on America's constitutional form of government is substantial and endures to this day. Americans are lucky that the Bill of Rights was added to enshrine into law essential protections such as free speech, free assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
Many founders like James Madison assumed that these freedoms were implicit in the Constitution as it was. But, Mason had the foresight to understand that although these are natural rights that should be retained amongst self-governing people, the protection of them needed to be codified. Thankfully, they were.
Several years before Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights and many years before the US Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, an important document was adopted at the original Fairfax County courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia on July 18, 1774. George Washington chaired a committee of citizens that listened to 24 proposed resolves. The motion to formally pass the resolves was approved that same day. Thus, the Fairfax Resolves became one of the most significant political documents to precede the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and the Declaration of Independence (1776).
The events that led to the committee on July 18, 1774 stretch far back in Alexandria history. One can trace them to the Braddock Campaign in 1755. Braddock's headquarters in Alexandria was one of the first instances in which British soldiers were quartered in America. During this time, colonial Americans discovered that their fellow Englishmen no longer saw them as equals. As John Carlyle wrote to his brother in England, "They considered us the scourge of convicts." Thus, the seeds of tension began in 1755. Furthermore, the high cost from both the Braddock Campaign and the overall French and Indian War led to a system of taxation that became the primary political catalyst toward America's revolution.
On December 16, 1773, the famous Boston Tea Party occurred in Boston Harbor. In response, the British passed a series of Coercive Acts or Intolerable Acts as they were known to the colonists. While the acts were aimed at Massachusetts, the political effect rippled throughout the colonies. Virginia colonial leaders felt strongly that these harsh measures could just as easily be used against them.
In May 1774 , the Virginia House of Burgesses met and discussed the implications of Britain's policies towards Massachusetts. The House adjourned on May 31, and decided to reconvene on August 1, 1774. In the interim, each member of the House of Burgesses agreed to meet with their respective constituents to get a pulse on the mood of the Virginia colonists. Furthermore, the Virginia House of Burgesses wanted to formulate a response to British actions.
The Fairfax Resolves was the formal response from the free citizens of Fairfax County. It contained many of the same themes from the Virginia Resolves (1765) that passed in the wake of the Stamp Act. However, the Fairfax Resolves expanded on the Virginia Resolves with more radical accusations against the British Crown along with an important political philosophy, which established the groundwork for Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights followed by Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. It is worth noting that unlike Washington, Thomas Jefferson remained friendly with Mason until the end of his life. In fact, Jefferson visited Mason at Gunston Hall several days before he passed away on October 7, 1792.
On July 5, 1774, George Washington traveled to Alexandria for a meeting with prominent Fairfax County citizens. He dined at Arell's Tavern, which was located next to the courthouse in Market Square. Due to poor weather, the committee meeting was rescheduled for July 18, 1774. However, in the interim period, Washington and Mason spoke with many Fairfax citizens and began drafting the 24 resolves.
George Mason stayed with Washington at Mount Vernon on July 17, 1774. During this evening, Mason wrote the Fairfax Resolves. The following day, July 18, Washington and Mason rode to Alexandria where the 24 resolves were read and formally passed.
The Fairfax Resolves addressed both the treatment of colonists as second class citizens and taxation without representation. Prominent signatories of the Fairfax Resolves included William Brown, John Carlyle, William Ramsay, George Gilpin, and Robert Hanson Harrison. Many of these Alexandria residents played major roles on the patriot side of the American Revolution. Robert Hanson Harrison, who practiced law in Alexandria, was a secretary during this committee meeting on July 18. He later served as Washington's aide-de-camp and secretary for six years (1775- 1781) during the Revolutionary War.
The Fairfax Resolves articulates the principle that individuals possess natural rights. The first resolve states that the American colonists retained all of the same rights as Englishman. They did not forfeit their rights when they settled in North America. Here is the crucial passage:
That our Ancestors, when they left their native Land, and settled in America, brought with them (even if the same had not been confirmed by Charters) the Civil-Constitution and Form of Government of the Country they came from; and were by the Laws of Nature and Nations, entitled to all it’s Privileges, Immunities and Advantages; which have descended to Us their Posterity, and ought of Right to be as fully enjoyed, as if We had still continued within the Realm of England.
George Mason established that rights hold true across all places and all times. The colonists did not lose their rights when they crossed the Atlantic. Prior to the American Revolution, a Virginian was as much an Englishman in Williamsburg as in London. Or, at least, that is how he should have been treated by law. The colonists' natural rights could not be arbitrarily taken away because they lived in North America.
The second resolve is equally powerful and states:
Resolved that the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which it’s very Existence depends, is the fundamental Principle of the People’s being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves;
In the second resolve, we see that George Mason built on the foundation of natural rights and concluded that the only legitimate governments are those which derive their powers from the consent of the governed. This was an expansion of the Virginia Resolves. It took natural rights to its logical conclusion. The only valid form of government is one in which individuals, possessing unalienable rights, consent to establish.
The third resolve then criticized the notion of "virtual representation." The colonial assemblies did not offer any direct representation in British parliament. As a result, they did not give the colonists the ability to vote yes or no on taxation. It was not until the sixth resolve that Mason addressed "taxation without representation." This was because the issue of taxation without representation was a mere symptom of the larger issue. The macro issue was that the colonists were being denied their rights as citizens and the system of self-representation that necessarily follows.
American civics classes focus mostly on taxation without representation as the primary cause of the Revolution. However, taxation without representation by itself misses the underlying issue. The Fairfax Resolves is an important document because it demonstrates how the founders understood the fundamental injustice of taxation without representation. On taxation without representation, George Mason wrote the following:
To extort from Us our Money without our Consent, is not only diametrically contrary to the first Principles of the Constitution, and the original Compacts by which We are dependent upon the British Crown and Government; but is totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind.
The essential problem was that the colonists had been denied their natural rights. It was this denial of their rights which led to their grievances against the monarchy. British tax policy merely confirmed the colonists' suspicions that their rights had been and were going to continue to be denied.
The Fairfax Resolves and the Declaration of Independence
The Fairfax Resolves were written two years before the Declaration of Independence. But, it established the framework upon which the Declaration was based. Much like the Fairfax Resolves, the Declaration of Independence begins with an exposition about what constitutes a legitimate form of government. In establishing that government's are "instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," the Declaration of Independence goes on to explain how the "present King of Great Britain" had undermined that principle.
The Fairfax Resolves were no less harsh in alleging injustices brought on by the British government. Resolve nine accused the British ministry of seeking to "introduce an arbitrary Government into his Majesty's American Dominions." In several other resolves, Mason wrote that British actions were leading to "tyranny", "oppression", "misery", and "slavery." These were impassioned statements. They demonstrated how strongly Virginians felt British actions against Massachusetts had violated a fundamental right of all the colonists.
Furthermore, the Fairfax Resolves were written before the First Continental Congress convened. Indeed, in resolve twelve, Mason called for a Congress "to consist of Deputies from all the Colonies, to concert a general and uniform Plan for the Defense and Preservation of our common Rights." The First Continental Congress met a month and a half later in September 1774.
During the First Continental Congress, the Congress drafted a non-importation policy against British goods. As early as 1769, George Mason and George Washington had been supporters of non-importation. The Fairfax Resolves clearly expressed this policy in Resolve 15. Mason and Washington wanted to use economic leverage as a political tool to address their grievances. These economic sanctions became a prelude to war.
Finally, the seventeenth resolve called for a prohibition against the slave trade. Resolve 17 reads as follows:
Resolved that it is the Opinion of this Meeting, that during our present Difficulties and Distress, no Slaves ought to be imported into any of the British Colonies on this Continent, and We take this Opportunity of declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.
The language is striking in the second half of this resolve. It was not written as a matter of practicality or material self-interest. The moral language suggested that Mason and his fellow Fairfax citizens understood that there was something "unnatural" about the system of slavery. The system itself is totally incompatible with the principle of natural rights.
Slavery was not a system unique to colonial America. Slavery was a commonly accepted worldwide practice stretching back thousands of years. However, in a Fairfax County courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, men were beginning to understand the broader implications of their own political grievances. As they saw an arbitrary power denying them their rights based on geography, there was clearly the seed of asking why an arbitrary power should deny any person their rights based on race.
Thus, the Fairfax Resolves stands out as one of the most consequential documents in American history. At Alexandria History Tours, we are committed to promoting this important piece of American history. In fact, we want to revive the memory of what happened in Alexandria, Virginia on July 18, 1774. The Fairfax Resolves contributed strongly to the foundation of the American republic. Furthermore, we believe that George Mason, who was a trustee of Alexandria, deserves a more recognizable place in our American historical canon. We don't want to think of Mason as a "forgotten founder." Instead, we wish to celebrate him for what he is: A founding father of our nation.
"Fairfax County Resolves, 18 July 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-10-02-0080
George Mason Wikipedia page
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