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My New Book!

Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29, 2011: Paying His Bill Forward

If you were an American Founder who wanted to be remembered by the succeeding few centuries' worth of Americans--and like most humans, the Founders did desire such remembrance, both for understandable psychological reasons and because it would indicate that they had done things for their fledgling nation worth remembering--your best bet was to get elected President. Perhaps Washington would have been well-remembered anyway (although he was a much less successful general than the stories typically indicate), probably Jefferson would have been, and Franklin was unique and impressive enough even without the presidency. But to cite the most clear evidence for my case, John Adams? Really?

Or, to put it another way, why do we remember John Adams so much more vividly than we do George Mason, principal author of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution? Why, for that matter, do we remember James Madison, who worked on the Bill with Mason, so much more fully? (If indeed we do, but I believe that to be the case.) I don't want to overstate the Presidency case, since both Adams and Madison were also (among other noteworthy attributes) married to profoundly impressive and inspirational American women, Abigail and Dolly, with whom they had long and storied relationships; without such a juicy part for Laura Linney as Abigail, the HBO miniseries on John Adams might have been a harder sell. But still, George was himself a very inspirational American--after losing his father at the age of 10, George went to live with his uncle, from whose library he virtually educated himself in the absence of much formal education--and there's similarly no reason to doubt that his own long marriage to Ann (which began when she was 16 and produced twelve children) couldn't yield an interesting colonial romance.

Even if George were entirely devoid of personal interest, however, his contribution to the founding era and our national identity would demand that we remember him more fully and centrally than we currently do. Historians differ on Mason's motivations for insisting on the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as it went to the states for ratification--some have argued that it was due primarily to his passionate interest in keeping religion separate from our government, while others have made the case that he shared with his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry an abiding distrust of federal government and a concurrent desire to emphasize states' rights--, just as Mason's attitudes toward slavery (both in general and as the Constitution represented the issue) have been similarly debated. But whatever his reasons, it's entirely fair to say that the Bill of Rights represents the most important part of our founding documents, because of all of the innovative and crucial individual rights it guarantees, because of its full presence as a portion devoted entirely to American citizens themselves (rather than their government), and because of how much it exemplifies the principle of amendment on which the whole Constitution was thoroughly based.

Yeah, he never ran for President; in many ways Mason's contributions to America ended with the Bill of Rights, in fact. But on virtually every other level, George Mason was as important as any of the Founders, and his influence has lasted well beyond almost all of them (including, indeed, John Adams). More tomorrow, on two very illustrative recent senatorial campaigns,


PS. Three links to start with:

1) Mason's draft of the Bill of Rights:

2) A site with a lot of important contexts and details for the Bill:

3) OPEN: Any other Founders or influential Americans we should better remember?

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