In 1755, the year when there began the French and Indian Wars, George Mason, gentleman freeholder, commenced the building of Gunston Hall. Ever since I was a boy I have come upon pictures of this lovely house, at once homely and eye-catching; I have longed to visit it; and at last here I am, aged seventy-three winters, being honored beyond my deserts on this plantation of the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Bill of Rights, and much else, a wise opponent of centralizing power.

Just half a century ago, while I was writing my first book—John Randolph of RoanokeI first became acquainted with Mason, one of the three Virginian statesmen most admired by Randolph. Under the wings of the federal butterfly, said Randolph, Mason had perceived the poison—that is, the potency for the future growth of arbitrary political power.

As everybody knows, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States owe much to Mason, who feared that the powers of the several states might be swallowed up by a central administration, and that personal liberties inherited from the English political experience might be broken in upon by an innovating regime. No sooner had the federal Constitution been drawn up than Mason published his “Objections to This Constitution of Government,” in which he declares, “When we reflect upon the insidious art of wicked and designing men, the various and plausible pretenses for continuing and increasing the inordinate lust of power in the few, we shall no longer be surprised that freeborn man hath been enslaved, and those very means which were contrived for his preservation have been perverted to his ruin.” During the past two centuries, matters have not gone all that far under the Constitution of the United States; yet one thinks of a prescient book, published by a Frenchman in the 1950’s entitled The Coming American Caesars; and of the character and administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

In hope of forestalling such usurpation of power, George Mason specified in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, in 1776, some sixteen provisions, some of which reappeared fifteen years later among the first eight amendments to the United States Constitution. (It might have been well if certain other articles of the Virginia Declaration had been included in the federal Bill of Rights, particularly the seventh article, on the suspending of laws; and the fifteenth article, on the need to adhere to virtues.) More than Jefferson, more even than Madison (who, a young man then, was Mason’s coadjutor in this matter, at Williamsburg in 1776), George Mason institutionalized America’s civil liberties.

Mason knew that individuals’ liberties can exist only within a civil social order – that is, in community. Commendation of true community runs through Mason’s writings; he champions the powers of the several states and the volition of communities within those states against a central political administration. He certainly held no anarchistic notion of liberty. With this in mind, it is interesting to note a denunciation of the idea of community, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, by Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. (Mr. Glasser replied in that newspaper, on November 1, 1991, to an earlier article in the Wall Street Journal by Professor Amitai  Etzioni, in which Etzioni had written of “A New Community of Thinkers, Both Liberal and Conservative,” who seek the restoration of true community as an alternative to state coercion and a means of regaining civic and moral order, for the sake of the common good.)

To such a proposal, the present director of the American Civil Liberties Union replied (in part) as follows:

It is ironic indeed that at a time when the early American idea of individual rights as the highest purpose of government is reasserting itself all over the world—in the Soviet Union and elsewhere—Prof. Etzioni would choose to revive in this country the profoundly dangerous and statist notion that individual rights and the common good occupy distinct and oppositional spheres.

Now the highest purpose—or rather, the fundamental purpose—of government is to keep the peace. Government defends a country against external enemies, and endeavors to repress violence and fraud at home. The rights of individuals are found and maintained within a community—not against a community. As professor Etzioni replied to Mr. Glasser, “It seems necessary to reiterate that those who care about individual rights should be sure that legitimate community needs will be attended to.” Among those needs are “at least a modicum of public safety and public health and civility.”

Our present point is that apparently the American Civil Liberties Union has quite forgotten George Mason’s emphasis upon community as the source of civil liberties.  Those “individual freedoms” arise from hundreds of years of common experience, mostly in Britain and America. When community begins to collapse altogether—as in Detroit today, say—the most fundamental civil liberties, including even the right to life, cannot be secured. If, as Professor Etzioni points out, organizations such as the Civil Liberties Union endeavor to obstruct moral education and persuasion, to protest against even the intervention of public authorities, as a last resort, against gross misconduct—why, in desperation the public may turn to force and a master. As a justice of the Supreme Court remarked once, the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact.

George Mason did not fancy that rights are an individual’s defiance of law and convention. As Robert Rutland, editor of George Mason’s papers, remarks in his short biography of that great Virginian, “He wrote as an English-American, working on behalf of rights that arose from natural law and were assumed to be the birthrights of every free American. Those rights were also anchored deep in English common law and in the history of the American colonies.

Nor did George Mason think of rights as commandments that the federal judiciary would thrust upon unwilling states and communities. (He had from the first a deep uneasiness with the federal judiciary, fearing that federal judges would overrule state judges – which, of course, has come to pass, even in an extreme degree.) He would have been astounded that the majority of the Supreme Court of the United States should conjure up a constitutional “right of privacy” not mentioned even in statute, and deduce from that conjectural right the further right of mothers to slay their progeny in the womb.

Nowadays, new alleged rights spring up mushroom-like; and entitlements, too. Zealots for “animal rights” burst into departments of zoology and public zoological gardens to rescue their oppressed brethren of the animal kingdom. Or there are discovered global rights: everybody in the world should enjoy the right to shift to the United States, should he so choose, to partake of the American cornucopia. We approach the point at which it will be emphatically declared that everybody has a right to anything he desires—at public expense. Belligerent and malignant “minorities” can claim rights not possessed by the common man: thus homosexuals claim, and in some states and municipalities obtain, the right to be employed, “regardless of sexual preferences;” and potential employers hesitate to deny such applicants, lest they fall under penalty of law. But employers labor under no compulsion to engage the services of mere run-of-the-mill adulterers, or polygamists.

Such fantastic enlargements, misinterpretations, and perversions of constitutionally sanctioned rights grow apace. A few months past, a New York publishing firm declined to bring out a vile novel in which occur detailed descriptions of the flaying alive of women. Promptly the civil libertines burst into fury at this “violation of freedom of the press,” even though a less scrupulous publisher speedily accepted the book. Does an alleged right to publish the obscene impose upon the book trade an obligation, moral or legal, to print and distribute anybody’s pornography, willy-nilly?

Or there is the curious Constitutional right, enlarged by federal courts over the past three decades, to prevent other people from praying in public-school buildings, even if not in regular class sessions, or even silently, or even through tolerating a moment of silence in which obdurate little wretches might be praying. I have been present in federal courtrooms in New Jersey and Alabama when such decisions were handed down. Such repression of religion is not precisely what George Mason and James Madison intended by the provision, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (Article 16), which runs thus:

That religion, or 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.

This article, meant to restrain the Anglican Church, by law then established in Virginia, from jailing Baptist preachers, now has evolved into an authorization for federal marshals, upon the direction of a federal circuit court, to jail such school-board members, administrators, or teachers as might imprudently allow a moment of silence before the beginning of class sessions. A mad world, my masters! How glorious, this enforced freedom from religion!

One reason why extravagant claims of civil rights are made, and even sustained by courts of law, is that few people today enunciate the ancient doctrine that every right is wedded to some duty. If one claims a right to a vacation with pay, then some employer or public agency has the duty of sustaining the cost of that vacation; and the claimant has the duty of performing the work for which the vacation is a reward; and, ordinarily, the right and the obligation have been previously expressed in a contract. If one claims the right to address a public meeting, one has the duty of refraining from inciting to riot; and the organizers of the public meeting have the duty of endeavoring to avert the stoning of the speaker if he grows boring. If one claims the right to bear arms, expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and in amendment II of the federal Constitution, he must be prepared to serve in the well-regulated militia, as both Declaration and Constitution specify. In short, the exercise of rights is justified only if the claimant of rights stands ready to fulfill the corresponding duties.

Once upon a time I published in the weekly magazine Commonweal an essay on this theme of marriage of rights and duties, in morals and in civic concerns. The editors of Commonweal printed my article, but in the same number published an editorial declaring that although I was right in theory, my doctrine ought to be ignored in practice. Such a course, indeed, is precisely what too many folk follow with respect to their professed religion, but it cannot be sustained in logic. In the long run, the gods of the copybook headings punish any people severely who assert a right to everything and refuse to fulfill any duty.

The rising generation in these United States have heard a great deal about rights; not much about duties. In many schools, classes are offered in “Your Rights” and how to obtain them to the full—rights to payments from public funds, often. On television, public-service announcements forcefully remind viewers that very possibly they have claims upon the public purse. Employers are required to post notices in conspicuous places, instructing their staffs about every right and prerogative, and the means of complaint should they feel deprived. But why prolong this litany? As for duties—why, who would be so impolite as to mention oppression of that sort?

Now George Mason, who asserted the rights of Americans against the ministry at Westminster, was a man of many duties. He did not desire to become a public man; he would have preferred to reside always at Gunston Hall, managing his own plantation, a very substantial paterfamilias with a wife, nine children, many grandchildren, and three hundred slaves. One can well understand his desire to dwell always at lovely Gunston Hall: his creation, with his fine gardens and prospects. How Epicurean an existence! Besides, he suffered badly from the gout, “the affliction of genius,” which made travel difficult; until he went to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, he never had left his native Chesapeake region.

And yet, against his inclination, reluctantly he took upon himself large duties. For many years he was a gentleman justice of the Fairfax county Court—then a post of much influence; also a vestryman of Truro Parish, an office with large responsibilities; an overseer of the poor, too. He became Treasurer of the Ohio Company, which had vast interests in what was to become the Northwest Territory. Briefly, and only at George Washington’s request, he served in the House of Burgesses; but, disgusted with the “babblers” on the committees, he resigned. In 1773, he wrote the first of his important state papers. In 1775, he wrote the Fairfax Resolves, a constitutional protest against British policy in North America, which was adopted by the Virginia Convention and by the Continental Congress. When Washington was appointed commander in chief, Mason took his place in the Virginia Convention that had become the provisional government of the province. He became a member of the Virginia Committee of Safety, planned the organization of troops, and formed a company of Fairfax volunteers. In 1776, he drew up the famous Virginia Declaration of Rights, and wrote most of the new constitution of Virginia.

During the Revolution, Mason was busy with revisions of the laws and implementing the Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. He collaborated with George Rogers Clark in gaining possession of the Northwest Territory, and had much to do with carrying the boundary to the Great Lakes. Disgusted with the management of public affairs, during the early 1780s he retired to Gunston Hall. But he returned to the Virginia Assembly in 1786, intending to check inflation of the state’s currency and to help develop a form of union better than the Articles of Confederation.

In 1787, he became a Virginian delegate to the Convention at Philadelphia, where he spoke frequently and always to the point; he did much to improve the document being drawn up there. Yet displeased with the degree of centralization settled upon near the Convention’s end, he refused to sign the new constitution, and opposed ratification by Virginia. Also he objected to the compromise in the Constitution regarding slavery. He had sought prompt abolition of the importing of slaves. “Every master of slaves is a petty tyrant,” he had said. Until a Bill of Rights should be included, he continued to insist, the Constitution would be unsatisfactory. The first ten amendments, ratified two hundred years ago, resulted from Mason’s arguments and influence. Mason, not Madison, brought about our Bill of Rights.

Such were the many works of a gentleman unambitious and desirous of rustic life, performed painfully out of a strong and nagging sense of duty. Mason is our ghostly host this happy night. Would that we might see him, gouty foot and all, descending that handsome staircase built by young William Buckland!

The gentleman who wrote most convincingly about Americans’ rights was among the most zealous Americans in the performance of high duties. Let us endeavor to emulate him, as best you and I may. There lies before us all a vast endeavor to set this country aright, in morals, in politics, in economic policy, in foreign policy, in education at every level. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has led the way in renewal of mind and conscience among the rising generation. Mr. Henry Salvatori, one of those unusual men of large means who have taken a very serious interest in those works of the intellect that are meant to redeem the time, as well as a courageous part in the practical politics of the nation and of California, has done a good work—indeed, a pious work, in the old Roman sense of that abused word—in establishing and endowing the Salvatori Prize for writings on the founding of this Republic. I do warmly thank him, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the scholarly committee of selection, for their kindness in conferring upon me this honor.

To those promising members of the rising generation of Americans among us this evening, and in a sense to all my kindly friends present, I repeat the exhortation that Orestes Brownson, that very American writer of genius, delivered at Dartmouth College in 1843:

Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what without which, it cannot be saved; and that go and do; and find your reward in the consciousness of having done your duty, and above all in the reflection, that you have been accounted to suffer somewhat for mankind.

Over the entrance to my Italianate house in Michigan is a heavy block of red sandstone, carved long ago. I set it there after discovering it in a junkyard. Upon the stone are deeply incised the words ADJUVANTE DEO—the beginning of Vergil’s line adjuvante Deo labor proficit, which may be rendered, “God helping, work prospers.” George Mason knew that, and so did nearly all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Adjuvante Deo, friends, let us do our duty toward this nation.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of The Intercollegiate Review and appears here by permission.

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