George Mason, a man ‘full of contradictions’

From its early days, the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter has had a close association with George Mason, who championed the First Amendment and other rights in the founding documents of Virginia and the United States. The chapter annually gives its George Mason Award to “a journalist or friend of journalism of exceptional character and dedication to the craft.” And this year, we revived a tradition of marking Mason’s birthday by placing a wreath on his grave at his ancestral home, Gunston Hall.

But like many other “Founding Fathers” during the 18th Century, Mason was a racist and a hypocrite: At Gunston Hall, he enslaved hundreds of people of African descent. On the one hand, Mason wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights “That all men are by nature equally free and independent”; however, he denied that freedom to the men, women and children he held in bondage.

In recent years, more Americans have acknowledged the systemic racism that people of color continue to face in U.S. Against that backdrop, it’s overdue for SPJVA to clarify its relationship to George Mason. We must make it clear that we abhor Mason’s role as an enslaver and his failure to live up to the ideals that he espoused.

SPJVA appreciates and celebrates Mason’s words. The George Mason Award plaque carries one of his passages from the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotick [sic] governments.” 

The freedoms Mason articulated became the basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights. Those amendments to the U.S. Constitution — protecting the freedoms of the press, speech and assembly, for example — empowered the civil rights movement that has fought for the racial equality Mason and other Founding Fathers opposed.

Mason was “full of contradictions,” as The Washington Post has written. He said he detested the trans-Atlantic slave trade, calling it “disgraceful to mankind.” Mason stated that he opposed slavery itself, writing, “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” But his opposition was based largely on how he felt slavery affected Caucasians, “contaminating the Minds & Morals” of White people — not on the pain and cruelty inflicted on Black people.

Despite his proclaimed condemnation of slavery, Mason benefited from the human bondage that he imposed, living a life of privilege while the people he enslaved toiled. Unlike George Washington, Mason did not free those individuals even upon his death.

This is not to say that Mason lacked courage. The Virginia Declaration of Rights — which was echoed in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of Virginia and other states — contained radical ideas that directly challenged the British Crown and set a standard for liberty. It stated:

  • “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.”
  • “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”
  • “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Had the British Army prevailed during the American Revolution, Mason likely would have lost not only his wealth but also his life. Mason might well have suffered the fate that historian Stephen Ambrose said awaited Washington if the Continental Army lost: “He would have been brought to London, tried, found guilty of treason, ordered executed, and then drawn and quartered.”

While Mason took a big risk in advocating for human rights, he refused to extend those freedoms to the individuals he kept as slaves. As an exhibit at Gunston Hall explained:

George Mason’s choices regarding slavery seem to represent a conflict of his values. He wrote often about the equality of people, and he spoke about his disgust of slavery.

What else do we know about George? He was a shrewd businessman. His letters suggest that he cared deeply about the welfare of his children and grandchildren. We see from George’s will that much of his wealth came from the value of the people he owned, as well as the land he possessed.

George’s beliefs about the universality of human rights, as well as his distaste for slavery, could not perfectly co-exist with his interest in ensuring his children and grandchildren’s financial welfare. When we look back, George seemed unwilling to sacrifice some of his children’s wealth for the freedom of the African Americans he kept enslaved.

Just as Gunston Hall has included in its tours and website an examination of Mason’s history regarding slavery, the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter seeks to present a more balanced view of Mason as well. We still laud his defense of a free press, but we acknowledge his flaws as a historical figure.

Published by SPJ Virginia Pro

SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry through the daily work of its nearly 10,000 members; works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.

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