Monday, March 27, 2006

George Who?

By Mitchell

By now even the most casual college basketball fan, his bracket in a shambles, must be asking the question, "Just who the *$@#&% is George Mason, anyway?" Even in the world of obscure small-college teams, George Mason is an obscure college, with an equally obscure namesake. (George Washington University may struggle for respect in college athletics, but at least they've got a big-time namesake - the biggest, in fact.)

I figured that George Mason must have been a signer of either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. As it turns out, he was neither. He was a big player in Virginia politics at the time; friend of both Jefferson and Washington, and a delegate to the Virginia Convention in 1776. His primary, and greatest, claim to fame is his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which turned out to be the model for the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but he refused to sign the Constitution. He had many reasons, chief among them the original Constitution's lack of a declaration of rights similar to that of Virginia's, and his fear of a strong central federal government. It was this opposition to the Constitution that probably ended his long friendship with Washington. Just because he refused to sign the Constitution, however, one should not consign him to the historical dustbin; it was his relentless campaigning which helped lead to the introduction of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. To the extent that Mason is known today, it is as the "Father of the Bill of Rights."

I think one of the most telling things about Mason is this section from Catherine Drinker Bowen's marvelous book on the writing of the Constitution, Miracle in Philadelphia:

Nobody in Virginia or out of it questioned George Mason's devotion to his ideals. Washington's senior by seven years, Mason had long cherished a romantic view of liberty and republicanism. Back in '78 when Mason's own creation, the Virginia constitution, had been adopted, he wrote a friend that "we seem to have been treading upon enchanted ground." But in September of 1787, George Mason no longer walked as if enchanted. He had always distrusted a strong central government; now he saw one in the making. [...] Mason foresaw the new government eventually "vibrating," he wrote, "between a monarchy and a corrupt oppressive aristocracy." [Emphasis added]

Hey, this sounds like a team conservatives can root for!

Seriously, this gives us something to ponder indeed. We may have forgotten about George Mason, but his words validate the nickname of the college's athletic teams - the Patriots. Mason may have been right or wrong in opposing the Constitution, but I have to ask myself what he would think of our country and our government today. Have his worst fears come true? Would all the Founders, for that matter, despair at what their creation has become? Do we have any respect for the work these brave men risked their lives for?

All questions for another time, I suppose. For now let's wish George Mason's basketball team well in the Final Four, and thank them for bringing their namesake to light, even if for only a brief time. For this Cinderella team, the clock has yet to strike midnight. For our nation - well, that may be another matter.

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