Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Review: "George Mason, Forgotten Founder"

Biographies of the American founders may be a dime a dozen these days, but Jeff Broadwater's George Mason, Forgotten Founder fills one of the few gaps, providing a comprehensive and readable treatment of one of Virginia's most important Revolutionary and Anti-Federalist leaders. George Mason's "relative obscurity is explained," Broadwater argues in the preface, "by his own reluctance to seek the historical spotlight. Mason never sought national office. He never wrote his memoirs. He made no concerted effort, as best as we can tell, to preserve his papers. Even more important is the elusive nature of Mason's accomplishments ... Mason remained one step away from the dramatic event or the single line ... that could ensure certain immortality."

A financially comfortable (and unindebted) planter in the years leading up to the Revolution, Mason came fairly slowly to the "patriot cause," but after 1769 proved himself a key - if somewhat unwilling - leader in Virginia's debates during the immediate leadup to the war. He was instrumental in the design and structure of Virginia's post-independence constitution and Declaration of Rights, and later played a major role in the Constitutional Convention (only Madison, G. Morris, Wilson and Sherman spoke more frequently in debate). Faced with several losses on points of great importance to him, however, Mason concluded that he could not support the Convention's finished product and did not sign the Constitution. He spoke against its passage in the Virginia ratifying convention, but was unable to muster enough support to block ratification or force concessions.

Broadwater's analysis of Mason's motives, actions and philosophy is cautious and well-sourced; he suggests that Mason's strong commitment to English opposition philosophy, while making him inclined toward a strong central government, made him mistrust any government "more than did Madison or Washington, and he lacked Jefferson's optimistic [to put it mildly] faith in the wisdom of the people." I really wish that Broadwater had followed up more on a point he started to make in the preface - however much they may have disagreed on specific policies (and they did), Mason can be aptly compared to John Adams in an important respect: the two shared a "jaundiced view of unchecked individualism, transient popular majorities, and the inherent virtue of the marketplace." Not exactly concerns that we associate with some of their better known comrades-in-arms (Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin spring to mind).

Mason can be distinguished from his colleagues in another very important way: here was a man who really did not seem to want to be in charge. He certainly wanted to be involved, in his own way, but Broadwater, by outlining Mason's extremely spotty attendance record at legislative sessions and other public duties (with the glaring exception of the Philadelphia Convention) shows that Mason's major concerns did not center around governing (he seemed to find it an awful chore most of the time, sort of like mucking stalls). He refused a seat in the post-ratification Senate, preferring to stay home with his family.

Something else which complicates our portrait of Mason and makes him difficult to pin down on the ideological spectrum of today (I suspect that, like Adams, he wouldn't fit on our present continuum at all) were a few of his important positions. He opposed slavery and the slave trade (and made perhaps the most strident speech in opposition to its continuation at the Convention), but did not free his slaves. He was very much concerned with local issues and spent much of his time and energy focused on those matters instead of writing grand philosophical tracts. He understood perhaps better than anyone the conflict that was sure to come between north and south in the future, and he worried that any republic as big as the one he'd helped to create could survive in the long term. It has, I'd say, largely because in each generation there are people like Mason who ask the tough questions.

Broadwater's book is, for the most part, excellent. There are the usual minor typographical errors (conservation for conservatism, tenants for tenets, Fort Stanwick for Fort Stanwix) and the index could be much more extensive (several people mentioned in the text get no mention in the index at all), but on the whole I had no major complaints. Broadwater's captured the essence of Mason's character well, and does a good job at dispelling the myths that have grown up around him while restoring him to his rightful place near the top of the heap. Recommended.

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