Wednesday, April 29, 2009

George Mason: The Bill of Rights (film available from Gunston Hall)

Gunston Hall offers a short film DVD “George Mason: The Bill of Rights” produced and directed by Robert Cole, and narrated by Roger Mudd. The original film was shot in 1991, and the Regents of Gunston Hall, the former home and plantation of Mr. Mason at Mason Neck, Virginia (south of Fort Belvoir, in southern Fairfax County, on the Potomac). George Mason University, in Fairfax City, Virginia (its campus adjacent to Robinson Secondary School, forming quite a property for learning) is named after him, and has a reputation for having libertarian-oriented humanities and political science professors, including seminars in the summer which friends of mine have attended.

George Mason is a bit unusual in that he was both a family man and a principled intellectual, not interesting in manipulating others just for the sake of personal political advantage. I can guess where that places him in the spectrum of the “polarities” but he did have nine children by his first wife, who died at age 39. He married again, and raised children not only as a single dad, but also raised children of the second wife and other relatives. His life illustrates the less-stated fact that in pre-industrial times family life was often more dangerous to women than men, and women who had many children (seen as a duty) often had shorter life spans; today’s demographics have turned all this around, with women living longer. The film says that Mason was quintessentially “American” in that he sought the freedom of private choice – to enjoy his family in his case, even if not necessarily the same for others – and entered public life to make life better for his family and progeny. (Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne used to say that in the 1990s.) Yet the typical pattern of most “family men” in competitive society is to seek power and money for their own sakes, to make their families stronger than those of other – and that usually means schmoozing, dealing and manipulating (and selling). Mason preferred to read and write. Were he alive today he would certainly blog.

There is a tendency for some “intellectuals” to be distanced from practical or family responsibility, and to stand at society from a distance and scope it. Not so with Mason: we was most of all a businessman and property owner first, successful in making money (rather like Trump). As with Jefferson, the issue of slavery presented a moral conundrum and made him seem like a hypocrite to some people. He owned many slaves, and his plantation had many slave quarters (and many other things, as did Mount Vernon). He thought that slavery not only denied humanity of the slaves themselves, it damaged the children of slaveowners, who would grow up believing that some people (the white upper class) were inherently “better” than other people. But he had inherited the slaves as property, and felt he had no practical alternative to keeping them.

Mason’s political career, even earlier in Williamsburg, had come out of necessity. He had authored a liberty document called the “Fairfax Resolve” (which had aimed to end the trafficking on slaves; see Yenoba here) and then wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights (draft. Although anti-federalist himself, Mason eventually helped convince the federalists (and especially James Madison) to adopt the similar United States Bill of Rights in 1791.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights mentions freedom of the press, but not the broader freedom of speech as today. The right to bear arms is similar, and the freedom of religion passage (at the end) mentions the “Creator” and “Christian forbearance.”

Mason is said to have been a bit of a curmudgeon. When told he didn’t look as well as usual, he fired back that the speaker wasn’t worthy of even being noticed. But Mason did not seek fame or notoriety or publicity for their own sakes as so many people do today (even though I say he would have blogged); his first love was his own family.

One of Mason’s descendents is Paris Hilton. I don’t think she shares the same values.

The full-length film runs 28 minutes; the museum normally shows an 11 minute shortened version; the DVD offers both options.

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