As the debate over ratification of the Constitution raged in the New Theatre on Shockoe Hill in Richmond, Virginia, partisans on both sides were devising strategies in other venues and at times when the convention adjourned for the evening or its Sunday recesses.
On June 7, Eleazar Oswald, publisher of Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer, arrived in Richmond carrying letters to Patrick Henry, William Grayson, and other opponents of the Constitution, purposefully avoiding the public postal service to assure confidentiality. Oswald also bright with him pamphlets of opposition, including “a series of letters from the Federal Farmer” published in New York, articulating criticism of the Constitution.
The letters were from John Lamb, chairman of the Republican Committee of New York, following up on an earlier letter he had sent to Richard Henry Lee on May 18 asserting “it is of importance that those States who have not yet acceded to the Plan [Constitution] should open a correspondence, and maintain a communication – That they should understand one another on the subject and unite in the amendments they propose.”
Professing to “renounce all ideas of local objections and confine ourselves to such only as affect the cause of general liberty,” Lamb proposed to the Virginians that “correspondence be brought about between the Conventions of your State, New Hampshire and New York, who we presume will be in session at the same time.” Lamb noted his committee would also write to delegates in New Hampshire.
On June 9, Henry responded to Lamb’s most recent letter delivered by Oswald. George Mason, he wrote, “has agreed to act as Chairman of our republican society” and Oswald will be returning to New York, carrying “a copy of the Bill of Rights and of the particular amendments we intend to propose in our Convention.” The same day, William Grayson also responded to Lamb, noting that “our affairs in the Convention are suspended by a hair; I really cannot tell you on which side the scale will turn.” The margin of victory on either side of Virginia’s ultimate vote on ratification would be, he predicted, “exceedingly small indeed.”
As promised by Henry, on June 9 George Mason forwarded to Lamb the preliminary draft of amendments approved by his convention’s committee. Mason’s absence from the convention for several days in early June appears to be explained by his attention to drafting the proposed amendments.
That George Mason would be selected to draft amendments to the Constitution on behalf of Virginia’s anti-Constitutionalists was as self-evident as the truths propounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Mason’s impact on Jefferson and the Declaration itself was profound.
Born into a wealthy planter family in the Northern Neck region of Virginia, Mason was a successful lawyer, businessman and public servant, serving in the House of Burgesses while admitting his preference for investing his time in his plantation and family. In the spring of 1776, pursuant to a recommendation by the Continental Congress that each colony create a new government “under the authority of the people…for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties,” the Fifth Virginia Convention passed two resolutions. The first instructed its delegates to the Congress to “propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States.” The second resolution created a committee to “prepare a Declaration of Rights and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this Colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.”
As a member of the Fifth Virginia Convention, Mason was assigned to a committee to draft the new constitution and declaration of rights for Virginia. Because of his understanding of government, law, and the history of England, Mason was selected by the committee of more than thirty members to write the first draft. With minimal revisions, Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted on June 12, 1776, becoming the model for similar declarations in other American colonies. French philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet appropriately called it “the first Bill of Rights to merit the name.”
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the previous September, Mason was one of three delegates refusing to sign the Constitution, citing as his major criticism the absence of a bill of rights. Now he was poised to collaborate with members of his own State ratifying convention as well as anti-Constitutionalists in New York to propose amendments to the Constitution which he would preface with “a Declaration or Bill of Rights, asserting and securing freedom from encroachment the essential and unalienable rights of the people.”
Mason’s proposed amendments included not only “inherent rights” such as the rights to peaceably assemble, exercise free speech and religion, bear arms, be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, etc., but also alterations in the structure and processes of government provided for in the Constitution. Recommending that amendments proposed by the Massachusetts convention be “the basis” of their collaboration, Mason commented on the need for an Executive Council “as essential to a good Executive;” concern over “the ten miles square” for the federal seat of government; authority over the militia; assuring that the “legislative, executive and judicial powers be separate and distinct;” and other needed revisions.
For his part, John Lamb continued to be the center of correspondence and communication, including strategizing with new York’s Governor, George Clinton, an avowed opponent of ratification, to fuel the engine of amendments designed to derail ratification of the Constitution. To that end their efforts will fail, but in the long run the rights Mason and others held so dear will be added to the Constitution and known as the Bill of Rights.