Friday, November 18, 2016

#empogmgmu Part One: George Mason and Safe Spaces

See all the #empogmgmu posts

I plan to make a series of posts on the #empogmgmu topic, but a few warnings are in order before I begin.

First, if you are a committed Clinton supporter who gets upset when people say mean things that make you cry, you may not want to read the #empogmgmu series of posts.

Second, if you are a committed Trump supporter who gets upset when people say mean things that make you cry, you may not want to read the #empogmgmu posts either.

In fact, perhaps it's best if no one reads the posts at all, and looks at puppy photos instead.


(Have they all left?)

(Probably not. Reverse psychology and all that.)

Third, this post - or series of posts - is definitely NOT succinct. In part, its longish because it covers a lot of time - over 225 years.

Although it doesn't cover a lot of geography. It begins at a plantation in Fairfax County by the Potomac River, and ends at a jail - I mean detention facility - not too many miles away from that plantation. Although perhaps by the time that I'm done with the #empogmgmu series, I will have gone beyond that detention facility.

But let's go to the beginning, to a man named George Mason. Technically he's one of the Founding Fathers, but he's not a really cool Founding Father like Washington and Franklin and Madison. Why not? Because he ended up opposing the U.S. Constitution.

Backing up a bit, when British North America was a collection of separate colonies, George Mason was a resident of the colony of Virginia. Born in 1725, Mason was a very rich man, and lived in a plantation called Gunston Hall (not too far from where another very rich man, George Washington, ended up living). Mason was active in politics in Fairfax County and in the nearby city of Alexandria, and then was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1759. He was part of the group of Burgesses who objected to the British government's actions in the colonies, and by 1776 he had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which begins as follows.

I. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

If some of those words sound a little familiar, that's because another rich Virginian plantation owner, Thomas Jefferson, referred to the Virginia Declaration of Rights while writing the Declaration of Independence later in 1776.

But that's not the only thing that was cribbed from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Here's another example:

XII. That the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

Basically, if I may use a modern term, Mason wanted Virginia to be a safe space where members of the press could function freely, without running into the issues that bedeviled John Peter Zenger.

We'll get back to the Article XII a little later.

Specifically, a little over a decade later, when Virginia and other former colonies had entered into a Confederation - a Confederation that was beset with all sorts of problems. This led a number of men, including Mason, to convene in Philadelphia in 1787 to come up with a new form of government. (Mason had been invited to the Annapolis meeting in 1786, but didn't attend.)

After a number of discussions and compromises among the delegates, the body came up with a Constitution. And Mason, who had been one of the most active participants in the Constitutional Convention, decided that he could NOT support it.

Why not? To Mason's thinking, the government that was outlined by the Constitution was no better than the government that they had overthrown. From Teaching American History:

Mason's refusal prompts some surprise, especially since his name is so closely linked with constitutionalism. He explained his reasons at length, citing the absence of a declaration of rights as his primary concern. He then discussed the provisions of the Constitution point by point, beginning with the House of Representatives. The House he criticized as not truly representative of the nation, the Senate as too powerful. He also claimed that the power of the federal judiciary would destroy the state judiciaries, render justice unattainable, and enable the rich to oppress and ruin the poor. These fears led Mason to conclude that the new government was destined to either become a monarchy or fall into the hands of a corrupt, oppressive aristocracy.

(Boy, Mason was ridiculous. Who in their right mind today things that our government has fallen into the hands of a corrupt, oppressive aristocracy? It's not like we've had two families running the government for the last 35 years or anything like that.)

It turns out that Mason's objections were shared by others. The other delegates, though, rather than rejecting the Constitution altogether, decided to immediately amend the Constitution with some protections for individuals, many of which were derived from the Virginia Declaration of Rights - including its Article XII about freedom of the press.

Mason died just a few years later, in 1792. Although he isn't necessarily remembered throughout the United States, he is remembered in the Fairfax County area of Virginia. At least two educational institutions were named in honor of Mason - Gunston Middle School (formerly Gunston Junior High School) in Arlington, Virginia, and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

I attended Gunston back when it was a junior high school, but I never attended George Mason University. However, it is to George Mason University that we shall turn.

See all the #empogmgmu posts
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