Ken Plum: Remembering our rights

ken plumDuring the week following the national presidential election I attended two lectures on George Mason the man. There was no connection between the election and the lecture dates other than coincidence, but for me hearing again the work of George Mason in the formation of our nation was reassuring. The first lecture featured Professor Jeff Broadwater who discussed his book, George Mason: Forgotten Founder, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and the George Mason University Department of History. Broadwater asserts that although Mason is often omitted today from the small circle of historical figures referred to as the Founding Fathers, his contributions to the basic framework of our government were legion. He wrote the first constitution for Virginia and was an active participant in writing a constitution for the new nation. He included a Declaration of Rights in the Virginia Constitution but went home from Philadelphia without signing the U.S. Constitution because it did not include a statement of the rights of citizens. His firm opposition to a constitution that did not address rights of citizens led to a promise that such a statement called the Bill of Rights patterned after Mason’s Declaration of Rights would be added, and they became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Broadwater argues that “Mason’s recalcitrance was not the act of an isolated dissenter; rather, it emerged from the ideology of the American Revolution. Mason’s concerns about the abuse of political power went to the essence of the American experience.” That experience was the attack on natural rights by a series of acts passed by Parliament. An enumeration of rights in the constitution would protect citizen rights from future abuse by the government as Mason reasoned. Those rights are the same ones that are being looked at by me and others who are apprehensive about the new administration taking over the federal government. Certainly the rhetoric of the campaign would suggest attitudes at odds with our constitutionally protected freedoms. I have as a result increased my annual giving to the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org) that does a superb job of defending our rights from extremists. I have joined the American Civil Liberties Union for the same reason (www.aclu.org). Organizations like these will be major watch dogs in protecting our rights in these uneasy times.

The other lecture I attended the same week was at the Fairfax County Annual History Conference whose theme this year was “Fairfax County’s Founding Fathers: The Masons Are Coming.” Of course Fairfax County does not have any hesitation in including its native son among the Founding Fathers. Scott Stroh, executive director of Mason’s home–Gunston Hall–in Fairfax County, put Mason’s contribution in clear focus with his lecture, “George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and the World Changing Power of One Document.” One way to deal with the uncertainties of our time is to remember Mason and our rights and to be thankful for him and them.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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