By Ellen Latane Tabb, Alexandria
(Image/Charters of Freedom/ www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/)
To the editor:
December 15 marked the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
George Mason IV, of Gunston Hall, (George Washington’s next-door neighbor on the Potomac; both considered themselves Alexandrians) is the person most responsible for its inclusion. He refused to sign the U.S. Constitution without a statement of our rights — and he also wanted it to provide for emancipation.
When the Virginia General Assembly debated its adoption, he was among the foremost opposing it for those reasons. Virginia narrowly voted to ratify the Constitution with the proviso that a Bill of Rights must accompany it.
This also is an appropriate time to remember Mason because his birthday was December 11. It should be widely observed; he was one of the most important Founding Fathers.
Mason authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Fairfax Resolves (ratified in Alexandria), which set the precedent of one colony supporting another in resistance to British tyranny. He was a major contributor to the discussions resulting in the creation of our federal republic.
Mason realized that at every level of government there was danger that the people’s God-given rights would be violated, even by those whom they had elected. Although every state’s constitution had a bill of rights, he disagreed with George Washington and other federalists that such protections were redundant in the U.S. Constitution.
His principled stand cost him his rightful place in history: Federalists, angered by his effective resistance to adopting the Constitution, left him out of their accounts about the important people of this period.
Mason’s foresight proved providential because today our rights — and even the checks and balances of power provided by the Constitution — are being challenged. For example, editorial writers, columnists and elected officials, when discussing Obamacare’s requirement for business owners to fund abortifacients in violation of their beliefs, regularly quote only part of the First Amendment’s provision about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” They omit “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Founding Fathers’ intention in the First Amendment was to make clear that there should not be a national religion, such as Anglicanism in England. Religious groups — like Baptists, Methodists and so on — should not be prohibited from expressing their faith openly as they wished, nor should they be required to pay taxes to the government to support their state’s official religion. (At that time, states had established churches.)
To honor its anniversary, I hope residents will reread and reflect upon the Bill of Rights and be mindful of our responsibilities as citizens of a free republic to keep it so for posterity.