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George Mason, The Myth of an Abolitionist

Founding father George Mason is commonly thought to be antislavery. Many scholarly texts assert that he hated the institution of slavery, but found no easy way to abolish the institution since the economy was so tightly bound in slave labor.1 Mason was a major landowner that owned slaves, with the only person outnumbering him in Fairfax County being President George Washington.2 At the Constitutional Convention Mason made it clear that he was against the British slave trade, but what is less clear is whether or not his actions and statements reveal a man who was against the entire institution of slavery as it was in America. Historians agree across the board that Mason was anti-slave trade, but interpretations of Mason’s views on slavery differ from source to source. This leads to a lack of clarity on whether or not Mason was for or against slavery in Virginia. This also reveals a larger problem of inconsistency between sources which can lead to incorrect conclusions that can create myths that last for generations. This may seem inconsequential if a few interpretations are off, but how are we supposed to educate all of posterity if we cannot render our ancestors historically accurate? If major scholarly sources are purporting a myth that pervades texts centuries later, this makes it almost impossible to find accurate information easily. One thing of note is that several of the sources being used in the review will directly contradict others based on their views of George Mason’s actions and statements. This is by design. All of them accurately expound the events with the only contradiction being their interpretation. These are scholarly books written by established historians. Of course, historians are bound to disagree on certain things, but to lie completely on different ends of the spectrum is unusual, especially with the wealth of primary source material to draw from. Specifically, Broadwater, Copeland and MacMaster, and Miller believe that Mason is antislavery while Wallenstein and Finkelman believe Mason actively sought to strengthen the institution of slavery. The former sources seem to be much less detailed and make more general statements while the latter uses much more evidence which is used to directly contradict the other sources.

The aim of today is to find out why this is in addition to understanding Mason’s views on the slave trade and the myth of him being antislavery. Major topics covered will include the difference between the slave trade and slavery, Mason being anti-slave trade, the motives behind Mason’s anti-slave trade stance, how the Constitutional Convention strengthened slavery in Virginia, Mason’s work in the Virginia Legislature, contradictions, and the reasons for different historical interpretations.

Slave Trade vs. Slavery

It is important to define the terms that will be used those being “slave trade” and “slavery”. This will make a distinction in order to better understand what interpretation is being asserted. Slave trade refers to the British trading of African slaves and slavery refers to the institution of enslaving people for labor in America. These terms are not mutually exclusive and thinking of them this way will lead to confusion which the historians covered will, unfortunately, make the mistake of doing. This holds true for the sources that believe Mason was antislavery. Wallenstein directly comments on this problem which appears in the Broadwater, Copeland and MacMaster, and Miller sources.Finkelman alludes to the same issue by pointing out that euphemisms were used to describe slavery or the slave trade which makes it difficult to pinpoint what is being spoken about.4

Mason vs. the Slave Trade

There is a treasure trove of primary source evidence that shows George Mason as being against the slave trade. He never altered his stance on the issue and was one of the most outspoken opponents of it at the Constitutional Convention. He even listed it being allowed to continue as one of the reasons he couldn’t sign the Constitution in its current state declaring that he “would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” He pinpointed the fact that Congress wouldn’t be allowed to prohibit the slave trade for twenty more years, specifically before 1808, as a specific burr in his side stating that “though such importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of defense.”5

Mason’s main problem is that British merchants are taking money away unfairly from Americans. In keeping with that theme, in 1774 Mason was the primary writer of the Fairfax Resolves in which the colonies rejected British rule of the colonies. These resolves included the nonimportation of all British goods, including slaves. Mason even refers to the slave trade as “A wicked cruel and unnatural trade”6 Every historian in the sources used agrees that Mason was against the slave trade. Although he proved to be its most bitter opponent at the Constitutional Convention which his statements at the Convention prove, yet his motives behind this view remain murky.

Motives Behind Mason’s Anti-Slave Trade Stance

Multiple sources used in this text refuse to dive deeper into Mason’s motives in his steadfast disagreement with the slave trade. The one characteristic they share is that they believe that Mason was anti-slave trade. Finkelman and Wallenstein look deeper into his motives since they take a more skeptical approach to Mason’s actions. While the others that believe Mason was antislavery as a whole take his stance on the slave trade to be criticism of slavery as well.

Mason spared no punches when criticizing the slave trade. There are multiple highly quoted passages that by themselves offer no clear motive for this stance, but by comparing Mason’s actions to those of other delegates of slaveholding states a clear picture emerges. Throughout there was a clear team effort between Deep South state South Carolina’s delegate Charles Pinckney among others and Virginia’s delegates Edmund Randolph and George Mason. The only major instance in which the two states disagreed was on the issue of the slave trade, with Mason demanding the institution be prohibited under the new Constitution. Why was this? First, let’s start with the areas in which they agreed.

The South Carolinian and Virginian delegates both agreed on the 2/3rds Clause and the fugitive slave clause which prohibited states from emancipating slaves that were determined to be runaways and that these slaves be returned to their owners. The 2/3rds Clause was a way of counting slaves as 2/3rds of what a white person would count when using population to determine representation in Congress. These clauses actively affirmed the institution of slavery in the Constitution and if Mason was antislavery, he never would have stood for it. However, no record shows that he ever spoke out against either of them.7 This demonstrates at least a tolerance of slavery as it was in America.

As previously stated, the only grievance Mason seemed to have relating to slavery, in general, was a specific facet. The slave trade, which was the only slave related issue that Mason disagreed on with South Carolina. General Pickney who was a cousin of the South Carolinian delegate Pickney was skeptical of Mason’s motives and believed his opposition to the slave trade was more financial than moral by saying that Virginia would benefit from stopping the trade because “Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants.8

Broadwater who believes that Mason was antislavery in all facets of the word acknowledged Pickney’s skepticism of Mason’s motives but quickly brushes it aside.9 This can be accepted at first due to the fact that Pickney was the person Mason was doing the disagreeing with. However, the same text fails to acknowledge James McHenry’s personal notes about the day. James McHenry was another man who was present during the Constitutional Convention. His notes state that Virginia has many more slaves than they need so the ending of the slave trade “would be a monopoly in Virginia’s favor”10 This meant that Virginia could sell the excess slaves they had for as much as they wanted, especially since Deep South states like North Carolina and Georgia needed.

However, Maryland, another slave state also wanted to prohibit the slave trade. Luther Martin a delegate from Maryland wanted an import tax on slaves to diminish the slave trade. Maryland also had a surplus of slaves which made it more economically desirable to eliminate another major seller of slaves. This falls perfectly in line with what the primary source evidence tells about Mason’s motives. Much too close to just be a coincidence.11

“The Avarice of British Merchants”

This is a quote straight from George Mason at the Constitutional Convention where he is condemning the slave trade. In this extremely quoted passage, Mason blames the slave trade on the greed of British merchants. He calls the slave trade “this infernal traffic” and goes onto state that “the British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it”.12 This is a true statement, only after the British government lost the ability to veto this type of bill was Virginia able to prohibit the slave trade in their state in 1778.13

Although, Virginia’s motives for doing so, appear financial rather than moral. In addition to the financial effects this would have on Virginia’s economy Mason also seemed to have had personal resentment against Britain. It is necessary to remember which time period Mason was living in. Anti-British sentiment was high in the colonies even though the was after the Revolutionary war. Only a few decades would the War of 1812 be fought against the British. A war considered to be the second war for independence.

Mason has a track record of anti-British sentiment was documented from years before when he helped lead the charge of the nonimportation of British goods including slaves when he drafted the Fairfax Resolves. This is the same document that rejected British rule in the colonies.14 It is no surprise that Mason would want the British government interfering as little as possible in Virginia’s financial affairs.

How the Constitutional Convention Strengthened Slavery in Virginia

Not only did George Mason not show an antislavery stance in his actions, he actively strengthened slavery in Virginia. Mason actively worked for the interests of himself and other slaveowners in Virginia. The fugitive slave clause promoted the institution by requiring that free states return slaves to the people who owned them. In addition to this was the slave states requiring that the U.S. government protect states from slave rebellions. The 2/3rds Clause was a way of counting slaves for representation in Congress. If representation was based only on free people the North would beat the South, but with slaves counted equally with free people Virginia’s number of delegates would be much larger than any other state and the South would have more members in Congress than the North. This was a part of Randolph’s Virginia Plan, but it didn’t work out this way. Virginia and the other slave states only were able to count slaves as 2/3rds of a free person, but they still won a critical victory without having to make any major concessions.

The delegates of the time thought that the Constitution protected slavery as well. South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney was happy with the Constitution and believed that they had made the necessary amount of provisions for the institution. Randolph denied at Virginia’s ratifying convention that the Constitution posed any threat to slavery and that not a single Virginian delegate “had the smallest suspicion of the abolition of slavery.15

Broadwater, Copeland and MacMaster, and Miller failed to comment on these actions by Mason at the Constitutional Convention and focuses mainly only on his comments about the slave trade which leaves them out of context. Wallenstein focuses on contradicting these sources while Finkelman also contradicts these sources by painting a full picture about how slavery was handled during the entire Constitutional Convention by not focusing only on George Mason, but other people as well.

Mason at the Virginia Legislature

Many historians draw their interpretations of an antislavery George Mason from his time at the Virginia Legislature. Mason began serving in the House of Burgesses in September 1758 where he had a major say in decisions.16 During his time there a bill banning the slave trade was passed. Of course, the motives behind this were most likely financial rather than moral. A manumission bill was also passed during this time. Manumissions meant that now slaveowners could free their slaves if they wished.17 This is where these interpretations come from and on the surface, it seems like Mason may have been antislavery, but his other actions cast him in a darker light.


Yes, Mason supported private manumissions. Although, remember that Virginia and other slave states petitioned for protection from the U.S. government in the event of a slave rebellion. In addition to this, Mason voted for a bill that would have required manumitted or freed slaves to leave Virginia within twelve months or be forced back into slavery. Copeland and MacMaster introduce this while still asserting that Mason was antislavery. Wallenstein also brings this up but takes the opposite opinion regarding Mason’s views.18 This vote demonstrates his support for private manumissions is more about the fear of slave rebellions. What didn’t get passed was a gradual emancipation law that had been passed in New York and Pennsylvania.19

Mason also failed to sign a petition circulating around Fairfax County in 1785 asking the Virginia Assembly to abolish slavery. In addition to this in the opening of George Mason’s Declaration of Rights wrote that “All men are born equally free and independent” but he didn’t object when his words were changed to exclude slaves from having natural rights by people who were afraid that this would suggest that slaves may have equal rights as their masters.20 In addition to this, Mason actively strengthened slavery through supporting the fugitive slave clause and 2/3rds Clause, all of which benefited him greatly as a major landowner. Mason also continually contradicted himself when he complained about the proposed Constitution saying, “Though this infamous traffic be continued, we have no security for the property of that kind we have already.” He continues to say, “I cannot express my detestation of it [the slave trade]. Yet they have not secured us the property of slaves we have already.” This is a clear example of Mason’s support of slavery as he is upset about slavery not being actively protected in the Constitution. Mason also has documents that show him advertising for runaway slaves.21

Mason also failed to free any of his slaves in his will despite passing the manumission bill. His will was written on March 20, 1773, and stayed the same until his death 19 years later. George Washington freed all of his slaves, while Thomas Jefferson freed a couple including the Hemmings family the matriarch of, he had fathered several children with, so it wasn’t uncommon for founding fathers to do so. A disturbing pattern in Mason’s will was even when he only gave a beneficiary two slaves, they would always receive a male and female. No slaves of the same sex were given to anyone person who only received two enslaved people.22 This matches perfectly with the rest of Virginian landowners who received the most slaves from pregnancies of their female slaves.23 Copeland and MacMaster points out that most landowners gained more slaves from pregnancy, but fails to acknowledge the contradictions between their assertions and Mason’s will. Wallenstein also points out that Mason did not free any of his slaves.24

Wallenstein points out all of these contradictions in Mason’s behavior and Finkelman does as well indirectly by illustrating the actions of other slave-owning delegates to Mason’s behavior. Broadwater, Copeland and MacMaster, and Miller mainly ignore these contradictions or justify them by stating the Mason hated the institution of slavery but didn’t know an easy way to end the institution without destroying the economy.

Why Are There Different Interpretations?

It’s easy to see why historians have different interpretations of George Mason’s stance on slavery. The language used in his time was dense and sometimes hard to understand. One such example is the failure of some to make the distinction between the slave trade and slavery. In the primary sources from the Constitutional Convention slavery was not mentioned once until the 13th Amendment which banned it and delegates strategically refused to say the word, instead using euphemisms to avoid direct debate about the institution.25 The Wallenstein article highlights this point by analyzing other major works about Mason such as Miller and Copeland which he states fail to make the crucial distinction between the two terms.26 A delegate named Sherman who was at the Constitutional Convention made the same mistake when speaking about the abolition of the slave trade instead confused it with the abolition of slavery itself.27

The texts with an interpretation of Mason being antislavery also demonstrate a lack of exploration into Mason’s motives and see in his passages criticizing the slave trade what they hope he was like. In addition to this one of the earliest and most used works about Mason, Robert Allen Rutland’s Mason Papers fails to make the distinction between the slave trade and slavery gives credence to the myth that Mason was antislavery. This would be less of an issue if not for the fact that there aren’t many major texts about Mason and it is almost required to use this work. In fact, every source used in this review included Rutland’s work in their texts. If they just go off this incorrect text, they will also give credence to the myth, and then the next person who uses that text as a source in their work will do so as well.28

The Man and The Myth

George Mason was intensely anti-slave trade, but the myth of him being antislavery pervades almost all literature about him. Contradictions abound. Some assert that he is antislavery with little to no evidence while other sources such as Wallenstein and Finkelman completely discredit them with solid, primary source evidence. As was said before, there aren’t many scholarly texts about Mason and almost all of the major ones are purporting a myth which leads to other people using that source to spread the myth even further. Now centuries later people still believe this myth, making it almost impossible to know the truth without looking at the primary source evidence by itself. How were the incorrect sources peer-reviewed? Is it common practice to look at primary source documents while reviewing scholarly material? It is clear to me how historians could have made such an error, but what is more confounding is how historians correct a myth after so many years have passed. This topic needs more accurate and up to date research that doesn’t rely on the already existing scholarly works.

The only recommendation one can give is that historians go back to the beginning. Start from the primary sources only and do not trust even some of the more recent secondary sources about George Mason relating to slavery. Look at the big picture and don’t only focus on George Mason’s words. It is necessary to look at primary source material from other people around Mason, specifically at the Constitutional Convention to compare his actions to theirs or to see their view on him. James Madison and George Washington would be a fantastic place to start. Only from Mason’s words and actions alone can historians come to the correct conclusion on how to portray him.


1 Pamela C. Copeland and Richard K. MacMaster, “George Mason IV: Plantation Economy” in The Five George Masons (University of Virginia Press, 2016), 171.

2 Peter Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason (The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1994), 234.

3 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 247-252.

4 Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 190.

5 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 240.

6 Helen Hill Miller, George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary (University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 107.

7 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 190-191.

8 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 216.

9 Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 193.

10 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 216.

11 Ibid., 214.

12 Miller, George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary, 253.

13 Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, 34.

14 Miller, George Mason, Gentleman Revolutionary, 107.

15 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 190-193.

16 Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, 17

17 Copeland and MacMaster, “George Mason IV: Plantation Economy”, 175.

18 Copeland and MacMaster, “George Mason IV: Plantation Economy”, 175.

19 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 237.

20 Copeland and MacMaster, “George Mason IV: Plantation Economy”, 175.

21 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 244.

22 George Mason, “George Mason’s Last Will and Testament March 20,1773” in The Papers of George Mason (University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 147-160.

23 Copeland and MacMaster, “George Mason IV: Plantation Economy”, 172.

24 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 237.

25 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 190.

26 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 247-254.

27 Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death”, 215.

28 Wallenstein, Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason, 244-245.


Broadwater, Jeff. 2006. George Mason, Forgotten Founder. University of North Carolina Press.

Copeland, Pamela C., and Richard K. MacMaster. 2016. “George Mason IV:: Plantation Economy.” In The Five George Masons, 159–76. University of Virginia Press.

Finkelman, Paul. 1987. “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death.” In Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, 188–225. University of North Carolina Press.

Mason, George. 1773. “George Mason’s Will.” In The Papers of George Mason, 147-160. University of North Carolina Press

Miller, Helen Hill. 1975. George Mason: Gentleman Revolutionary. University of North Carolina Press.

Wallenstein, Peter. 1994. “Flawed Keepers of the Flame: The Interpreters of George Mason.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (2): 229–60.