Commentary

George Mason University, Much More Than Basketball

This article appeared on Foxnews.com, March 29, 2006.
The George Mason University basketball team’s ascendance to the NCAA Final Four this weekend may well be remembered as the most improbable run in the college basketball tournament’s history.

Only one other eleventh-seeded team has made the Final Four. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a school with so low a profile and from so small a conference to have made it through the tournament’s first two weekends.

In addition to the great basketball the team has given us (the Connecticut game was in instant classic), it would also be nice to see the school’s success inspire some discussion about its namesake. Few people know much about George Mason. In fact, even GMU point guard Tony Skinn, asked about Mason, told the Houston Chronicle, “I heard somebody say he was President, but I know that’s not true. Did he sign the Constitution? I have no clue.”

Mason was never president. Nor did he sign the Constitution. But he was enormously influential in helping craft it. In fact, George Mason was probably early America’s most eloquent defender of individual liberty. Principled and uncompromising, Mason was a man who loathed politics but understood the urgency of the times in which he lived, and engaged in politics to help ensure his new country put a premium on freedom.

Mason was an unabashed radical, perhaps the foremost defender of individual rights, localism, and critic of government among an already radical group of founding fathers, including Madison, Jefferson, and Paine.

While helping craft the Virginia state constitution in June 1776, Mason single-handedly wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first universal declaration of individual rights in the colonies. It was Mason’s belief, influenced by John Locke, that certain rights were unalienable, and so fundamental to a free society they should be expressly guaranteed in a state’s governing document.

It was a principle that would later be tested, and would pit Mason against the more recognizable names in the American founding.

That happened in 1787, when Mason served as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Held in eminent esteem by his fellow delegates, Mason played a critical role in drafting key parts of the U.S. Constitution. But he ultimately couldn’t bring himself to sign it.

One of Mason’s concerns was slavery. Though he was a man of the south, born into a slave-holding family, and himself a slave owner, Mason loathed the institution, and recognized the absurdity of a country founded on individual rights giving a de facto imprimatur to slavery in its founding and governing document.

Mason recognized the economic necessity of slavery, at least in the short term, but held hope that the practice could be abolished as soon as was feasible. That the convention in Philadelphia failed to move toward eradicating the practice left Mason bitter and disappointed. Had Mason’s peers heeded his advice, America may well have been spared the bloodshed and anguish of the Civil War.

Mason’s most adamant objection to the U.S. Constitution was its lack of an enumeration of rights similar to the list he’d written for Virginia. He fiercely advocated for the inclusion of such a list, but was badly outnumbered.

Some delegates felt a “Bill of Rights” was unnecessary. Others, like James Madison, feared that the enumeration of some rights might be interpreted by future generations to exclude rights not mentioned (in retrospect, both Madison and Mason were probably correct).

In the end, the Constitution was ratified without a Bill of Rights. George Mason not only declined to sign the document, he actively campaigned against its ratification, souring his relationship with the men he’d stood with through the revolution, including Washington, Madison and Jefferson.

Mason was vindicated in 1791, when the country amended the Constitution to include the Bill of Rights. Those ten amendments, authored by Madison, bore the unmistakable influence of Mason’s own list from the Virginia constitution.

George Mason University today in many ways remains a fitting tribute to its namesake. The school’s economics department in particular is arguably the most market-oriented in the country. Just as Mason himself was self-educated and unswervingly principled, GMU’s economics department has put a premium on finding staff who value individual rights, a decentralized state, and good scholarship, and has placed less emphasis on Ivy League credentials and the usual academic fluff.

The staff now boasts two Nobel Prize winners (as well a strong candidate for a third), and has established itself as the seat of free market academic economics, the torchbearer of Founding Father influences like Adam Smith and John Locke. George Mason is also affiliated with the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies, non-profit academic and educational organizations, respectively, which are dedicated to the same ideas.

Yes, it’s probably silly to think that George Mason University’s success in the NCAA tournament might cause a few fans and students to get more acquainted with the neglected founding father the school is named for, much less renew interest in the ideas he espoused.

But if nothing else, GMU’s continuing adherence to George Mason’s philosophy, at least in its economics department, is one more reason to back the underdog this weekend.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in “nanny state” and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties.