J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

The Father of the Bill of Rights

If we Google “Father of the Bill of Rights,” the name that pops up more than any other is George Mason of Virginia.

It’s true that ExplorePAHistory says of Robert Whitehill, “it is not too much of an exaggeration to call him the father of the Bill of Rights.” That formulation reminds me of Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam’s argument that the basic meaning of the word “arguably” is “even I don’t really believe this.” It’s no surprise that Whitehill, like that website, was Pennsylvanian.

Mason is often credited as “Father of the [U.S.] Bill of Rights” because he:
  • drafted one of its major precedents, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776.
  • advocated adding clauses on individual and state rights to the Constitution during the drafting convention on 12 Sept 1787. (Massachusetts’s Elbridge Gerry proposed such a declaration and Mason seconded it.)
  • refused to sign the final document after that proposal lost by a whopping 10-0. (Gerry refused, too, as did Luther Martin of Maryland.)
  • published a pamphlet about how a Declaration of Rights should be part of the Constitution.
  • proposed calling for a Declaration of Rights at the Virginia ratifying convention.
  • sent those clauses to John Lamb in New York for that state’s convention.
  • somehow also provided the model for the proposals from North Carolina and Rhode Island, too.
  • was the author James Madison drew on when he made a formal proposal of amendments in the U.S. Congress on 8 June 1789.
All of which adds up to a mighty strong claim that Mason was the individual most responsible for those proposals.

TOMORROW: So what did Robert Whitehill do? And what does that have to do with that partly demolished tavern in central Pennsylvania?

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