The Forgotten Founding Father's Forgotten Flaws


George Mason refused to support the new U.S. Constitution on the grounds that it failed to abolish the slave trade. He also refused to support it because it did not secure the right to own "the slaves we have already." T. Norman Van Cott offers a theory as to how those two sentiments could coexist.

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  1. I’m not sure that the author isn’t trying to impose modern day sensibilities on 18th Century Americans in order to make a flimsy attempt at branding Mason a protectionist. To modern eyes, opposition to the slave trade and acceptence of the institution itself my seeem odd, but that doesn’t mean an 18th Century Virginian would feel the same way. Slave trading, for example, was seen as an unseemly occupation througout the deep South. It was just a few steps up the ladder from prostitution. This was the same world in which the plantation owner sat at the very top of the social caste system. There is a similar disconent when we look at the many abolitionists who would today be considered rabid racists. Modern eyes tend to equate the abolition movement with the 1960’s civil rights movement. But many opposed slavery as much for the kind of people it had brought to the country and was spreading West as they did for any religous or humanist sentiment.

  2. Just a hint on a tic I have noticed here. When someone uses the word ‘statist’ I giggle at the silliness of it, and you have seriously diminished any chance of convincing anyone who is not already convinced — not dissimilar from an overuse of the word ‘fascist’, but goofier.

    That out of the way, the author seems to time travel his own morality back to the founding of the country, bringing with him a two centuris of knowledge about how the world actually did unfold — nothing egregious, but is tone is ostentatiously wrong.
    A better article would have recognized the very real differences between slavery and the slave trade – both abominations, but the later was more poisonous and more infectious. Then the couching of the final condemnation in with the moral sin of protectionism also rings absurd and misguided.

    It is interesting to learn a little bit more about Goerge Mason though, and I am glad I read it.

  3. This was the same logic behind the way slavery was handled in the constitution of the CSA – the international slave trade was banned, while slavery was protected.

  4. I take issue with Mr. van Cott’s conclusions as to the motives of George Mason. He limits himself to looking at the economic argument, neglecting politics.
    Banning slave trade and possession was, at the time, no more politically possible than banning guns would be today.
    From the citation alone, it becomes clear, that abolishing slavery would have broken the Union, a desastrous outcome. It nearly broke it two generations later over the same issue.
    Absent any other hard proof, simply charging Mason with hypocritical personal economic interest is fashionable, but unwarranted. Why the urge to deconstruct him on this issue alone, neglecting other important historical facts? It strikes me as judging him by today’s, rather than contemporary standards.

    Sometimes moral principles have to take a back seat to political reality. In time sentiments can be nudged in the right direction.Some might want to remember this as we face the need to deal with radical islamists.

  5. Such “I love you, I’m leaving you” capriciousness is typical of glass-shod Gala attendees.

  6. I move we change to name of George Mason University to Walter Williams University.

  7. Change my above post from:
    Why the urge to deconstruct him on this issue alone, neglecting other important historical facts?
    Why the urge to deconstruct him on this issue alone?

    I did not mean to say that George Mason needs to be deconstructed. Quite the opposite.

  8. While I agree it can be an error to look at the actions of the past strictly through modern eyes, Mason was clearly not just looking to get rid of the slave trade now and worry about abolishing the institution of slavery later. He was trying to get it protected in the Constitution. I think Mr. van Cott’s argument stands up pretty well.

  9. Politicans from states that produce widgets oppose importing foreign widgets but promote widget ownership. Politicians from states where nobody owns widgets and some voters are strongly opposed to widget ownership want a nationwide ban on widget ownership. Politicans from widget importing states want free trade in widgets. Duhh. Everybody that reads Reason knows this stuff. However, applying the theory to someone like George Mason is pretty cool.

  10. Despite van Cott’s apparent belief that he has discovered some kind of great and novel argument, the idea that Virginians opposed the slave trade because Virginia itself was a slave-exporting state is actually a fairly common one among historians.

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