The Non-Signers


Altogether, said Mason, the Constitution was not a democratic instrument at all; it set up a government of the few to rule over the many and left the many with almost no means to alter the government. “This government will set out a moderate aristocracy: it is impossible at present to foresee whether it will, in its operation, produce a monarchy, or a corrupt, tyrannical aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.” Mason could not give his approval to this prospect.

Thus Gerry and Randolph and Mason earned for themselves a unique appellation in American history: they are the “non-signers,” the ones who didn’t go along, the ones who lost the chance to have their names on one of the great documents of human history.

But of course they did not entirely escape being Founding Fathers. Whether they signed or not, their arguments were picked up by others not long after the convention adjourned. The state ratifying conventions took up George Mason’s cry for the Bill of Rights, and the states finally prevailed where Mason had not. Several years later, when it appeared that the balance in the government was shifting too greatly toward a central government, Jefferson and Madison took up the argument for local government. We hear the same arguments today—sometimes made dishonestly for the sake of some selfish privilege but often made out of a real understanding and love of liberty and democracy. The debate on the Constitution did not end in 1787. And the non-signers remain models for us in these continuing debates, exemplars of crusty, unassimilable individualism, of the right to pursue one’s own, individual way, to expect to have and enjoy the right of free, unfettered dissent.