Prof. Jeff Broadwater on George Mason, Federalism, & the Bill of Rights

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The Learning Curve, October 18, 2023, transcript

[00:00:00] Mariam: Welcome back to The Learning Curve. I’m Mariam Memarsadeghi. I am guest co-hosting again with Justice Barry Anderson from the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice Anderson and I know each other from judging the We the People competition on the U.S. Constitution. Justice Anderson, it’s wonderful to be with you again.

[00:00:46] Barry: Mariam, it’s always great to talk to you. And of course, we go back many years, maybe a decade or more as judges on that competition. And of course, anytime we have the opportunity to gather and talk about civic education and related topics, that’s a great day. So, I’m delighted to be with you here today.

[00:01:00] Mariam: Excellent. Me too. You know, what caught my eye in the news this week is a story — and I’ve seen it repeated in different places in the media — assessing the pros and cons of getting a college degree, which, by itself, this kind of media focus tells you that there are a lot of people out there wondering whether it’s worth it to get a college degree. I think it was kind of a cultural assumption in previous generations that if you could get a college degree, then you’d be better off to have one. So, this particular article is in The Week and it’s called “The Pros and Cons of Getting a College Degree.” As anyone might guess, one of the cons, particularly, you know, in the United States very different from most other very developed countries is that the cost of a college education is very high. And so, it seemed to me that’s the most significant con, but, still, these articles all seem to have in common the basic. data [00:02:00] point that you’re still more likely to make more money if you have a college degree, to have a higher income. But they note that many companies don’t value degrees as they once did. And of course, there’s the mythology out there about the, the big technologists and how they were autodidacts and didn’t need formal schooling so much and did so well.

[00:02:23] Mariam: But yeah, it continues the idea that society benefits. There’s a trickle-down value into society of each individual who has a higher degree, and longer life expectancy is correlated with people who have a higher education. But you know, in addition to the high cost, new graduates, new college graduates, are making less than their parents did when they’re starting out. So that’s something that caught my eye. How about you, Barry?

[00:02:58] Barry: I want to bring the attention of our listeners an article that appeared in The Hill, entitled, “Tennessee might reject federal education funds. What would that look like?” This is a topic that I’ve been following with some interest over many years.

[00:03:09] Barry: I host a public affairs program on public television, rural public television station in Minnesota, and there have been discussions with Minnesota legislators about this. Not only Tennessee, although the article doesn’t mention this, at least two other states, South Carolina and Oklahoma, have had some conversation about it.

[00:03:25] Barry: And part of it is the reason these questions are coming up is legislative concerns about federal interference and federal rules and regulations that must be followed, particularly with dealing with disabled students, which, of course, our public education system is responsible for educating as well. And so, Tennessee has formed a 10-member committee to look into what it would look like to reject about $1.8 billion — that’s billion with a “b — that goes towards the most disadvantaged students, with the thought that they could then build their own program that might be more, in tune with Tennessee needs.

[00:04:02] Barry: This is a very complicated topic, and actually the article does a pretty good job of capturing some of the complexities. You may not escape all of the regulations that apply if you reject federal money, there’s actually some Supreme Court jurisprudence on the ability of the federal government to command states to do things by using, you know, financial aid, but that might not, in the case of some discriminatory statutes and other things, might not work.

[00:04:28] Barry: And of course these programs are enormously complicated. And one of the problems I think that they’re getting at here is the lack of responsiveness from the federal bureaucracy to the concerns that are raised at the state level. The concluding paragraph here, and I’ll just wrap up, quotes Michael Brickman, who’s at the American Enterprise Institute, suggesting that Tennessee probably isn’t going to do this, but perhaps it will help influence the Department of Education to be more responsive to state concerns. This is part of a much larger discussion of federalism and, you know, what’s appropriate for local interests. The fact of the matter is when the money shows up, rules follow the money and this is a matter of some concern. Good policy arguments running both ways on this. It’ll be interesting to follow this discussion and see if it goes anywhere. It’s going to be very complicated for Tennessee to put this together, I think.

[00:05:19] Mariam: Yean, right. Okay, well, coming up after the break, we have Professor Jeff Broadwater. We’re going to be talking about his book on the Founding Father George Mason.

[00:05:50] Mariam: Jeff Broadwater is an emeritus professor of history in the School of Humanities at Barton College in North Carolina. He is the author of several books, including Jefferson Madison and the Making of the Constitution and James Madison, a Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation. Professor Broadwater’s book, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, won the Richard Slatton Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography from the Virginia Historical Society and was rated by the Washington Post as one of the best biographies of 2006. He holds a J. D. from the University of Arkansas and a PhD in American history from Vanderbilt.

[00:06:32] Mariam: So, Professor Broadwater, Thomas Jefferson described fellow Founding Father George Mason as “one of the greatest men. And of the first order of greatness, as well as the wisest man of his generation.” Your award-winning biography, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, is considered the best single volume on Mason. Would you give us a very brief overview of George Mason’s 18th-century education, his political philosophy, and explaine his vision of American republicanism.

[00:07:06] Jeff: Mason had a very limited formal education from about 1736 to about 1740 when he was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old. He studied with Mr. Williams at a small school first in Virginia, and then later apparently the school was moved to Maryland. We don’t know much about Williams or the school. And then about 1740 he came back to Virginia and stayed under a Dr. Bridges. And again, we don’t know much about Bridges. Masters and Bridges were very likely clergymen. Most of the colonial teachers and tutors were.

[00:07:38] Jeff: And that was about the extent of his formal education. He had an uncle, George Mercer, who was a rather cerebral and well-known lawyer who had a well-stocked library. And historians have always thought that Mason probably spent a lot of time in Mercer’s library. And there was a local Anglican minister, Alexander Scott, who ordered books for Mason from England. So, I think Mercer and Scott to some extent may have sort of tutored, mentored Mason. But I think he was largely self-taught. He read classics, ancient history, political philosophy. Probably studied some mathematics and Latin. That would have been pretty typical of his time and class. As far as his political philosophy went, Mason drew from a variety of sources.

[00:08:28] Jeff: John Locke was a major influence, with Locke’s emphasis on individual rights, on the right of a people to revolt against an oppressive government. But probably more influential among a number of sources was the republican philosophy of the 18th century, and that republican — with a small r — probably the key figure there is Algernon Sidney, who was a 17th-century British politician and political thinker. Republicanism emphasized virtue, or civic virtue, patriotism, and also taught that people that held power were likely to abuse it, especially in a prosperous commercial society. As the theory went, as living standards rose, people became preoccupied with their own comfort, with getting ahead.

[00:09:17] Jeff: They’d neglect the public interest. Virtue would decline. Corruption would ensue. And a republican government could degenerate into an oligarchy or aristocracy or some form of tyranny. And in the republican philosophy, representation was the key right. You know, when we think of rights today, we think of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, maybe the right to bear arms.

[00:09:39] Jeff: But for republicans, representation was a key right. Because that was a potential check on corruption for the voters to be able to or to make political leaders accountable to the voters. As far as American republicanism went, it was very similar to English republicanism, but I do think there were a couple of differences. [00:10:00] You know, one of the Americans claimed before the Revolution, they were just fighting for the rights of English citizens. And I think when they said that they were sincere. But they had a broader notion of rights, I think, than the English did. You see that particularly with voting rights.

[00:10:15] Jeff: Suffrage was much more widely distributed America than it was in England. And also on religious freedom. Americans generally were willing to go farther on the issue of religious freedom the English were — couple of differences between, you might say, English republicanism and American republicanism.

[00:10:32] Mariam: Thank you very much. In the 1760s and 1770s, George Mason was among the best respected Virginians to oppose Great Britain’s onerous tax and trade policies on their North American colonies, including the 1767-68 Townsend Acts. Could you talk about George Mason’s Virginia leadership during the Revolution — the American Revolution — as well as the arguments he made on behalf of colonial American liberties in the 1774 Fairfax Resolves?

[00:11:08] Jeff: Sure. And his role really grew over time. He did speak out against the Stamp Act in 1765. He saw that as a violation of the rights of Virginians as Englishmen. He also saw it as bad business. That he thought the political tensions that the Stamp Act had triggered would undermine really a profitable Anglo American trading relationship.

[00:11:33] Jeff: Mason thought that really American prosperity would benefit the British. The more money the Americans had, the more manufactured goods they would buy from England. It was really kind of counterproductive, he thought, for the English to alienate the Americans. He becomes more involved after the Townsend duties are passed. He works with George Washington and with others to organize a boycott, what we call a boycott, of British products. in his writings on the Townsend duties, and he doesn’t write extensively on it, but on what he does write about the Townsend duties, he starts referring to it as unconstitutional. I think that’s the first time he uses that word, that this is a violation of England’s Constitution.

[00:12:14] Jeff: In the Fairfax Resolves, and this is in July of 1774, and this is after the Tea Act what we’ve come to call the, what the Americans call the Coercive Acts, he really begins to elaborate on these arguments for American rights. He says the colonies were settled at private expense, under the auspices, he says, of the crown, that Americans really didn’t owe much to Parliament. That, of course, imposition of these taxes without American representation in Parliament was a violation, again, of this representation. And makes the argument that these British taxes violate English law and colonial charters and natural law, the law of nature. So, he’s bringing all those together in the Fairfax Resolves. He sees a problem, though, and he doesn’t really solve it. And that is that when you make the argument that Parliament doesn’t have the right to tax the colonies, then that raises the question, does Parliament have the right to legislate for the colonies?

[00:13:15] Jeff: And if you say, well, no, then you’re pretty close to declaring independence. Few Americans were willing to go that far in 1774, and Mason just kind of skirts the constitutional issue here by just saying, well, kind of as a matter of tradition and expediency, we’ve accepted parliamentary regulation of trade. Now eventually, Mason and Jefferson and others are going to decide that well, no, if parliament can’t tax us, they’ve got no right to legislate for us, too.

[00:13:48] Jeff: Those arguments are not unique to Mason and, and really one of Mason’s skills was his ability to kind of articulate ideas could command broad support. Maybe what was — is a practical matter, maybe what was very important about the Fairfax Resolves — he calls for a Continental Congress, calls for a boycott of British goods, proposes we stop exporting products to Britain and then that we organize county committees to enforce these economic sanctions. And of course, the Virginia Assembly adopts it, and then the Continental Congress adopts the proposals in the Fairfax Resolves.

[00:14:26] Mariam: So, a couple years later, in 1776, George Mason authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights. And he drafted the Virginia constitution — among the early state constitutions. Would you discuss these two documents and Mason’s widely influential role in shaping early American leaders’ view of rights, including those of Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

[00:14:54] Jeff: One place to start this story is in May 1776, May 10. The Colonial Congress, or the Continental Congress recommends the colonies organize new governments. Congress is anticipating a Declaration of Independence. The Fifth Virginia Convention passes a resolution to draft a bill of rights and a new constitution. The fifth convention was the last in a series of conventions that provided Virginia with a temporary government between the collapse of rural authority and the organization of a new state government.

[00:15:31] Jeff: Mason gets to Williamsburg a couple days later. So, the idea of a bill of rights is not original with him. They’ve already decided we want a Bill of rights. But as soon as he gets there, they put him on the committee to draft a declaration of rights and a constitution. And he just immediately takes command of the situation. And within a few days, produces a draft declaration of rights that goes through committee, and then the convention approves it with very few amendments. It becomes a model for other states for the federal Bill of Rights, and you see echoes of Mason’s work just kind of all over the place, even in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, there are echoes there.

[00:16:15] Jeff: As far as Jefferson goes, Jefferson takes the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence the part about all men being, you know, created equal and, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That comes from the Virginia Declaration. The Declaration was printed, now of course, Jefferson’s in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress. And the Declaration of Rights is printed in a Philadelphia newspaper just a few days before Jefferson starts work on the Declaration of Independence, and so he’s got that in front of him as he’s doing his work. Probably the most substantive, specific provision that come out of the Virginian Declaration has to do with freedom of religion.

[00:16:58] Jeff: The outline, Mason has established the outline or a baseline for a declaration of rights, which is very influential. But in his original draft, there’s a long section on freedom of religion, in which he calls for the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion. That was the phrase, “the fullest toleration.” Now we may miss this subtlety, and that was good liberal language in the 18th century. But in the course of the debate, James Madison, a very young delegate just started his political career, proposed to expand that language. And that language, “fullest toleration,” became the free exercise religion, which was seen as a broader right.

[00:17:38] Jeff: And as far as we know, Mason happily went along that. He later became a very strong champion of freedom of religion. I think the fullest toleration was just, as I can say, kind of good language from John Locke. But Madison wanted to go a little farther than that, and Mason, I think, readily acquiesced. Now, as far as the Virginia Constitution goes, Mason took less pride in that. His draft reflects some proposals that had been put out by John Adams and Richard Henry Lee. And Mason and Richard Henry Lee were very close. It called for separation of powers — executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A bicameral legislature. A weak governor. After the experience that the Americans have had with the royal governors, they didn’t want strong executives. And there’s no veto. The government doesn’t have the veto power. And again, the convention approves Mason’s draft with relatively few amendments.

[00:18:34] Mariam: Beginning in 1765, George Mason, himself a slave owner, voiced support for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. The website for Gunston Hall, his plantation, says, “George Mason held men, women, and children in bondage. He was likely the second-largest slaveholder in Fairfax County.” And yet Mason’s writings reveal his intense dislike of the institution of slavery. He was outspoken and consistent in his disapproval. Could you please discuss George Mason as a slave owner and his writings against slavery?

[00:19:11] Jeff: It’s true. As early as 1765, Mason had written to criticize slavery. He thought it was bad for the morals of whites. He thought slavery had contributed to the decline of the Roman Republic. He thought it undermined the middle class, it made it difficult for small farmers to compete with slave labor. At the Constitutional Convention, he objects to counting slaves for purposes of representation in Congress, even though he acknowledged it would benefit Virginia to count slaves.

[00:19:43] Jeff: He didn’t think it was right to do so. He complained bitterly when the Philadelphia Convention decided to allow the slave trade to continue for another 20 years. And after he lost that fight, he suggested or supported taxing slave imports as a way to discourage the traffic in slaves. Then at the Virginia Ratifying Convention it’s when it really gets complicated, you might say. He attacks the Constitution for permitting the slave trade to continue, at least for 20 years. At the same time, he criticizes the Constitution for not protecting slavery. So, what’s going on here? Well, as to his refusal to take more immediate action against slavery, I suspect Mason believed, as many whites did, that whites and free blacks couldn’t live together, and that until you could find a way to segregate the two, you had to live with slavery.

[00:20:44] Jeff: I think he also believed, or at least this was a widespread belief, that good republican citizenship required economically independent citizens. Economic independence meant property, and slaves were property. And the abolition of slavery could undermine the economic independence of whites. This was an argument that Edmund Morgan made many years ago.

[00:21:10] Jeff: But, specifically about his behavior at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, which really does seem problematical. I think there are two possible explanations here — plausible explanations. One is Virginia had a surplus of slaves, which they wanted to sell either in the Deep South or farther west, and so the importation of slaves would — the continued importation of enslaved people from Africa — would diminish the value of Virginia’s slaves.

[00:21:40] Jeff: There’s another interpretation that I think is a less, well, another interpretation. And that is it, that Mason believed, and a lot of his contemporaries believed, that ending the slave trade would be a step toward abolition. And that the foreign slave trade was necessary to keep slavery alive. You heard that often. And of course, it was a time before the invention of the gen, so large scale production of cotton’s not profitable yet. The economic future of slavery is kind of in question, and you’ve got the northern states moving to end slavery. So, I think Mason and a lot of people could have reasonably thought that slavery might just die a gradual death.

[00:22:21] Jeff: And we know how things turned out, but they didn’t. Now what about objecting the Constitution because it didn’t protect slavery? Well, what I think there is, while Mason could maybe envision the gradual emancipation of enslaved people, he wanted Virginians to control the process. He didn’t want the federal government to control the process. That’s the best explanation I can come up with. But it’s a difficult issue.

[00:22:49] Barry: Professor, from 1777 to 1789, the young republic was governed by state constitutions. And our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Now, my day job involves the Minnesota State Constitution and I’m not going to inflict my stories on you on that topic, but we do know that across the mid-1780s, the Articles began to falter and fail. Would you talk about George Mason’s views on constitutionalism, state constitutions, federalism during the pivotal events that led up to James Madison and others proposing a new constitution?

[00:23:36] Jeff: In the early 1780s and mid-1780s, Mason was mainly preoccupied with state and local issues. But I would say there were a couple of issues that did involve federalism issues, or at least the relationship between national power and state power. And one had to do with the enforcement of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War. In the treaty, the United States had recognized the validity of debts that Americans owed to British merchants.

[00:24:01] Jeff: But, of course, there was no federal court system at that time. And to collect their debts, the British merchants would have to go through state courts. And the state courts in Virginia and elsewhere threw up all kinds of obstacles to the British merchants. That bothered Mason.

[00:24:17] Jeff: He thought that was just dishonorable for Americans to try to avoid paying their debts, that these were private debts and the war should not have affected them. The other issue — and I think this one is more important issue — had to do with the western land. That under its colonial charter, Virginia had a claim to land in the west all the way to the Mississippi River and even up to the Canadian border.

[00:24:41] Jeff: And New York and Massachusetts and some of the other states had similar kind of ambitious claims. I think everybody in Virginia realized that Virginia couldn’t actually govern all that territory, but what do you do with it? There was an argument that title of the land had transferred to the Confederation Congress when the United States gained independence. And Mason was very much opposed to that interpretation. Mason pushed for the cession of Virginia’s land claims on the western land to Congress, but he wanted to be negotiated. He did not want Congress to impose a settlement. He had some conditions. He wanted the land to go into the public domain so it could be sold to pay public debt.

[00:25:24] Jeff: He wanted the territory to be divided into states with the same rights as the older states. It was a long, painful process, and Mason was not the key figure here, although he was an important figure. But finally, by 1784, Virginia and Congress negotiated an arrangement in which the western lands would be transferred to Congressional control.

[00:25:46] Jeff: And that issue, I think, needed to be resolved before we could move forward to giving Congress more power. Because as long as Virginia and some of the other states were worried about what Congress might do with regard to that land, probably couldn’t strengthen or replace the Articles.

[00:26:05] Barry: Let’s move on to a different topic. Although, candidly, professor, if you and I wanted to spend the next couple hours talking about state constitutions, we could do that. I, I suspect our listeners…

[00:26:15] Jeff: I could do a little bit more on this!

[00:26:19] Barry: But I suspect our listeners don’t want to do that, so let’s, let’s move on. Along with Patrick Henry and Sam Adams, George Mason is perhaps best known for his opposition to the proposed federal constitution because it originally didn’t have a Bill of Rights. Would you talk about Mason’s leadership among the Anti-Federalists, his concerns about that 1787-88 Constitution, as well as discuss his arguments on behalf of the U.S. Bill of Rights, which ultimately persuaded James Madison to draft it?

Jeff: Yes, he certainly was a leader among Anti-Federalists. The issue of the Bill of Rights came up toward the end of the Philadelphia Convention. I think it was Hugh Williamson that may have been from Hugh Williamson from North Carolina may have been the first one to raise the issue. And Mason endorsed the idea of a Bill of Rights, offered to write one. But there was no support for different state delegations. It was late in the convention, I think the delegates wanted to go home. But before Mason left Philadelphia, he drafted a short document called The Objections to This Form of Government, and he had about 15 objections to the Constitution, and the very first one was the lack of a Declaration of Rights and although as I say, he had a number of other objections, and some arguably may be more important to him, that turned out to be the Anti-Federalist strongest argument.

[00:27:44] Jeff: And in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Mason and Patrick Henry argue that the Constitution ought not to be ratified until it’s amended. They lose on that argument, but the majority of the delegates do agree to recommend ratifying Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution after it takes effect. Madison’s opposed to this. But Madison sees a couple of things. He’s  politically realistic. He sees that there’s an awful lot of public support for a Bill of Rights, that adding one to the Constitution may be a way to appease some of the more moderate Anti-Federalists. There’s also momentum to call a second Constitutional Convention to revise the work of the Philadelphia Convention. Madison’s worried about where that would go. And so, the Bill of Rights becomes a way to, as I say, placate the more moderate Anti-Federalists. and to avoid a second convention.

[00:28:52] Jeff: I would say that really Mason’s objections fall into two broad categories. One is that he saw features in the Constitution that compromised the principle of the right of representation. Again, that was just critical in republican theory. Remember, originally, Senate was elected by the state legislature. President was elected by the Electoral College, and they couldn’t decide by the House of Representatives.

[00:29:15] Jeff: Federal judges, of course, were appointed. The House of Representatives was the only body that was directly, you know, representative of the people, and Mason thought it was too small. And then he thought the South wasn’t properly protected. He really wanted a two-thirds requirement for laws regulating — he was afraid the northern majority in Congress would adopt laws that would discriminate against southern trade. And there were some other provisions he wanted to try to protect Southern interests and was not successful. So, he had a number of reasons to oppose the Constitution, but the one of the Bill of Rights became the one that that turned out historically the most significant.

[00:29:54] Barry: We can certainly commend the Anti-Federalists. They may have gotten other things wrong, but they got that point absolutely right. Let’s move on to the next, move on to the next question. George Mason was deeply concerned about the tensions between civic republicanism and the emerging commercial interests in the cities of the North. Can you discuss Mason’s views on these topics, particularly his criticism of an overly energetic federal executive? And the financial programs of the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, you know, the fellow that has the musical about him, Alexander Hamilton?

[00:30:25] Jeff: Yes. Well, I mean, suspicion of the urban masses and of the commercial classes was that was a staple of republican thought that the sturdy yeoman farmer was seen as the best citizen, they were physically robust, economically independent, well-suited to military service, and they produced something of value as opposed to the financiers. And that wasn’t just kind of a rhetoric from Mason.

[00:30:52] Jeff: He’d had a longstanding feud with the Alexandria faction on his local Fairfax County court. He thought merchants in Alexandria kind of dominated the court and had discriminated against the folks in the rural part of the county. So, that, that suspicion of the commercial classes was — that really hit home with Mason. And you see it, and this is a somewhat obscure, but I think informative: James Madison had supported something called the Port Bill in the 1780s, which would establish well, would limit foreign owned ships to certain designated Virginia ports. Madison wanted to develop some, I think, a major port in Virginia, and there were a number of arguments he made in favor of sort of regulating entry into the state, particularly by foreign shippers.

[00:31:40] Jeff: And that just appalled Mason. He thought this idea of trying to encourage the development of big cities would just encourage these mobs and these financiers and whatever that he thought were subversive of republican values. And he criticized Hamilton and Hamilton’s financial program.

[00:31:59] Jeff: Was opposed to Madison’s — or Hamilton’s — proposal to pay the national debt off at face value. So much of it has been bought by speculators who hadn’t paid face value for it. He thought the assumption plan where the Congress or the Federal Government would assume the state’s debt, the state’s wartime debt, discriminate against Virginia because they pay their debt.

[00:32:20] Jeff: He didn’t like the banks of the United States, because he didn’t like banks much period, and he doubted the constitutionality of it. So, and there’s a letter he writes to James Monroe, sort of toward the end of his life where he says it is this new government and government of, he says, stock jobbing and favoritism. And he said it, it didn’t take any insight to predict that’s the way things would go.

[00:32:41] Barry: Before I ask you to read a paragraph from your works professor, maybe you could close our program today by talking a little bit about George Mason’s enduring constitutional legacy and what teachers, students, and the public should remember about him, and in particular, maybe you could say a word or two about his views on civic virtue as the basis for our experiment in ordered liberty and self-government.

[00:33:03] Jeff: I think that idea of civic virtue really is critical to understanding Mason’s legacy. When we talk about republican ideas of virtue, we typically emphasize public spiritedness, patriotism, civic mindedness. But Mason really believed that personal integrity was important, too. That that was important for good citizenship. You, you see it in different places. Mason supported sumptuary laws, and I won’t. I won’t go into too much detail about that, but sumptuary laws were laws that, among other things, would regulate gambling, drunkenness, you know, lewd entertainment, a number of things that Mason thought undermined the manners — that was the term he used — the manners of citizens in a way that was not — you see it in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a couple of provisions in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, where he says that no free government could survive unless the people were committed to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.

[00:34:11] Jeff: And then in the section on freedom of religion, he talks about that it’s the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other. So, I think for Mason, civic virtue and, public or private virtue, I think, went hand in hand and really were essential to successful republican government.

[00:34:33] Barry: Professor, maybe you could share a paragraph or so from your works that will help our listeners capture who George Mason is.

[00:34:39] Jeff: Well, I thought that just the last couple of sentences from the book might be one way to, sum up Mason’s career: “George Mason’s opposition to the ratification of the Constitution was not the protest of an isolated dissenter. And it was not an aberration in a career otherwise spent in the revolutionary mainstream. Mason’s fear of the abuse of political power, and the inevitability of political corruption, was grounded in the ideology of the American Revolution. And because that fear was so deep rooted, essential elements of his philosophy have echoed throughout American history.”

[00:35:40] Mariam: That was another fascinating interview on The Learning Curve. Barry, we have one tweet this week that really grabbed my attention. It’s about how — in Education Week — the ACT data shows that only one in five high school graduates in 2023 were fully prepared for college. And the numbers are there. It’s stark, really. It says the ACT scores basically are at a 32-year low. The composite score is at a 32-year low. And on one subject, or across all subjects, however you sort of slice the data, students are performing more poorly. And the drop has been faster since the pandemic began in 2020, as expected, I think.

[00:36:33] Mariam: But college readiness has been on the decline for more than a decade. The ACT finds more than 40 percent of new graduates didn’t meet ACT’s college readiness benchmark in any subject. And only 21 percent met the benchmarks in all four. So that’s about 20 percent of American high school students who are doing well across the board you know, well enough to be ready for their first year in college.

[00:37:01] Mariam: And of course, as we’ve talked many times on The Learning Curve, when Students are not well-educated it is a problem for society at large. It’s an economic problem. It’s a problem for our democracy. A well-educated citizenry is the ultimate safeguard of a democratic polity. And we seem to be in some real trouble and, you know, how we compare to other countries. It’s not as though everyone else is declining along with us. There are countries, including our competitors, our ideological competitors, who are, are not democratic, but maybe pushing their students, and they may be excelling in ways — particularly in math and science — where the ACT finds that American students are struggling relatively the most compared to any other subjects. We have a problem. So, I’m sure we will be coming to that again and again on this show.

[00:37:58] Barry: You know, the data point that you cite here, what’s concerning about this is it’s not an outlier. There are state-specific and more general state testing results that reflect similar concerns. So, it’s a serious problem and it is widespread.

[00:38:13] Mariam: Indeed. Well, Justice Anderson, my friend Barry, thank you so much again for co-hosting with me. Next time on The Learning Curve, we have Chris Sinacola, Director of Communications and Media Relations at Pioneer Institute. He has co-edited a new book called Restoring the City on a Hill, U.S. History and Civics in America’s Schools. Thank you so much for being with us today.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Mariam Memarsadeghi and MN Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson interview Prof. Jeff Broadwater author of the biography George Mason: Forgotten Founder. Prof. Broadwater explores George Mason’s pivotal role in opposing British policies that led to the American Revolution, his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and state constitution, and his stance against slavery. Prof. Broadwater discusses George Mason’s views on constitutionalism and federalism, leadership among the Anti-Federalists, and concerns about the emergence of commercial interests. He also highlights Mason’s emphasis on civic virtue as the foundation of American self-government. Prof. Broadwater closes with a reading from his biography of George Mason.

Stories of the Week: Mariam analyzed a story from The Week about the ongoing debate over the value of a college degree, exploring the pros and cons of college, the high costs, the changing job market challenges, and how higher education is linked to societal benefits. Barry focused on a story from The Hill emphasizing Tennessee’s potential rejection of federal education funds, driven by concerns about federal interference and regulations, particularly regarding disabled students, and explores the complex implications and challenges of such a decision.


Prof. Jeff Broadwater is an emeritus professor of history in the School of Humanities at Barton College in North Carolina. He is the author of several books, including Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution and James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation. Professor Broadwater’s book George Mason: Forgotten Founder won the Richard Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography from the Virginia Historical Society and was rated by the Washington Post as one of the best biographies of 2006. He holds a J.D. from the University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. in American History from Vanderbilt.

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