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George Mason

The First Masons of Virginia

       The Masons were among the very first families of colonial Virginia.  According to family tradition, George Mason I was a royalist in the English Civil War.  He fled England after the defeat of pro-Stuart forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and settled in Virginia sometime shortly thereafter. 

       In March 1655 Mason patented 900 acres in what is today Stafford County, Virginia, based on eighteen headrights.  Land ownership quickly vaulted him into the local landed gentry.  His first plantation was south of Chopawamsic Creek on the Potomac River. His first wife, Mary French, gave birth in 1660 to their one and only son, George Mason II.  

       George's son, George Mason III, was according to family tradition, born in 1690 on Dogue's Neck.  He expanded his family's land holdings into Charles County, Maryland, which was directly across the Potomac River from Dogue's Neck.   His land holdings were so large that he preferred to lease the land to farmers rather than try to cultivate the land himself with slaves. Working through Glasgow merchants, Mason traded in the local inferior quality Orinoco tobacco that was more popular on the European continent than in England.  It appears to have been a lucrative business. 

       Mason moved his family to Charles County, Maryland, in 1730, but he retained business interests in Virginia where he still owned thousands of acres, ran three ferries and operated a fishing monopoly at the mouth of Occoquan Creek.   

The Early Life of George Mason IV

       One of the children of George Mason III was George Mason IV.  He was born on Dogue's Neck on December 11, 1725.  After his father's death, George and his family returned to his mother's property on Chopawamsic Creek in what is today Prince William County, Virginia.  When he came of age, George IV inherited his father's estate under the law of primogeniture. 

       Young George's world revolved around the family’s Chopawamsic plantation. He probably traveled no further than short trips to neighboring plantations in Virginia and Maryland.  Like other young boys, he likely spent his hours hunting and fishing in the fields and woods along Chopawamsic Creek

       In 1736 Ann hired a Master Williams to tutor young George on the Chopawamsic plantation.  It was likely a one room schoolhouse in which other children of the neighborhood attended.  In 1737 Williams moved to a school in Maryland, and it is believed that George went with him.  In 1740 George returned home and completed his formal education with a Dr. Bridges, likely studying grammar, Latin and mathematics. 

       The extraordinary mind that Mason would display later in life owes most of its existence to George's association with his co-guardian, John Mercer of Marlborough.  Mercer was married to Ann Mason's sister and thus was very close to the family.   He owned one of the largest private libraries of law books in the colony.  In it were legal treatises, the writings of English jurist Edward Coke, as well as classic works such as the Iliad and the writings of Plato. 


Ann Eilbeck

Ann Eilbeck

George Mason, the Family & Business Man

       On April 4, 1750, Mason married sixteen-year old Ann Eilbeck, the only child of a wealthy merchant and planter from Maryland.  Of dark hair and light complexion, Ann was known throughout the region for her beauty.   According to family legend, she had once even attracted the unrequited attention of a fourteen-year old George Washington. She had nine children surviving to adulthood with George Mason, and while none of her writings have survived, their marriage was by all accounts a happy one. 

       Mason was clearly an astute businessman. He was obsessed with acquiring land.  Tobacco cultivation exhausted the soil and demanded the continuous acquisition of ever more land.  By the 1750s he owned a total 75,000 acres (the equivalent of an astonishing 117 square miles) in Virginia and Maryland, and he knew how to make them productive.  He was a very busy man who paid attention to every detail of his enterprise, and he was driven to acquire as much wealth as possible.

     Ann Mason died of a fever on April 4, 1773, at Gunston Hall.   George was devastated by the loss.  It took many years for him to recover, but eventually his loneliness convinced him of the need to remarry.  He married Sarah Brent of a prominent Virginia family on April 11,  1780.  Sarah was 50 years old and George 55.    Sarah brought her ten year old nephew, George Graham, with her to Gunston Hall.   It seems to have been an amiable relationship, but the existence of a marriage agreement suggests there was an element of convenience.  The marriage was likely not as close as that between George and Ann Mason. 



Mason & the Ohio Company

       George Mason's first major step into public life began in the 1740s with his involvement in the Ohio Company.  After the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster gave control of lands in the Ohio Valley to the English, Thomas Lee and other Virginia notables formed the Ohio Company to exploit the concessions granted by the Six Nations of the Iroquois.  The plan was to establish a trading monopoly with the Indians, and to settle the area with Protestant German and Swiss settlers.  

       George Mason was the secretary of the Ohio Company.  He believed the Treaty of Lancaster gave the English full title to the lands in western Virginia and Ohio.  He pressed the company's claims against the Crown and rival companies aggressively.  During the French-Indian War, Mason helped organize the war effort from Gunston Hall, procuring powder and lead for George Washington's men, and acting as both secretary and quartermaster for the Virginia Militia.  

       What was the lasting impact of the Ohio Company on George Mason's career?  It undoubtedly gave him a sense of America's destiny lying westward.  But it may have been a great deal more.  It may have planted a seed that would sprout later in his career.  Although Mason had other reasons to resent the British government, surely the rebuff over the Ohio Company was a source of alienation. 



Mason Clashes with British Authority

      For much of his early career, George Mason had been a reluctant public servant.  Mason's indifference to the duties of public service changed when the Stamp Act was imposed on the colonies in 1765.  Mason and other Virginians wanted to join the other colonies in a campaign against the Act, but there was a hitch. The courts required officially stamped paper in order to conduct its business, but if the stamps were boycotted, that meant that all the courts' legal decisions, including those involving the collection of debts for unpaid rents, would be legally questionable.  

       Mason offered a compromise.  It allowed for a single judge, rather than the whole court, to decide a debt case, essentially reducing the need for court paperwork and the dreaded accompanying official stamp. 

       Mason, however, was not a major figure in Virginia's protest against the Stamp Act.  He did not, for example, join his younger brother Thompson in signing the Leedstown Resolves in 1766.  This was despite the fact that almost every major political figure in Virginia, including the Lee brothers and Lawrence Washington, had signed the resolution. 

       Interestingly, because it was not required by the subject at hand, Mason used the opportunity of writing the treatise to launch a criticism of slavery.  It was one of the first major discourses of a Virginian against the institution of slavery, and thus offers a window into his thinking. 

       Mason's arguments against slavery were typical mid-18th century fare.  He tended to equate the forced imposition of labor on someone as a subspecies of indentured servitude. Thus, the element of racism was not all that important to him.  In fact, it can be argued that by today’s standards, almost all Virginia’s critics of slavery at the time, including later Thomas Jefferson, held racially prejudicial views against black people. 

       What rattled Mason the most was the impact slavery had on the white slave owners themselves.  It turned them into petty tyrants and led them to avoid the moral value of hard work.  Slavery also suppressed white tenant farming, which he thought was not only good for large landowners like himself, but for the morals and economic good of the colony.  

       Like other Virginians, Mason's view of rights, politics and the law were heavily influenced by John Locke, Montesquieu and the practices of British Common Law.  But Mason was more radical than most Virginians.  He seemed to have been heavily influenced by radical Whigs such as Algernon Sydney, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard.  He was particularly impressed by republican arguments that good government depended on virtue, defined not only as public-mindedness but as avoiding the corruptions of wealth.  He clearly viewed rights as something bequeathed to him as an Englishman, but to his mind they were the collective rights of the majority against arbitrary government (in this case Americans against Parliament), rather than as the rights of individual against the state.  Like other contemporaries, he favored equality not as a right for all individuals, but as a desired social mean to avoid the extremes of great wealth or poverty. 

       Mason was more liberal than most Virginians on religious toleration and liberty.  Whereas another radical, Richard Henry Lee, mistrusted Catholics and believed in some role for established religion, Mason believed all religions should be tolerated.  

       After the Stamp Act was repealed, the next big test for Mason was the Townshend Duties of 1767, which was yet another attempt by Parliament to pay for Britain's expensive armies in America.  As the colonies organized a boycott of British imports to protect the duties, Mason advised George Washington on how to proceed. 

       Mason devised a way to get around the new duties without completely boycotting all British goods.  Essentially, he drew up a limited list of mostly luxury items like liquor and furniture for the boycott.  A version of it was implemented, but Virginia never seriously restricted British goods during the Townshend Duties crisis.  As a matter of fact, British imports actually increased over the next couple of years after the duties were imposed. 
       As with his challenging the Stamp Act, Mason's anti-Townshend Duties plan was yet another step toward defying British authority.  He was refining his arguments, getting more involved in politics, and gradually becoming more radical in his political views. One could say that by the early 1770s George Mason’s mind was already well primed to become a revolutionary.
Mason's Road to Revolution
       Up until 1774, George Mason had been at best a tangential player in Virginia politics.  He had never taken either his court or legislative duties very seriously.  He had been involved in in the Ohio Company, but only enough to barely keep it afloat.  He had played only minor roles in the imperial crises sparked by the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties.  At age 49 he saw himself as largely retired and someone who seldom meddled in public affairs.
       His first revolutionary masterstroke were the Fairfax Resolves.  This was a revolutionary manifesto written largely by Mason for his colleagues in Fairfax County, Virginia.  The Resolves called for the appointment of a committee to collect provisions for the relief of the Boston poor, for a boycott of the East India Company, and for convening of a continental congress to devise a general plan for the defense of the rights of the colonies. Mason claimed not to be advocating independence from Britain, but rather to protest the creation of an arbitrary government in the America by the 'British Ministry." There were other petitions passed during this time, but none were more radical and far-reaching that Mason's Fairfax Resolves.
       It was, however, Mason's work in the fifth Virginia Convention, the one that declared independence from Britain that Mason the Revolutionary really comes into his own. 
       He sat to work on a plan of government and a bill of rights for Virginia.   The final Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution were collaborative efforts, but there is little doubt that Mason was the principal author of the Declaration of Rights.  He worked closely with Thomas Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry's older brother, in writing the Declaration.  Of the sixteen articles of the Declaration, Mason wrote all or part of twelve; all but two of the final articles showed Mason's influence. 
        Drafted in 1776, Virginia's Declaration of Rights began with language written by Mason and which Jefferson would later paraphrase in the Declaration of Independence, "That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing the obtaining Happiness and Safety." 

       Mason began work on Virginia's constitution before the Declaration was approved.   His proposal established separate branches of government and a bicameral legislature. Property ownership was made a condition for suffrage, but Mason also proposed that landless men who were parents of at least three children should be given the vote as well.  Mason paid special attention to the apportionment of the legislature to avoid the rotten borough system prevalent in Britain.  

       Overall, Mason was satisfied with his work on the Constitution, although he remained prouder of the Declaration of Rights. Important issues had been debated and resolved.  A new government had been created without a crisis of authority.  The Virginia Constitution had established a republican form of government grounded in representation of the people.  


Mason, the Constitutional Convention, & the Bill of Rights

       Like most other members of the Convention, Mason believed a new government with more centralized power was desperately needed to replace the Articles of Confederation. However, his mistrust of centralized power put him at odds with the majority of the Convention.  

       At the beginning of the Convention, Mason appeared comfortable with the Virginia Plan, which had been written largely by Madison, and which became the first draft of the final constitution.   

       Mason began to part ways with others in the Convention, even fellow Virginians, over the shape of the Executive.  Ever mistrustful of central power, Mason envisioned a three-person executive instead of a single one.  Fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph and even Benjamin Franklin agreed with Mason, but Madison, Washington and Wythe voted for the single executive.  Mason's most reliable ally was Randolph, as the two worked together on a variety of issues, including money bills that initiated in the House and the question of whether they could be amended by the Senate. 
       When the issue of slavery was raised in the Constitutional Convention, Mason emerged as one of the institution's most bitter critics. He blamed Britain and especially British merchants for forcing slavery and the slave trade on Virginia.  Repeating points made by Jefferson in the "Notes on the State of Virginia," Mason said slavery stifled industrialization and economic modernization and discredited otherwise honorable manual labor.
       In the end, it was a bargain struck by slave states with New England over the taxation of exports and the number of votes required to pass a navigation bill that established the measure to continue the slave trade for some years.  Once this bargain was struck, the measure extending the slave trade to 1808 passed with relatively little debate.  Mason bitterly opposed this deal, but he was over-ruled.  
       When the Convention turned to the shape of the judiciary, Mason made clear his preference for a Bill of Rights.  It was not until the end of the Convention that Mason even raised the issue of a bill of rights.  Why this is so is unclear; Richard Henry Lee believed it was because the rights were so commonly understood that did not need explicitly articulated and defending. Whatever may be the case, a bill of rights occupied very little time of the Convention's debate, an oversight that would later become painfully obvious to the nation.
       By the time the Constitutional Convention ended, George Mason’s objections had grown to such an extent that he could no longer be counted upon as a supporter.  Even in matters of small details he was losing votes.  He decided that he could not support the Constitution as drafted absent a follow-on convention to resolve the many issues that bothered him. 
Mason's Legacy
       George Mason was among a dozen or so of the fifty-five delegates of the Constitutional Convention who, according to Jeff Broadwater, made a "substantial impact on the final text of the document." He was among the Convention's most frequent speakers, and along with Franklin, Madison, Rufus King, William Paterson, and Edmund Randolph, was among the top tier of the Convention's leadership. There can be no doubt that Mason played a major role in checking the centralizing and social elite tendencies of Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. 
       Mason's influence was evident on a host of issues.  Members of Congress would be paid by the national government, reducing their economic dependence on the states. Senators and Representatives must be citizens.  He played a role in ensuring that money bills originated in the House and that the slave trade not be extended beyond 1808.  He blocked efforts by Hamilton and others who wanted lawmakers to be able to hold positions in the executive branch.  He provided critical support for a popularly elected House of Representatives, and his hand could be seen in liberal suffrage agreements, in stopping a ban on federal tax on exports, and preventing Congress from vetoing state laws.  The issue of Bill of Rights would likely not have been debated had it not been for Mason.  
       So why did Mason oppose the Constitution?  It was not just one thing.  As the Convention proceeded he began to lose debates on issues big and small.  However, the main issues that seemed to have turned him against the document were: 1) his opposition to its provisions on navigation laws; 2) his opposition to the extension of the slave trade and the bargain that was struck with New England over it; 3) provisions large and small that, to his mind, overly concentrated power, encouraged corruption or curtailed the power of the people; and 4) the absence of a Bill of Rights
       It is tempting to explain Mason's opposition to the Constitution as mainly about his opposition to slavery or his support for individual rights. But this would not be accurate.  No doubt he opposed slavery in principle, but he was never an abolitionist.  The same is true with respect to the Bill of Rights.  No doubt he also wanted a Bill of Rights, but he brought it up late in the Convention when it was too late to deal with just a momentous issue.
       If one had to find a persistent theme that persisted throughout Mason's time at the Convention it would be that he wanted to guard the rights of the American people against the potential tyranny of the majority.  But his was not a typical libertarian or state’s rights mistrust of government power.  He believed that the American Republic would not survive unless its people were virtuous.  He mistrusted centralized government not because he believed, as Jefferson did, that the people were inherently good.  Rather, like John Adam and even Alexander Hamilton, he actually mistrusted the people and argued that there needed to be a check on the majority.  His main concern was that he feared a strong government would be seized by the interests of the wealthy and be used against the people.   
       History has not been kind to George Mason.  He is known as the forgotten founding father.  He was older than many of the other revolutionary leaders, and since he did not hold office in the early years of the Republic as Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison did, his memory became eclipsed by the fame of these more famous men.  His break late in life with his former protégé George Washington hurt his reputation.  He was not a self-promoter.  He never sought national office.  Probably most important in sidelining Mason’s memory was his vote against the Constitution, which set him up as an historical loser, as being on the “wrong side of history,” so to speak.  
       Mason's legacy will never soar to the heights of Washington, Jefferson, Adams or Madison.  Perhaps it should not.  After all, while Mason did do a lot for the country, he never played the commanding roles in creating the nation that these four men did.  This is not to belittle Mason's legacy, but merely to put it in historical perspective.  Nevertheless, George Mason deserves to be recognized as a "founder" of the American nation in his own right.  For that all Americans owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Gunston Hall after George Mason
George Mason V
  George Mason V
       George Mason had 12 children.  The oldest was George Mason V who built an estate called Lexington on land given to him by his father.  He suffered all his life from chronic illness which limited his activities.  He commanded a Virginia militia unit during the Revolutionary War, and he traveled to France for his health and on business.  When his father died in 1792, he inherited the entirety of Mason's Neck, including Gunston Hall.  
       George Mason IV's other son, John, had a more successful career despite not being the main heir of his father's estate.  John Mason started a successful firm called Fenwick & Mason that was involved in the tobacco trade, turnpikes, international commerce and foundries.  John moved to Washington, D.C., where he bought and owned a substantial amount of property, including what is today called Roosevelt Island.  John had inherited the island from his father, George Mason IV, who had acquired the property from his father in 1735.  John built a mansion and substantial gardens on the island around 1796 which have long disappeared.  John Mason was the first commanding general of the District militia, which is today the Washington, D.C., National Guard.  In 1815 he acquired the Foxhall Foundry in Georgetown and operated it until his death in 1849.
Richard Barnes Mason    
       George's son Richard Barnes Mason, born at Lexington in 1797 only a few months after his father had died, was a distinguished military officer.  He was military governor of California during the Gold rush.
       When John’s brother George died 1796, he divided the property between his two eldest sons.  Gunston Hall went to his eldest, George Mason VI.  Upon the latter's death in 1834, his second wife Eleanor Clifton Patton Mason inherited the residence.  She and George Mason Graham sold Gunston Hall to William Merrill and William Dawson sometime around or before 1867.  They gave the deed to the property to Edward Daniels in 1868.  Daniels had been a Union officer in the Civil War and had admired Gunston Hall when stationed nearby. Daniels was an amateur astronomer, and he added an observatory tower on the roof in the 1870s
Louis and Eleanor Hertle.  
Louis and Eleanor Hertle
       After 1912 Gunston Hall went through a series of owners, but it was not until the property was bought by Louis Hertle of Chicago that the mansion underwent any substantial restorations.  In 1932 Hertle and his wife, Eleanor, gave Gunston Hall to the Commonwealth of Virginia to be managed by a Board of Regents from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.  
       This organization lovingly manages, maintains and restores Gunston Hall to this day. 
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