Monday Escape: Gunston Hall in Virginia

George Mason & The Declaration of Independence

It being the week of Independence Day, I thought I’d peek back at my photos from various trips to Virginia. Though most Americans are familiar with Virginians like George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, very few know of George Mason, whose home Gunston Hall is just up the Potomac from Mount Vernon, and who was tremendously influential in America’s birth.

I’m just going to copy my original caption of this photo for you to introduce you to the man; should you ever be in Virginia sightseeing (something everyone should do regularly), please don’t neglect the home of this brilliant man; the museum on the grounds is small, but rich with information. Gunston Hall is also a very peaceful place to visit—though I hope that changes, as he deserves to be remembered.

One thing to remember about Gunston Hall is that, in addition to being a superb example of Georgian homes in America, it also gives us an idea of what homes like Mount Vernon and Montpelier looked prior to the building projects undertaken by George Washington and James Madison, respectively (if our Founders were not polymaths…who is?!).

Also, so far as the personality of the house goes (since we have discussed this here before), it is remarkably peaceful and calm. Unbelievably so. It’s still warm and a welcoming, happy place to be, but rarely have I been in such a wonderfully soothing atmosphere! No wonder Mason never wanted to leave.

“That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights… among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

Those words ring familiar, don’t they? But they’re not Jefferson’s. They are George Mason’s, from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by Mason in May of 1776, a month before Jefferson sat down to work on the Declaration (and the latter gentleman had already read the former’s Declaration).

Hubby had no idea of whom I spoke when the topic of visiting (“Please?”) George Mason’s home came up as we discussed our trip. He cannot be faulted, as many, perhaps even most, Americans are not familiar with Mason despite his accomplishments and, importantly, his great influence upon the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

The Fairfax Resolves and Virginia Declaration of Rights gave voice to what were, at the time (and still are, in some circles), radical ideas about government and its relation to men. But despite his principles and values, Mason was not a wild-eyed nut. For all intents and purposes, he was a farmer, inheriting 20,000 acres of land in Virginia and Maryland after his father’s drowning death during a boating accident.

In addition to his many accomplishments and service to our nation, Mason drew up non-importation resolutions for his friend and neighbor George Washington, and of course writing the 1774 Fairfax Resolves, wherein Mason (and the colony of Virginia) rejected Britain’s claim of supreme authority over the colonies. If you take the time to read them, you’ll see many of the ideas that lit a fire beneath the Americans—and provoked Great Britain. Several years later, of Truly Divine Designcourse, he wrote the even more provoking, shocking, and truly radical Virginia Declaration of Rights in May of 1776. It’s a beautiful, brilliant document, one that influenced none other than Thomas Jefferson, who shortly thereafter undertook the crafting of the Declaration of Independence for all thirteen colonies, to say nothing of course of the 1776 Commonwealth of Virginia Constitution (in which Mason also took part).

Power is, by God and Nature, vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all times amenable to them.

…no free Government, or the Blessings of Liberty can be preserved to any People, but by a firm adherence to Justice, Moder- ation, Temperance, Frugality, and Virtue and by frequent Recur- rence to fundamental Principles. (Virginia Declaration, 1776)

Interestingly, when it came to the Constitutional Convention of the United States, Mason not only spoke against it, he did not sign it or vote for its ratification in the Virginia Convention of 1788. He eloquently wrote of the reasons for his objections to the adoption of the Constitution.

Mason was deeply concerned that the House didn’t truly represent the people, that the Senate was too powerful, and that the federal judiciary could possibly destroy state judiciaries. Fearful that the new government could become an oppressive aristocracy or a monarchy, he voted against it.

Later, however, two of his concerns were addressed in the Bill of Rights, a document born in part because of the concerns voiced by Mason, Henry, and those who agreed with them. James Madison relented (declaring that the Constitution was quite clear on the subject of individual liberties and restraints on a federal government); the Bill of Rights was intended to protect individual liberties and cede any other decisions to the Sentinelsstates, not the federal government the people feared would grow too strong and too interfering. Mason “received much Satisfaction from the Amendments to the federal Constitution…” Sadly, Mason’s refusal to endorse the Constitution soured what had been a close friendship with George Washington.

Being invited to become one of Virginia’s first Senators in the nation’s first Senate, Mason declined, eager to leave politics behind at last (having officially retired in 1780). He spent the remainder of his years at Gunston Hall, and passed in peace in 1792.

In addition to the GunstonHall.org site, there’s a terrific Room Use Study that talks about the archaeology and discoveries about the home during the Mason era: decor, how it was used, art, lighting, textiles, and other things that shed light upon not just the home, but the family that lived there. It’s involved, but worth saving for a rainy day if you enjoy history or old homes.

Some work was being done on Gunston Hall during our last visit, and I look forward to seeing the results upon our return someday!

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