Monday, May 23, 2016

George Mason, Gunston Hall and the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Since my homeschool years have come to an end after graduating my youngest, I've been reading gobs of books that I never had a chance to read while reading gobs of books for school lessons! The latest in the historical series set of books was a biography on George Mason that I had purchased at the used bookstore a few years ago. I've met the man in person (courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, another terrific place to visit!). So of course I had to talk to him about his work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights! (Of course I couldn't yet ask about the Bill of Rights since we were in the 1770's!) 

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George Mason: Father of the Bill of Rights is written specifically for school students. Although it is a bit light on 18th century worldview, it is heavy with facts and details! I do recommend the book because I got to learn so much more about the man behind the important documents of our nation. I learned all about his family life, how he ran his plantation in a most frugal way, etc, etc, etc!

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After completing the biography I suggested to my family that we visit Mason's home of Gunston Hall, just south of Mount Vernon on the Potomac River. It's long been on our list of places to go and now was the time. The timing was incredible that we happened to be there on May 22, 2016! One of the displays in the little museum had this quote from George Mason's writings...

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Ironically, this May of 2016 has been the month of rain, quite similar to Mason's September of 1788. By May 22, the day we visited, we were having something like our 20th day of rain for the month. See all the puddles? Rain! Thankfully in our 21st century world we had no tobacco crops in danger however my garden had certainly thrived with the rain. It was looking like a jungle at my house!  

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This visit to Gunston Hall was also intriguing because of an opportunity we nearly had to buy a house in Northern Virginia on a road name...Gunston Hall! Now we were finally visiting the namesake of our almost home.  

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The home we tried to purchase was perfect in size and layout, although it didn't look anything like this! It was a modern colonial, and today it sadly sits empty (the bank refuses to sell it to anyone, it seems)...like Mason's home sadly sits empty today.

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Once upon a time it housed a man who greatly impacted our fledgling nation. He was a quiet man who adored his family and preferred to stay home as opposed to traveling. (Because he suffered greatly from various aches and pains, traveling was a huge discomfort.)  However duty called quite often, to serve as burgess in Williamsburg...where he ultimately penned a most important document that is rarely discussed in history textbooks.

Virginia led the way of a future nation on May 15, 1776, when the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg "resolved unanimously that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states...[and] that a committee be appointed to prepare a Declaration of Rights and...plan of government."

One of the men of this committee was George Mason, who was the key author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. So neat that we were the home of George Mason on the 240th anniversary of the writing of this important document, that became a model for so many others. During the writing of this historic document, many a communique traveled to another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who had been called to duty with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Jefferson was completely aware of all that was happening in Williamsburg, receiving a final copy of the document in June. Meanwhile Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence. Note the similarity of the documents.  We have even seen some of this interpreted in most dramatic form at Colonial Williamsburg!!!



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George Mason was also highly influential in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The biography details this greatly. Then his most famous part of the convention, was his refusal to sign the Constitution, insisting on a bill of rights. (The link provides history as to the why?) His refusal to sign the Constitution angered his good friend and neighbor, George Washington so much, who valued unity above all, that their friendship came to an end. Unpopular as the idea of the bill of rights was, Mason stood his ground. Ultimately, the Bill of Rights was eventually adopted after the passing of the Constitution. (This link takes you to the document.)


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Oft overlooked is George Mason's most important influence when he insisted that We the People be able to petition their state legislators to call a Convention of States to rein in the federal leviathan...because it was certain to one day come. Well, that day is here and I am a volunteer for Convention of States. You can petition your state legislators at this link and learn more.

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It was a misty drizzly day to walk through history...and overgrown 18th century paterre gardens...

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Once upon a time these gardens were stunning. This is the back view of the house. Behind me is the Potomac River.

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Raindrops!

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The old schoolroom was set up for us...

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We took the nearby trail to the Potomac. We had been told that hiking boots were needed. I assumed that was due to the mud from all the rain that month. The mud wasn't that bad, actually. But the trail was awful! We climbed over and under many a tree. We finally came to a broken plank to cross the creek. I'd have fallen off the hill first...or splashed into the creek. lol This trail requires far more than hiking boots. Perhaps another day. =) We turned around, never having seen the river.

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Back at the old paterre garden, I took a photo of the river in the distance that my son pointed out to me. Our only disappointment was in not seeing the river. Time has allowed all the trees to grow between the house and the river. This peak was all we had. Another time we'll try the trail.

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When we returned to the little museum, we saw a fabulous display of how the plantation once looked.

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That's how the paterre garden once looked!

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The gardens just kept going and going...what scope for the imagination!

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A bit more detail of the very back where it all drops off...

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I don't think I took a photo of where we can stand today at this same overlook...minus the gardens. 

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Our tour began at this fabulous map! It showcases all the landholdings that Mason had. The docent did a fabulous job linking us to this map! I highly recommend a visit and taking a tour! 

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Ah...and there is my Lafayette sighting for this trip! Lafayette was once a guest in this home (as in many stately homes of Virginia)...

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...and here is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which Lafayette introduced in France in 1789. Note, again, the similarity to the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

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All of these books are sold in the giftshop, but I already had the biography. I purchased the other two. I had found some quotes from Mason's son, John in the museum...which led me to buy this book when I found it: The Recollections of John Mason. In it he talks about his boyhood at Gunston Hall. I'm looking forward to this. The other book is a picture book of the inside of the home (where we are not allowed to take pictures). The entryway was most stunning. I actually loved the wall paper! It made me feel like I was in an atrium looking out to the gardens. They said the wallpaper itself wasn't original, but a reproduction based on 18th century ads they found from local gazettes, advertising wall paper for entry ways.  

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Much is to be learned from George Mason...a Founding Father that sadly, I never heard of until I came to Virginia.

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