He was getting tired of it. The meddling, the sense that Americans were being treated like unruly schoolboys. Yet, make no mistake he was not a hot-headed radical.
He was a semi-retired farmer who rarely left Virginia and in his words, “has seldom meddled in public affairs...” But George Mason had enough and drew a line in the sand that he simply could not cross. Thanks to his stubbornness, for over 200 years the individual rights guaranteed to Americans have become a model for democracies around the world.
His home, known as Gunston Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark, is about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C.
A place of contrasting details
Mason blazed his own trail in the formation of our government when he refused to sign the Constitution as it lacked assurances of individual freedom. The document he created for his home state, the Virginia Declaration of Rules, became the framework for our Bill of Rights.
Like his journey from English gentleman to American patriot, Mason’s home, too, is an edifice that cannot be easily labeled. A four-year construction effort, the modest Georgian-style facade gives no hint to the exquisite craftsmanship inside.
“It’s pretty astounding once you come in here,” my tour guide, Jackie, told me. “It looks like a small home as you approach it, then you come inside and go, ‘Holy cow! Where did these 12-feet-8-inch” ceilings come from? Where did this carving, this luxurious room?’ I think the contrast really impresses and surprises people.”
Impressive indeed. Lost for a moment in the grand interior, I expected to see Mason turn the corner and greet me in the vast Central Passageway. Dinner for two, Mr. Mason? Oh, not with you dressed in pants, my dear lady!
Built to last
Robert A. Rutland, author of George Mason: Reluctant Statesman, wrote that “like most of the things George Mason constructed, Gunston Hall was built to last.” In his political life, Mason was known for an uncanny ability to master details. That skill flowed seamlessly from professional dealings to construction dwelling. For example, Mason had strict guidelines about the sand used to make the mortar. He checked the seasoning of the timbers and the cut of the mason stones used for corners of the building. Visitors may not notice all of these details. Yet, the fact that they can step inside Mason’s original home 258 years after it was completed highlights his dedication to long-term endeavors that mattered to him.
Two sides to the man and house
As there were two sides to Mason, the statesman and the private farmer, Gunston Hall reflects his dual roles. Visitors see his formal Palladian Room, where he entertained guests and showed off his status with an elegantly carved doorway that calls attention to the fanciest room in the house. The Chinese Room was equally impressive to Mason guests. It was the site of meals that began at 2 p.m. and included three significant courses while the afternoon sun drenched the canary-colored walls.
“It is typical of George Mason to along with the way things are supposed to be, but when he comes up against something that doesn’t work for him he’s willing to go his own way,” said Jackie.
Jackie continued, “And I think it’s typical of his personality, his political life, and the way he designed this house. He designed it traditionally until he needed something different and then he was willing to go against convention.”
Making the climb through the narrow servant’s staircase to the second floor, Mason’s break with the norm is evident. The seven bedrooms upstairs could be described as simple, yet functional. They are worth seeing given their impressive vantage point high above the grounds.
Despite making 136 speeches at the 1787 Constitutional Convention about omissions to the Constitution he felt were essential, he was condemned by Constitutional supporters as a bitter old man. Rebuffed and angry he found refuge at Gunston Hall among his family. He may have spent time contemplating in his unadorned home office gazing at his English boxwood shrubs, which are still thriving.
The natural beauty of Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall’s impressive qualities are not confined to the house. Its 550-acres of overall stillness, broken only by the delicate sound of birds, and ample walking paths add to its appeal. Sitting behind the house on a high back bench overlooking the Potomac River, visitors can reflect on Mason’s efforts for the greater good.
Author Robert Rutland said it best, “Mason’s quarrel with the final form of the Constitution, far from reducing his stature as an intellectual leader, serves to confirm it.”
A meat pie, suppawn, or bean porridge available for a tourist?
While these 1700’s food staples may have gone the way of the candle for light, there is a tasty option available at Gunston Hall: Amphora Catering. Its freshly-made lunch options are on the Gunston Hall website. Your order is delivered free of charge to the Gunston Hall Visitors Center. A veggie roasted red pepper hummus sandwich, pasta salad with fresh vegetables, kettle chips, and chocolate chip cookie were a perfect way to end my time at Gunston Hall. Traversing historic landmarks can be exhausting for the modern American!
An ongoing experiment
The day after I toured Gunston Hall I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith Youth Core talking about politics. Patel aptly stated, “America is a long-term experiment.” Thanks to George Mason’s commitment to individual freedoms we can participate in this experiment. We proudly call it democracy, he simply called it liberty.
If you go:
- The house and museum are open daily 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
- Grounds close at 6:00 p.m.
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
- Plenty of free parking available.
- Book by Robert Allen Rutland, "George Mason: Reluctant Statesman" published 1961
- Book by Bernard Schwartz, "The Great Rights of Mankind" published 1992
- Tour with Mason Hall docent