Gunston Hall, Virginia


Four miles from Mt. Vernon, on the Potomac, is the well-preserved mansion, Gunston Hall, built in 1758 by George Mason, the great-grandson of George Mason, who fled to America after the Battle of Worcester, where he was in arms against the king of England. The first mention of the name of this George Mason occurs in the Virginia patent of land which he secured in March, 1655.

George Washington and George Mason were not only near neighbors, but they were warm friends. Frequently Washington drove to Gunston Hall for a talk with Mason; or sometimes he floated down the stream in his four-oared gig, manned by his own slaves. Sometimes the men roamed together through the woods or the fields; on one of these walks they sought to define the boundaries between their estates.

Gifts of various kinds passed back and forth between the two manors; one day in 1785, when Mason was driven from Mt. Vernon in Washington’s carriage, he sent back by the driver some young shoots of the Persian jessamine and Guelder rose.

A few days later a hogshead of cider was broached at Gunston Hall, and a liberal sample was sent to Washington. A note dated ” 9th November, 1785,” addressed to Washington, begins, ” The bearer waits on you with a side of venison (the first we have killed this season), which I beg your acceptance of.”

At one time both Washington and Mason were members of the vestry of Truro parish. Washington’s list of the vestrymen shows that his friend was elected by two hundred and eighty-two votes, while he himself received but fifty-one votes.

Mason was as often at Mt. Vernon as Washington was at Gunston Hall. After a visit made on Christmas Day, 1783, one of the other guests, Miss Lewis, of Fredericks-burg, wrote :

” Among the most notable of the callers was Mr. George Mason, of Gunston Hall, who was on his way home from Alexandria, and who brought a charming granddaughter with him. . . . He is said to be one of the greatest statesmen and wisest men in Virginia. We had heard much of him and were delighted to look in his face, hear him speak, and take his hand, which he offered in a courtly manner. He is slight in figure, but not tall, and has a grand head and clear gray eyes.”

To the home of George Mason other men of note delighted to come. In the guest room Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, as well as Washington, slept more than once. Patrick Henry, too, was a welcome visitor at Gunston Hall. George Mason had as high an opinion of the orator as Patrick Henry had of the states-man. ” He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard,” Mason once said of Henry; ” every word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. Hp is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues, and had he lived in Rome about the time of the first Punic War, when the Roman people had arrived at their meridian glory and their virtue not tarnished, Mr. Henry’s talents must have put him at the head of that glorious commonwealth.”

The orator returned the compliment by calling Mason one of the two greatest statesmen he ever knew.

George Mason’s statesmanlike vision was seen in 1766, when he warned the British public of the results that would follow coercion. ” Three millions of people driven to desperation are not an object of contempt,” he wrote. Again he proved a good prophet when he wrote to George Washington, on April 2, 1776, after the General took possession of Boston :

” I congratulate you most heartily upon this glorious and important event—an event which will render George Washington’s name immortal in the annals of America,endear his memory to the latest posterity, and entitle him to those thanks which heaven appointed as the reward of public virtue.

Mason was of a retiring disposition, and he would have preferred to remain at home. But he was forced into the councils of the Virginia Convention, and during his service there he prepared the marvellous Bill of Rights which was later made a part of the Constitution of that State and was the model for similar documents in many other States. He was also the author of the Constitution of Virginia, and the designer of the State seal. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he proved himself ” the champion of the State and the author of the doctrine of State Rights.” Because the Constitution as finally drafted by the convention contained so many provisions that he felt were dangerous, he refused to sign the document, ” declaring that he would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution ” whose provisions he could not approve.

After the Constitutional Convention for more than four years the statesman lived quietly at Gunston Hall. When he died in October, 1792, he asked to be buried by the side of his first wife, whose death in 1773 had been a grievous blow to him. Over’ her tomb he had in-. scribed :

“Once She was all that cheers and sweetens Life; The tender Mother, Daughter, Friend and Wife: Once She was all that makes Mankind adore; Now view the Marble, and be vain no more.”

No monument was ever raised over his own grave. A grandson planned to set a stone inscribed to “The Author of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia,” but he was unable to do as he wished.

Gunston Hall still stands, though it has passed through many hands since the death of him whom George Esten Cooke called ” one of the most remarkable men, not only of his Country, and of his epoch, but of all Countries and all time.”