The Patriarch of Gunston Hall
In April 1750, Mason married Ann Eilbeck, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Colonel William Eilbeck, a prominent Maryland planter and merchant. They seemed to have enjoyed a happy marriage as suggested by what Mason wrote after her death: "in the Beauty of her Person, and the Sweetness of her Disposition, she was equaled by few, and excelled by none." In 1754, the couple began construction of a new home. Gunston Hall's exterior and floor plan came from period building manuals, but Mason imported two gifted English artisans as indentured servants, carpenter and joiner William Buckland and woodcarver William Bernard Sears, to complete the interior work. Together they made Gunston Hall one of the finest homes in colonial America. By 1770, Ann Mason had given birth to ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. In December 1772, she delivered twin boys prematurely. It was a difficult pregnancy, neither boy lived, and she never regained her health. Her death in March 1773 sent Mason into a prolonged period of depression, although he continued to manage his varied business interests and to care for his large family. On April 11, 1780, Mason married Sarah Brent, the daughter of a family friend, George Brent. She was fifty, but it was her first marriage.
As did many Virginia planters, Mason speculated in western lands. In June 1749, he became a partner in the Ohio Company, which held a royal grant for 200,000 acres at the forks of the Ohio River. Once the company built a fort and settled a hundred families in the area, it was to receive another 300,000 acres. In September 1749, Mason became the company's treasurer and assumed most of the responsibility for its day-to-day operations. The Ohio Company's forays into western territories claimed by the French probably helped provoke the French and Indian War in 1754, and the fighting made it impossible for the company to enforce its grant. Mason tried for years to obtain relief for the company from colonial and later American authorities, but to no avail.
The American Revolution
Mason opposed the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed most printed items in the American colonies, but he did not play a prominent role in the movement that led to its repeal. After the Townshend Duties levied new taxes on the colonies in 1767, Mason worked more actively with George Washington to develop a nonimportation plan to protest British policies. Although historians debate the extent of Mason's contribution, he clearly wanted to ban the importation of slaves and British luxury goods. By 1774, when Parliament passed the so-called Intolerable Acts, which placed new restrictions on Massachusetts in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, Mason had become a leader of the patriot movement in Virginia. In July 1774, he drafted the Fairfax Resolves calling for the creation of a congress of all the colonies and for a renewed boycott of British goods. In August, a Virginia convention approved the resolves, and in October, a new Continental Congress adopted a Continental Association patterned after the Virginia resolutions.
If the Virginia Declaration of Rights stands as Mason's greatest accomplishment, the Virginia constitution of 1776 suffered from many of the defects common to the first generation of state constitutions. Mason divided authority among executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, but most power resided in a badly apportioned legislature that did not accurately represent the distribution of population between the East and West. A weak governor lacked veto power, the oligarchic county courts were left alone, and no provision was made for constitutional amendments. The convention rejected Mason's proposal to expand voting rights beyond white male landowners. Despite its defects, however, voters accepted the new government, and Mason's constitution remained in effect until 1830.
The United States Constitution
The other delegates worried much more about the allocation of seats in Congress. A split between large and small states threatened to wreck the convention. Mason served on a committee that proposed a solution. In what came to be known as "the Great Compromise," the committee proposed that seats in the United States House of Representatives be based on population, while each state would enjoy equal representation in the Senate. The convention approved the compromise over the opposition of a majority of the Virginia delegates, including Madison.
Another compromise, however, changed Mason's attitude toward the emerging Constitution. New England and South Carolina delegates, he believed, reached an agreement to abandon the two-thirds requirement for trade regulations in exchange for a constitutional provision continuing the foreign slave trade until, at first, 1800, and, in the course of the debates, until 1808. The apparent deal appalled Mason. Although Mason owned dozens of slaves himself, he had repeatedly condemned the institution. He saw no easy way to abolish slavery where it was already well entrenched, but felt that few vested interests would be disturbed by ending the foreign slave trade. On August 31, Mason proclaimed he "would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands."
Mason, nevertheless, continued to participate in the debates. On September 12, he offered to draft a bill of rights for the new Constitution. Some critics then and since have questioned his motives, suspecting he wanted to sabotage the convention by leading it into a legal morass. But Mason had long been devoted to protecting civil liberties, and his argument that the people would expect the Constitution to include a bill of rights proved prophetic. Any possibility that Mason would support the Constitution ended when the delegates, voting by state, decided unanimously to reject Mason's offer.
December 11, 1725 - George Mason IV is born on Dogue's Neck, Virginia, in what is today Fairfax County. He is the son of George Mason III and Ann Thomson Mason.
June 1748 - George Mason loses the Fairfax County election for House of Burgesses, coming in fourth out of five candidates.
June 21, 1749 - George Mason becomes a partner in the Ohio Company. On March 16, 1749, the company had received a grant, with certain conditions, for 500,000 acres at the forks of the Ohio River.
April 4, 1750 - George Mason marries Ann Eilbeck, the daughter of William Eilbeck and Sarah Edgar Eilbeck. William Eilbeck is a wealthy planter and merchant in Charles County, Maryland.
1758–1761 - George Mason represents Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
1759 - George Mason completes an elegant mansion, Gunston Hall, on Dogue's Neck, Virginia. Noted architect William Buckland has designed the interior, and Gunston Hall will remain Mason's home for the rest of his life.
April 1769 - George Mason collaborates with his neighbor George Washington in drafting a plan to protest the Townshend Duties by boycotting imports from Great Britain.
March 9, 1773 - Ann Eilbeck Mason dies from complications following the birth of twins, who died in infancy. She has previously given birth to ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood.
July 1774 - George Mason drafts the Fairfax Resolves, challenging the authority of Parliament over the American colonies, calling for a boycott of British goods, and proposing a continental congress to coordinate American resistance to British policy.
1776–1780 - George Mason serves as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Although elected again in 1786, he is unable to return to the assembly in 1787 due to poor health.
April 11, 1780 - George Mason marries Sarah Brent, the fifty-year-old daughter of George Brent, a family friend. It is Brent's first marriage.
March 24–28, 1785 - George Mason attends the Mount Vernon Conference, called by Maryland and Virginia to adopt regulations for the use of the Potomac River. The Mount Vernon Conference leads indirectly to the federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
September 1787 - George Mason writes his "Objections to the Constitution." He will become a leader of the Anti-Federalists, who oppose ratification.
June 2–27, 1788 - George Mason serves as a delegate to the Richmond convention called to consider ratification of the United States Constitution. Over his objections, the delegates approve the Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79.
October 7, 1792 - George Mason dies at Gunston Hall, his Fairfax County home.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Broadwater, J. George Mason (1725–1792). (2014, March 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Mason_George_1725-1792.
- MLA Citation:
Broadwater, Jeff. "George Mason (1725–1792)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 18, 2010 | Last modified: March 6, 2014
Contributed by Jeff Broadwater, a professor of history at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. He is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006).