Author: Jeff Broadwater

professor emeritus of history at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. He is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006), James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation (2012), and Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution (2019)

George Mason (1725–1792)

George Mason was a wealthy planter and an influential lawmaker who served as a member of the Fairfax County Court (1747–1752; 1764–1789), the Truro Parish vestry (1749–1785), the House of Burgesses (1758–1761), and the House of Delegates (1776–1780). In 1769, he helped organize a nonimportation movement to protest British imperial policies, and he later wrote the Fairfax Resolves (1774), challenging Parliament’s authority over the American colonies. In 1775, Mason was elected to the Fairfax County committees of public safety and correspondence. He represented Fairfax County in Virginia‘s third revolutionary convention (1775) and in the fifth convention (1776), where he drafted Virginia’s first state constitution and its Declaration of Rights, which is widely considered his greatest accomplishment. As a member of the House of Delegates, he advocated sound money policies and the separation of church and state. Mason represented Virginia at the Mount Vernon Conference (1785) on Potomac River navigation and at the federal Constitutional Convention (1787). Although Mason initially supported constitutional reform, he ultimately refused to sign the Constitution, and he led the Anti-Federalist bloc in the Virginia convention (1788) called to consider ratification of the Constitution. After Virginia approved it, Mason retired to his elegant home, Gunston Hall, on Dogue’s Neck, where he died in 1792.


Madison, James and Slavery

Over a long public career that included a leading role in the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and two terms as president of the United States (1809–1817), James Madison, a Virginian who owned enslaved people, compiled a record on the issue of slavery that was mixed at best. Madison supported legislation allowing those who claimed people as property to free their workers without the approval of state or local authorities, but he never liberated his own enslaved workers. Madison opposed the African slave trade throughout his career, yet late in life he defended the westward expansion of slavery. He regularly attacked slavery as a violation of republican principles, without ever putting forward a realistic program to eradicate the institution. Instead, he embraced an unworkable plan to colonize freed enslaved people in Africa. Political realities, economic self-interest, a desire to avoid an issue that could split the Union, and an unwavering conviction that, largely because of white prejudices, whites and free Blacks could not peacefully coexist led Madison to routinely compromise his antislavery convictions.


Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall is the stately Georgian home of Virginia lawmaker George Mason in Fairfax County on the Potomac River. Mason inherited the land on which Gunston Hall is located from his father in 1735; construction on the house began in 1754. Completed in 1759, Gunston Hall was one of the finest homes in colonial America. While the house’s exterior is typical of most Chesapeake plantation homes, the elegant interior reflects the full range of English rococo style, showing French, neoclassical, and chinoiserie influences, and stood out at a time when the prevailing building style was most often described as “neat and plain.” The house’s innovative architectural flourishes and intricate woodwork can be attributed to its English architect, William Buckland, and master carver, William Bernard Sears. Enslaved workers farmed part of the Gunston Hall grounds, growing tobacco and wheat, among other crops, and raising livestock. Log Town, a community of enslaved people, stood at some distance from the house. Today, Gunston Hall is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.