Thursday, July 3, 2014

Photo of the Day: Forgotten Founder

You’re looking at what I think may be the most approachable statue in our nation’s capital. I came across the George Mason Memorial by accident last November, when I was trying to reach the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. But I don’t think its subject, planter-patriot George Mason (1725-1792), would have minded in the least being in the shadow of the Tidal Basin monument to his fellow Virginian.

With no known painting from life existing of Mason, nobody knows how accurately this statue depicts the face and body of this all-but-forgotten major influence on the American Revolution and the early republic. But I can’t help but think that sculptor Wendy Ross has perfectly captured the personality that impressed virtually all who met him: friendly, engaged, but still, slightly removed from the world now visiting his doorstep. You have, after all, interrupted him in one of his favorite pursuits: reading in the garden that gave him a much-needed sense of tranquility. I photographed so much while down in Washington, but this particular image, I knew, was a necessity.

Mason’s vow to “risque the last Penny of my Fortune, and the last Drop of my Blood” for independence endeared him to younger patriots, including Washington, who saw him as a mentor, and Jefferson, who believed him to be "the wisest man of his generation." His most vibrant thought is echoed in this country’s seminal documents, notably this quote: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty…and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Sound familiar? Jefferson did a masterful job of editing that until he made the words sing in the Declaration of Independence. But, as historian Pauline Maier showed in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, it was Mason’s original words, in his May 1776 draft for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, that were embodied in the initial state constitutions that sought to sum up the ideals of freedom that led them to separate from England. Moreover, his willingness to walk out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 over its refusal to include a Bill of Rights created unstoppable pressure that resulted in the eventual passage of the first 10 amendments.

The Virginia aristocrat embodied what we would nowadays call gravitas. Enormously adept at keeping his plantation profitable (a skill that would elude fellow Virginians Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe), he was treasurer of the Ohio Company, an organization that invested in land located in the Ohio River Valley, and an influential member of the vestry at Washington’s Truro Parish.

Philip Mazzei, an Italian doctor who met him in 1773, might have exaggerated somewhat in likening him to Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, or Newton. But when you trace the influences on the most influential men of the early republic, Mason’s name appears repeatedly on the short list.

The setting of Ross’s statue, dedicated in 2002, illustrates both why so many were drawn to Mason, and to an extent, why he repeatedly drew back. You might have caught him while he’s reading, but now he’ll be happy to explain why those two books to his left should matter to you. And yet…there’s something in reserve. He is, after all, leaning back.

So much conspired to keep Mason where he was, at his estate, Gunston Hall. The ingeniously landscaped grounds that he himself surveyed and laid out find their counterpart in the Tidal Basin memorial site I visited, which was created as a Victorian garden, then redesigned as a pansy garden in 1929.

The cane to Mason’s right at the memorial tips you off to something else that kept him largely stationary: his medical condition. Traveling from Virginia to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention might not sound like much to us, but to someone like Mason, who suffered increasingly from gout as the years went by, the experience was enormously painful.

Pain of an emotional kind also plagued Mason in the revolutionary period: His wife of two decades died while bearing him a child in 1773. The widower, distraught over losing a woman he had come to cherish, also now found himself, he said, playing the role not just of father but also mother to his children. (As it happened, nine managed to survive to adulthood.)

In the end, Mason shied away from heavier involvement with politics because he sensed how much it would cost. Nowhere was this borne home more forcefully than in Philadelphia in 1787. He was bothered not just by the lack of a bill of rights, but by accommodations made to the slave states. 

Despite owning numerous slaves himself, Mason disliked this system in which “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,” and he correctly predicted, “By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.” He could not have been more dismayed, then, when the convention ignored his advice to ban the slave trade immediately, as South Carolina and Georgia worked out a deal with the New England States that the institution would not be touched another 20 years.

Mason’s vehement disagreement on this and the lack of a bill of rights led him to reject a document he had worked to support until near the end of deliberations. It also drove a wedge between him and Washington that lasted through Mason’s death in 1792.

The original memorial for Mason had envisioned only a round bas relief in his honor, but Ross won out with her proposal for a full-figure representation. Mason did not found a country, like Washington, or even a political party, like Jefferson, and so the sculptor has not created a demigod of the American civic religion or even a man on horseback. But the representation here is unique: a patriot who comes off as someone you would love to spend the afternoon chatting away with, by which time you were bound to be infected by his love of ideas and his passion for liberty.

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