Washington wasn’t the only “George” to make major contributions to the founding of America. Another one, George Mason, helped to mold many of the ideas we hold dear as intrinsically American, yet he is unfairly neglected as a founder. You may suspect bias, as I’ve just undertaken the role of Mr. Mason in Williamsburg.
At first glance the two Georges do seem worlds apart. Washington travelled the wilderness as a surveyor and soldier, and led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Mason preferred his home and farm in Northern Virginia, and spent the war years as a delegate in Virginia’s government. Mason had 9 children and 48 grandchildren who survived to adulthood; Washington had none. Mason wore a wig, Washington did not.
But they had much in common, too. Here are 5 similarities between these two Georges that stood out as I researched my new role.
#1 Fatherless Founders
While the loss of loved ones was a reality of everyday life in the 18th century, newborns, children, and mothers were the most common casualties. Mason‘s father drowned in an accident while crossing the Potomac when he was not yet ten and Washington lost his father at eleven from an illness. Both were eldest children. Mason had a younger sister Mary, age 4, and brother Thomson, age 2. Washington had four younger siblings (and two older half-brothers). The death of their fathers coupled with the fact that neither of their mothers would marry again saddled both Georges with additional responsibilities at a young age. This responsibility would mold both of these men into the leaders they would become.
#2 Elders to Many Revolutionary Peers
Mason, born December 11, 1725, was just over six years older than Washington (born February 22, 1732), but that meant both were considerably older than many of the other founders. During the French and Indian War, Mason acted as supply agent to the soldiers serving in Ohio territory, a group that actually included George Washington. This experience earned both the rank of colonel. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Mason was 50; Washington was 44. Meanwhile Thomas Jefferson was only 33, and James Madison 25.
This meant that Mason and Washington, drawing on decades of experience, approached the American Revolution from a different perspective than their younger, perhaps more exuberant compatriots. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they commanded the respect that came with being elder statesmen. Mason was the fifth-oldest of the 55 delegates. Washington was ninth.
#3 An Incomplete Education
Perhaps due to the loss of their fathers and familial responsibilities neither of these men would have the opportunity to receive a formal education. In the 18th century going to college was a luxury and opportunity that we may take for granted in our modern day, but to many Virginians such an opportunity was out of reach. Mason and Washington studied under various tutors in their younger years but never went to a college or passed the bar to become lawyers like many of their revolutionary counterparts. In fact, Mason excused himself from the Virginia’s committee for the revision of laws on the basis that he was no lawyer. Later in life both men would express a sensitivity about their lack of education and stressed the importance of education on the children they raised.
#4 Neighbors on the Potomac
While Washington spent many of his formative years at his home of Ferry Farm in Stafford County and Mason spent time at Chopawamsic Plantation (west of Quantico) as well as in Maryland, these men would end up settling near one another along the Potomac River. Mount Vernon is only a few short miles north of Gunston Hall by boat (a preferred 18th-century travel method). Much like Washington, Mason inherited the property on which he built his cherished home and worked to improve the land.
We know their civil obligations meant that these men sat on committees together, were elected to the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg at the same time, and even shared responsibility as vestrymen for Truro Parish. But their correspondences were not confined to revolutionary ideals and political beliefs, they also wrote about local affairs, their respective families, and preferred farming techniques.
Throughout their lives they corresponded on many subjects. On one occasion Mason offered to help Jackie Custis, Washington’s stepson, while George was commanding the Continental Army in New York. The general responded with surprising warmth, writing, “I could think of no person in whose friendship, care and abilities I could so much confide, to do Mr. Custis and me this favour as yourself; and therefore, take liberty of soliciting your aid.”
The letters reveal their personal familiarity. In one Mason asked Washington if he would “be kind enough to get me two [pairs of] gold snaps made at Wms. burg for my little girls.”
#5 The Blemish of Slaveholding
Last but far from least, the two Georges were among the largest slaveholders in Virginia. In 1782 Mason held 128 slaves, in Fairfax second only to Washington’s 188. The American Revolution highlighted the contradiction between the ideals of freedom and independence and the reality of slavery.
Both men struggled to reconcile their revolutionary philosophy with the slave society. Mason condemned the institution and declared that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” Likewise Washington wrote that he “wish[ed] from [his] soul that the legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery.” And yet these two men held slaves throughout their lives.
I hope you’ll come see me on Duke of Gloucester Street during the coming months, where we can continue the conversation.
GUEST BLOGGER: JOE ZIARKO
Joe Ziarko’s first stint at Colonial Williamsburg began nine years ago, shortly after he graduated from Dickinson College with a double major in American History and Theatre. He began as a theatrical interpreter, a logical extension of his “unique” educational combination.
As a member of our actor Interpreter team, Joe portrayed Edmund Randolph for several years. Coincidentally, Randolph, like Mason, refused to sign the Constitution. Joe says this is where he discovered a particular propensity for portraying less appreciated historical figures
After serving as Manager of Interpretation at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia the past two years, Joe returned to Colonial Williamsburg to take up the role of George Mason in August 2016.