Our group arrived at the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of June 12. As my friends and colleagues (and readers of this blog) know, Thomas Jefferson is one of my great heroes. I was greatly excited to visit the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, but I also planned to sneak away from the group for a few minutes to pay my respects at another memorial, just a stone's throw away. It is much smaller and almost entirely unknown, dedicated to another man who I count among my personal heroes: George Mason.
Mason is one of the most underappreciated figures in American history. When people hear his name, they think of an above average university in Virginia that has a good basketball team, but they know nothing whatsoever of the man. This is a shame, for every American owes Mason a debt of gratitude that is almost incalculable. The men at the times, including such luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were never in doubt of Mason's extraordinary contribution to the American Revolution. It's not too much to say that Mason built the philosophical pillars on which our experiment in self-government rests.
A bit of background. George Mason was born in northern Virginia in 1725. The nature of his education is somewhat obscure, but he clearly drank deeply the ideas of the Enlightenment and in later life proved to have one of the best read and most insightful minds in America. He lived the life of a wealthy rural gentleman in his beautiful home, Gunston Hall, from where he supervised his extensive land holdings. Like most men of his social position, he involved himself in local and colonial politics, being elected to several local offices and becoming a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial legislature.
When the crisis with Britain broke over the colonies in 1765, with the passage of the Stamp Act, Mason stepped up and did his duty, soon becoming known as one of the key leaders of the opposition movement in Virginia. In 1774, Mason authored the Fairfax Resolves, laying out the constitutional argument of the colonies more clearly and concisely than anyone else had ever done before. He asserted that the colonists had the same rights in the colonies that Englishmen had in England and that Parliament had no authority to legislate for the colonies, that right being held only by the colonial legislatures themselves. He called for a complete boycott of British goods and for representatives of the thirteen colonies to assemble together to coordinate their resistance (which happened later that year, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Mason also took the opportunity to condemn the continuation of the slave trade. The Fairfax Resolves were among the most influential writings produced in the few years just before the war and helped steel American resistance in Virginia as well as other colonies.
Upon the outbreak of the war, Mason served on the Virginia Committee of Safety, playing a major role in organizing the war effort in Virginia. But his greatest contribution was his drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In this preamble to the new state constitution, Mason laid out the principles that have formed the American creed every since: the all citizens are created equal and have unalienable rights, that power rests with the people themselves, that hereditary power is illegitimate, that there must be freedom of expression, that there must be a separation of powers in the government, that there must be legal due process for all citizens, that the military must remain under civilian control, and that all citizens must possess religion freedom.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Its ideas infused Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence just weeks later. Its principles are found everywhere within the Constitution itself. And it served as a template for James Madison when he wrote the Bill of Rights in the years immediately after the ratification of the Constitution. It influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the fundamental document of the French Revolution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations in 1948. Simply put, it is one of the most powerful and important assertions of human liberty ever created.
Mason always saw public service as a duty to be performed only reluctantly. In his heart, he always wanted to be home with his family at Gunston Hall. Despite the urging of his friends, he refused to leave Virginia to serve in the Continental Congress. He was never flamboyant and always preferred to work behind the scenes. When the war was over, he gratefully retired back to his estate, intending to live the remainder of his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren and contemplating his books.
Public service called Mason back, however, and he left Virginia for the only time in his life to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. During the months of heated debate, Mason was one of the most important voices in formulating the new government. In the end, however, he became one of only three delegates to refuse to sign the Constitution, arguing that it should include a bill of rights. His opposition carried over to the ratification debates, in which Mason was cited as one of the most influential of the Anti-Federalists. Although Mason and the other Anti-Federalists lost the ratification debate, in the end his achieved his goal. In 1791, Congress and the states ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, thus incorporating what has become known as the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Without Mason, it would never have happened. That accomplished, Mason stated that he was quite content with the Constitution.
George Mason's gifts to America and the world are incalculable. The Fairfax Resolves and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were, in a very real sense, the parents that gave birth to the three major founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Had Mason not initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution, it's entirely possible that the Bill of Rights would never have been added. He also was a principled opponent of slavery and the slave trade, being the only man in the Constitutional Convention who stood up and gave an explicitly anti-slavery speech.
The United States of America has honored George Mason. A prestigious university bears his name. A bridge over the Potomac River is named after him. His home at Gunston Hall has been lovingly preserved. And, in 2002, the George Mason Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C., almost a stone's throw from the larger and grander memorial to his friend Thomas Jefferson. It is a quiet, reserved, and dignified memorial, exactly in keeping with Mason's own personality. Fittingly, it depicts Mason sitting calmly while reading a copy of Cicero, his hat and walking stick close by.
Unfortunately, when I entered the space of the George Mason Memorial, I was shocked and dismayed by its terrible condition.
The place clearly had not been maintained in any substantial way for a very long time. The fountain pool is empty of water. What is supposed to be a circular garden around the pool is nothing but empty dirt (I was told by our tour guide that there have been no flowers there for four years).
Weeds are beginning to grow up through the stones.
The etchings of quotes by or about Mason in the stone are virtually unreadable.
The statue itself is in decent shape (it's made of bronze, so it's hard to see how it could be otherwise), but a long line of muck has accumulated around the stone base.
A young couple who wandered in while I was there were similarly upset. "Don't they ever clean this place up?" the woman asked. It certainly didn't seem so. The pictures I have posted (taken by my good friend Jordan James) don't really do justice to the wretched condition the memorial is in.
This is a disgrace. The George Mason Memorial needs to be cleaned up and properly maintained. Anything less than that and we are dishonoring the memory of a man who gave so many gifts to the people of America. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit partner of the NPS which helps fund restoration and maintenance projects for the memorials and monuments on the Mall, has announced plans to refurbish the George Mason Memorial, but with so many other projects competing for funds, it seems likely that the site will continue to lie as dormant as a fallow field unless people stand up and speak out.
I encourage all readers of this blog entry to take the following steps:
1. Contact the Trust for the National Mall. Tell them to make the George Mason Memorial their top priority. Their contact information is as follows:
- Phone Number: 202-407-9408
- Email: email@example.com
- Mailing Address: Trust for the National Mall, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 370, Washington D.C. 20004
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMall
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/thenationalmall
2. Contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This is the unit of the National Park Service that administers the George Mason Memorial. Express your concern over the condition at the George Mason Memorial and ask that urgent work be done to clean it up. Their contact information is as follows:
- Phone Number: 202-426-6841
- Email: Through their contact webpage at https://www.nps.gov/nama/contacts.htm
- Mailing Address: National Mall and Memorial Parks, 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington D.C. 20024
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMallNPS
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/NationalMallNPS
3. Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. The monuments of the National Mall are the responsibility of the federal government. Members of the House and Senate are elected to serve as your representatives in Congress. Let them know that you are concerned with the condition of the George Mason Memorial and ask them to do something about it. After all, they are always on the lookout for easy, noncontroversial matters that their constituents contact them about.
- To find your representative in the House, go here: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
- To contact your representatives in the Senate, go here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/
4. Contact the White House. It couldn't hurt, after all.
- White House Contact page: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact
5. Spread the word. Tell anyone you know who you think would care about this to follow steps 1-4 above. Feel free to forward this blog post to anyone and everyone.
The condition of a monument in Washington D.C. may not rank with climate change or the national debt as an issue. But neither should such things be ignored. As I said in a recent blog post, I truly think the underlying problems facing our nation stem from our drifting away from our common ideals, which used to unite us as a nation despite our political differences. We have lost our sense of pietas. Cleaning up the George Mason Memorial might not seem a particularly important matter at the present moment, when our nation is facing such great challenges. Yet in its symbolic value, it is very important indeed. For the thoughts and writings of George Mason represent the best of the American creed and it is incumbent upon all of us to respect and honor him if we are to be true to the values upon which our great republic was founded.