Friday, 17 June 2016

Gunston Hall - the home of George Mason, a man who refused to sign the U.S Constitution.

No-one can deny that the Washington DC area has many great tourist attractions. If you haven't been to the city before, you probably shouldn't miss sights like the Capitol, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Mount Vernon. There is a downside to all of these however - their very popularity transforms the experience. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial surrounded by enough other tourists to populate a small European country, detracts a lot from the magic of the moment.


When you have had enough of the noise, the crowds and the endless selfies, step it down a notch and go in search of some of the lesser known places - you won't regret it. David and I did just that on our recent trip to America's capital and discovered a hidden treasure at Gunston Hall, in Fairfax County, just 25 miles south of central Washington.

Gunston Hall
Gunston Hall - notice the lack of crowds

The Lincoln Memorial
David, me and about a million others at the Lincoln Memorial.

Gunston Hall was built in the mid 18th Century by George Mason. Designed as Mason's 'family seat' and intended to be passed down through the generations, the house today remains very much as it was when it was completed in 1759. Visitors are taken on a journey back to the time of Colonial Virginia and given an insight into the life of one of America's most fascinating but lesser known historical figures.

Gunston Hall
The grand driveway.

The Declaration of Rights for Virginia

George Mason (1725 - 1792) was a fourth generation Virginian. In 1776 he was appointed to the committee charged with drafting a Declaration of Rights for Virginia, in anticipation of the American colonies breaking their ties with Britain. The resulting document was principally Mason's work and is believed to have influenced Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence at about the same time. 

Section 1 of the Declaration of Rights for Virginia states -

'That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights ...... namely the enjoyment of life and liberty with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety .....'

If those words seem familiar, compare them to the more famous words in the Declaration of Independence and make up your own mind about whether Mason's words influenced Jefferson.

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ........'

The Constitution of the United States


Mason was one of the few delegates to the US Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the Constitution. When other delegates were ready to sign and go home, Mason held out. He was concerned that too much power would be vested in the new Federal Government and he wanted a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties. He might have failed to have a Bill of Rights included in the Constitution when it was first drafted but his arguments won out in the end and led to the first ten amendments to the Constitution These were ratified in December 1791 and are collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

George Mason - the family man


Gunston Hall was built in the Georgian style and has hardly been altered since its completion. Furnished as if the Mason's had just stepped out the door, it gives a real feeling for what life in mid 18th Century Virginia as a wealthy plantation owner was like. Rebecca, our tour guide, brought Mason to life - a man who somewhat reluctantly was drawn into contributing to the birth of the new nation but would have much preferred to spend his time at home with his family.

Mason's wife Ann died when she was 39 - almost 20 years before her husband. Much more so than any of the legal phrases Mason crafted during his public life the words he wrote upon the death of Ann give a glimpse of the man he was. Mason wrote -


In the beauty of her person, and the sweetness of her disposition, she was equaled by few, and excelled by none of her sex ......  without one jarring atom in her frame! Her irreparable loss I do, and ever shall deplore; and tho' time I hope will soften my sad impressions, and restore me greater serenity of mind than I have lately enjoyed, I shall ever retain the most tender and melancholy remembrance of one so justly dear.

Inside Gunston Hall
Inside Gunston hall.


Writing desk at Gunston Hall
We could imagine Mason sitting here writing letters in support of a Bill of Rights.

The Gunston Hall schoolhouse.

Inside the school house - a bit different to today's classrooms.

For opening hours, admission prices and other information on Gunston Hall click - here

This is the second post in a series on our road and cycling trip in the north-east of the U.S. 
For last week's post click -  here .
For all the posts in this series so far click - here .

Keep an eye out for next week's post  on Thursday/Friday.

Note: David and I received a complimentary tour of Gunston Hall.


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38 comments:

  1. How very interesting, and didn't he love his wife. Have not heard of him before, but a great story nevertheless.

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    1. Today he is one of the lesser known historical figures but apparently during his lifetime he was very influential.

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  2. I know the name but I never knew how it played into American history. Yes, Gunston Hall is a hidden gem that I may visit when I travel to Virginia.

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    1. Gunston Hall is well worth visiting. The fact that it has been altered so little since it was built gave a real feel for what the house must have been like when it was lived in.

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  3. He certainly isn't as well known outside Virginia, that's for sure, but I certainly admire him withholding his signature due to the lack of a Bill of Rights.

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    1. I admire him for standing up for his principles, even if I don't necessarily agree with him. From time to time, in Australia the question of whether we should have a Bill of Rights surfaces. Our constitution is very similar to that of the US. I am in the 'no' camp - pretty much of the view that a Bill of Rights would do more harm than good by taking power away from elected politicians and giving it to un-elected judges. However, as I said, you have to admire Mason for sticking so firmly to his principles in the face of what would have been enormous pressure.

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  4. This is a fascinating tourist stop ~ we're not far from DC and hoping to visit there over the summer so I'll add this to our list. My kids have all been to DC with school trips but I've never been so I'm hoping to mix it up and take them to some places they've not seen yet.

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    1. It is worth having a look at the Visit Fairfax website http://www.fxva.com/- -it lists lots of interesting attractions in Fairfax County. If you do a bit of homework beforehand you can check to see whether there are any special events on. I am pretty sure that Gunston Hall has something coming up to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the ratification of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

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  5. History is interesting, isn't it? Even back then some Americans were distrustful of government...

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    1. Haha - I have heard, honestly I don't know if it is true, that the right to bear arms in America was intended to allow citizens to defend themselves against the government overstepping its power rather than to defend themselves against each other. Maybe they just need to trust their government a bit more. We may not like our politicians much but for the most part we probably trust them to do more or less the right thing - with a few notable exceptions of course.

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  6. What a fascinating history! And amazing architecture. I'd love to visit this part of the world

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    1. America is a very underratted tourist destination. It has so much history, diversity in natural landscapes and hardly any of the crowds you find in Europe.

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  7. Great post! We were in the area the past few weeks, visiting Mason's cohorts - Madison, Monroe, Jefferson. Not surprisingly, Mr. Mason was mentioned quite often. We'll have to include Gunston Hall on our next DC trip. So much great history - so few vacation days... ;)

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    1. I can highly recommend Gunston Hall. We have also visited the more well known places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, not sure about Madison's house, on previous trips. It gave us a context to understand Mason and the interesting times in which he lived.

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  8. Definitely a hidden gem. Would not have thought of going to Gunston Hall, but it sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Mason seems to have been a private man and so has not became as famous as many of his contemporaries but he is just as interesting, if not more so. We stumbled across Gunston Hall when I was flicking through the Visit Fairfax site. Something which Australians don't appreciate is how important counties are in the US.

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  9. We're often traveling through the DC area and always on the lookout for new and interesting places to visit. Thanks for the good tip!

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    1. Let me know if you visit there - or better yet write a blog post and send me the link - lol.

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  10. Love this post! My sister-in-law almost went to George Mason University, but I didn't know the story behind the man/name. When did the home change into a museum?

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    1. You have got me there. I don't know when Gunston Hall became a museum but I do know that it looks very much like the way it did when the Masons lived there. Because it is furnished to suit the period and has been so little altered it gives you a real feel for what life would have been like. So many historical houses have become little more than decorative arts museums- fine if you love objects d'art but hard to see past the displays to imagine how the inhabitants lived.

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  11. Nice place! No doubt the DC area is full of interesting places full of history. I was just reading a post about Mount Vernon (Washington's residence). I have been to DC many times but have not had the opportunity to visit the surrounding sites.

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    1. Haha - Is it possible the Mount Vernon post was written by me? Mount Vernon was the first historical house we visited on this trip. I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago.

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  12. A good history lesson, Lyn. Since I had no idea about the George Mason museum. I would have loved to visit it when I was in DC. Thank you for joining us for #TheWeeklyPostcard.

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    1. DC has so many great attractions. We have been back several times and I am sure this visit will not be our last.

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  13. Enjoyed reading about George Mason and his contribution to American history. Thanks for sharing it at #TheWeeklyPostcard

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  14. Wonderful write-up and it's so nice to see interest in one of the beautiful but lesser known historic sites in Northern Virginia. George Mason is well known to locals but less so outside our area. If you ever return to the Northern Virginia area check out my blog for more great places to visit: FuninFairfaxVA.com. Here's a link to our Gunston Hall article: http://www.funinfairfaxva.com/beautiful-history-at-gunston-hall/

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    1. Hi Julie. Thanks for the link to your blog - we have left Fairfax County now but D loves the US so we may return one day.

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  15. What a fascinating tour and story, I really enjoyed that and would love to visit this wonderful home!

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    1. It always brings a house to life for me if I can discover the story behind the inhabitants.

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  16. Thank you so much for sharing and educating us with this little bit of US history. Gunston Hall is so well kept, the architecture, simple and beautiful, I love the school house!

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    1. I thought the school house was really interesting.The Mason's had a lot of children and they were taught at home by a private tutor who lived in a second storey room above the school room.

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  17. A wonderful history lesson and introduction to a lesser-known, yet very important figure in U.S. history. Thanks for shining a light on American history as well as Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason. As you might imagine, our country would be a far different place if not for his efforts.

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    1. It would be interesting if we could go back in history and see what the US would be like today without a Bill of Rights. Australia, which has a very similar constitution does not have a Bill of Rights and has a level of individual freedom on a par with the States but perhaps our culture is sufficiently different that setting out individual rights in a special document is not as necessary. I certainly admire Mason for sticking to his principles so firmly.

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  18. We try to see family who live near DC every year or 2 and always look forward to a few days visiting/revisiting our favorite places as well as finding new places to see. We too get tired of the crowds quickly and Gunston Hall looks like a lovely place to roam around and learn more about George Mason, a man of eloquence as well as a man of principles. Thanks for the introduction!

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    1. My pleasure. I can recommend having a look at the VisitFairfax site http://www.fxva.com/. It lists lots of attractions in Fairfax County including quite a few I had never heard of.

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  19. Visiting Gunston Hall is an excellent idea! We recently brought overseas friends to Mount Vernon and were surprised by the huge number of tourists and tour buses. Continuing a few miles south to Gunston Hall might well be an alternative to consider when the crowds get too heavy.

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    1. Or better yet - do both. Mason and Washington knew each other. Learning about one makes the other's history that much more interesting.

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