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New Lines of Inquiry

The ECGM project has opened new opportunities to investigate important social and cultural issues that stretch beyond the time of George Mason IV. It is well known that his signal life achievement remains a work of writing that developed America's ideas of liberty and citizenship. Most famously, he devised the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as the basis for the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States--a valuable bundle of legal protections that became known as the Bill of Rights. This pivotal accomplishment is one of several legacies that Mason bestowed on Virginia and the United States, more broadly.

Yet what has been consistently overlooked by scholars is Mason’s most direct legacy to his recognized community. If anything, he was first and foremost the father of generations of people who lived at Gunston Hall. As a grand patriarch, Mason IV owned extensive land and businesses. In other words, the eighteenth-century Mason family economic foundation, solidified through blood and marriage, motivated the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights to defend the freedoms granted through his property holdings and Last Will and Testament. Indeed, Mason IV’s significant holdings were passed down to his children. With this inherited property, including enslaved people, the many sons and some daughters of Mason IV gained entry into the top echelons of public life, where they became prominent civic leaders in their own right during the early republic.

The histories of the next generation of Mason IV’s family, recorded in the papers of Gunston Hall Plantation, will further illuminate life experiences of enslaved people, particularly the treatment they received from their subsequent masters. Researchers of the Enslaved Children of George Mason project have just started to chronicle how these experiences can be reconstructed by using pieces of evidence scattered throughout Virginia and Maryland--and particularly primary sources that have yet to be collected in one repository due to the lack of institutional funding.

George D. Oberle III