Slavery, Law, and George Mason

Enslaved individuals of Gunston Hall were particularly affected by 18th-century laws governing individual liberty.  Virginia law-enforcers strictly upheld codes of bondage, a subject that concerned Mason but not because he was truly against an institution that denied freedom in America. Fairfax County records reveal that our university namesake, an aspirant law-maker, was not really interested in the impact of slavery on black people in colonial and independent America. [1]   

George Mason IV practiced what he thought as a Justice of the Peace in Fairfax County by absenting himself from important cases involving “chattel property.” As a legal authority, the patriarch of Gunston Hall seemed to show casual disregard for the duty of a court to validate the birth and life of enslaved children while in private he was anxiously aware that their numbers were increasing, and that a demographic tide was probably turning against him in Virginia (i.e, people of African descent were outnumbering white settlers in some counties).  Perhaps this explains, in part, why he considered settling land for “colonization” in what was known as “Ohio” (a region encompassing contemporary West Virginia, Kentucky, etc.). [2] At the time some leaders of Virginia wanted to move black people, especially manumitted individuals, from slave-holding colonial territories to border areas farther west. Thus, George Mason IV’s original effort to develop a frontier well beyond Fairfax would soon become, in the hands of others, a related initiative that pivoted in another direction, beyond the Potomac to the ocean.  During the next century, Virginians who joined the white-supremacist American Colonization Society (ACS) looked eastward, where they planned to ship “former slaves” back to Africa (Sierra Leone and Liberia) in an effort to erase the presence and contributions of black people in the United States. [3]

Aside from the inequalities of Colony and Commonwealth, there were the realities that George Mason IV lived in a legally divided “biracial” world.  Gentry like him could not ignore that enslaved black children were intimately connected to free white men.  This fact “was not simply probable, it was virtually certain.”  Their “interaction” took place in plantation fields as well as the outbuildings of George Mason IV’s friend Thomas Jefferson.  Did the creator of the Virginia Declaration of Rights not notice what was in front of him?  In the second half of the eighteenth century, when the patriarch of Gunston Hall rose in prominence, African Americans made up “forty percent of the total population” of Virginia.[4]  In this context, the Fairfax courthouse was one of the few places that dealt with growing generations of black people.  By choosing not to discharge his duties as Justice of the Peace in cases relating to the personhood of enslaved children, George Mason IV removed himself from a position that might  have reshaped his community into a society that upheld the inalienable judgment that all people had humanity and a birthday.[5] 

Below is an image of a page in a trial book showing the absence of George Mason IV, a presiding Justice of the Peace, in a court case involving public acknowledgment of the ages of enslaved children, possibly for the purpose of their future status as bonded workers or "manumitted slaves."


Trial Book, Fairfax County, Colony of Virginia, 1768

[1] George Mason IV was a talented legal thinker, although he never formally trained to practice law: Robert Rutland, George MasonReluctant Statesman (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1961), 23-25.

[2] Jeff Broadwater, George Mason: Forgotten Founder (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 59-63, 124-127, 130-131.

[3] James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 192. A number of studies examine black American support for and opposition to the American Colonization Society: Ousmane Power-Greene, Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (New York: New University Press, 2014); Richard Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 203-204; Lammin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 212.

[4] Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 5.  The intimate “interaction” between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, a sexual relationship that began when she was a teenager, is now extensively chronicled, including details of the children conceived during their long “affair”: Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).

[5]  Some historians of American slavery argue that men like Mason freely expressed Enlightenment values of revolutionary liberty and ambivalent feelings toward the abolishment of slavery, especially in colonial Virginia where plantation owners supported the Declaration of Independence and wrote sections of the Constitution: David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 261-262; Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 381-386.

Creator: Kye Farrow, with Benedict Carton

Slavery, Law, and George Mason