Perhaps none of the founders better exemplified the paradox of American liberty and American slavery than did George Mason, who lived at Gunston Hall from 1759 until his death in 1792.
The author of the first state bill of rights - the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as the basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights - and a framer of the United States Constitution, Mason owned 90 slaves. These enslaved workers maintained Gunston Hall, completed in 1759, and raised crops of tobacco and wheat on Mason's 5,600-acre plantation on the bank of the Potomac River. Enslaved workers lived in a community called Log Town, which stood stood at some distance from the plantation house.
Beyond the paled kitchen yard were a “corn house granary, servants houses (in the 18th century called “negroe quarters”), a hay yard, and cattle pens, all of which were masqued by rows of large cherry and mulberry trees” (Recollections). None of these structures now exist, but the location of the slave quarters is marked with interpretive signage.
Growing tobacco was backbreaking work. Unlike wheat fields, which could be tilled with plows pulled by animals, tobacco fields had to hoed by hand. In fact, most tasks necessary to raising tobacco had to be done by hand: weeding the soil, planting the seeds, worming the plants, harvesting the crop, curing the leaves, and building the shipping barrels (hogsheads). Because tobacco production was so labor-intensive, requiring one able-bodied worker per acre under cultivation, Virginia's tobacco planters could only make money if their labor costs were low. America's system of plantation slavery made tobacco profits possible.
One of the richest planters in Virginia, Mason spoke out against slavery, calling it "that slow Poison . . . [that] is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People." He was particularly outraged by a change in the Constitution that allowed the continued importation of slaves for an additional 20 years.
But unlike his neighbor George Washington, Mason did not free his slaves at his death. Like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Adams, Mason relied on the labor of slaves for his wealth, and for his family's comfort. Freeing them would have meant financial ruin. Like his friends, he counted on future generations to end slavery.
Today, the lives of Mason's enslaved workers are described at the restored Gunston Hall and the rebuilt outbuildings and gardens.
Situated on the bank of the Potomac River, 550 acres of George Mason's 5,600 acre plantation remain today. Guided tours of Mason's plantation home and recreated outbuildings, gardens, museum exhibits, Mason Family Cemetery, and nature trail are available to the public daily.
Daily guided tours incorporate the lives of Mason's enslaved workers, as well as the general circumstances of 18th-century enslaved individuals in Virginia. The lives of enslaved African Americans are highlighted in a "Slave Life Tour" and in two exhibits, "Slave Life on a Virginia Plantation" and "Everyday Life of Slaves on a Virginia Plantation."
Geographical and Contact Information
10709 Gunston Road
Mason Neck, Virginia