A free Mason; Chris Upton looks at a Worcestershire family's influence in moulding America.
George Mason liked his neighbours. There were the Gowkes (Thomas and Gerard) who came from Brewood, the little village in Staffordshire. Then there were the Brents who hailed from Bredon Hill in Worcestershire. George himself was from Pershore.
But hold on. The three families concerned were not living on some street in the West Midlands, but on a creek by the Potomac river in Virginia. We cannot call it the United States at this time, since this was the 1650s. They were simply colonists and settlers on the other side of the world. Nor should we necessarily call them near neighbours; the Mason estate alone covered 900 acres.
George Mason was the son of a yeoman farmer in Pershore, and was baptised at Pershore Abbey on June 10, 1629. Had the English Civil War taken a different turn, yeoman farmer is probably what George would have remained, and we would not be remembering him now. But the Masons - like most of Worcestershire - were Royalists, and they ended up on the losing side.
This in itself was not necessarily disastrous.
The king might be dead but wait a decade or so and another king would be arriving, and discomforted Royalists once more would be in the ascendancy.
It was too late by then. George and his brother William had already (in 1652) turned their back on Cromwellian England, caught a ship at Bristol and set sail for a new life in the New World. William headed for North Carolina while George made his home at Accokeek in the state that would shortly be called Virginia.
George Mason made his living from tobacco, establishing a plantation which would remain in the family for generations.
And with wealth came status.
First George became a juryman, then a justice of the country and finally sheriff of Stafford County, the name reflecting the origins of many of the settlers.
By the time George died in 1686, and was buried on the hillside at Accokeek, the Masons were well-established among the elite of Virginia. But even greater was in store for the family from Pershore.
Mention the name "George Mason" in Virginia today and expect sombre reverence.
There is a university called George Mason, and the bridge that spans the Potomac from Washington DC to the state of Virginia is called George Mason. And dotted around the university there are streets called Pershore and Evesham and Bredon Hill. Looking more widely, there are three Mason Counties in Kentucky, West Virginia and Illinois. But all this is not in honour of the George Mason who crossed the high seas in the "Assurance" in 1652. Nor is it for his son, who was also called George and became sheriff and member of the state house of burgesses. Or for his son, who was George too (or rather George three). The latter died in an unfortunate boating accident on the Potomac.
The man who stamped his name and ancient Worcestershire origins on Virginia was George IV. Not the George IV, but George Mason IV, great-grandson of the first settler.
George Mason IV (1725-92) followed, at least initially, in his great-grandfather's footsteps. He was a plantation owner, respected citizen of the county and, eventually (in 1786), the Virginian delegate to the US Constitutional Convention. Here he joined Washington and Jefferson, Franklin and Adams.
By now that Mason family plantation had grown to 5,000 acres and become something of an embarrassment. George Mason declared himself opposed to slavery, but by that he meant "any more slavery". He held on to his own, and refused to endorse the emancipation of anyone else's.
That too is quietly set aside, and the plantation house he built there in 1758 - Gunston Hall - is now a famous museum.
For George Mason IV is an accepted member of that select band of colonists known as the "Founding Fathers of America", alongside his friend and neighbour, George Washington, and their exalted company.
Mason was responsible for the writing of that seminal American document known as the Declaration of Rights for Virginia. First drafted by Mason in 1776, it was later copied, almost word for word, into the Declaration of Independence itself.
"All men are born equally free and independent," wrote Mason, "and have certain inherent natural rights, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property (he did not add Bournville at this point), and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety..."
By his pen George Mason wrote himself into the fabric of American history. None of this copying took place without a titanic struggle. Mason was an antifederalist, opposed to the centralising power of the state, and in the opposite camp to men like George Washington. It was the end of a beautiful friendship.
Nevertheless, George Mason got his way. Largely because of him, ten amendments were added to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Mason was thus responsible for incorporating in the American Constitution that strong sense of individualism, and resistance to government interference, only too evident in widespread opposition to Barack Obama's health care reforms.
Perhaps that resistance to the power of Washington - place and person - had distant echoes of the first George Mason's flight from Cromwell.
In the space of four generations, then, the Mason family had walked away from English republicanism, only to embrace and embody it on the far side of the Atlantic.
It was quite a journey.
George Mason VI, Originally from Pershore, Mason emigrated to America and was responsible for writing the Declaration of Rights for Virginia, later copied into the Declaration of Independence
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Jan 28, 2010|
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