(Photo credit: George Mason Memorial, courtesy DaKohlMeyer, Flickr Creative Commons)
The time I visited the George Mason Memorial I stumbled across it almost completely by accident. If there was ever a memorial in Washington, DC that seems like it was intended to be hidden from view, this is it.
I’d been walking clockwise round the Tidal Basin to visit the Jefferson Memorial. After leaving Jefferson I was making my way to the FDR Memorial, which would take me from East Basin Drive to Ohio Drive SW, at the point where a small road bridge crosses the inlet from the Potomac to the Tidal Basin. Behind me was the much larger flyover that led to the 14th Street Bridge. As I was walking along, a gap opened up in the bushes and I became aware of an open space tucked away into what at first seemed like a roadside dip under the flyover. I could hear the roar of highway traffic heading for the bridge and I was anxious to get away from it. But I stopped and looked again at that open space and noticed an open path leading from the roadside to a large circular area with a shallow pool in the middle. Beyond it, at the far end under some trees and hedges likely planted to occlude the flyover and dampen the noise, there was what looked from a distance like a person seated under a pergola.
There was non-one else around, even though it was the middle of the afternoon in Washington’s early summer, and for a moment I wondered whether this space was actually supposed to be open to the public. I also noticed that the seated individual wasn’t moving. But it was some distance away, and the figure was shaded from the bright sunlight. I edged closer.
Finally I noticed a small National Park Service sign declaring this spot to be the George Mason Memorial, and the penny dropped. I walked inside and as I got closer I could see that the seated “person” was a larger-than-life statue—presumably Mason himself. It also became clear that the whole space was dedicated to the man. I stuck around for a while to look around. Only two other people came into the site while I was there. Like me, they edged in gingerly at first.
I imagine this is how most visitors come across Washington, DC’s memorial to George Mason—that is, by accident. Unless you’re specifically looking for the site, you’re going to miss it. Even when you’re on foot, it’s easy to pass it by. And most visitors to the south side of the Tidal Basin seem to take tour buses to get there. The Jefferson Memorial next door is a stop on the tour before heading back up toward the National Mall. Most tour buses don’t bother stopping to see Mason.
Mason was a political giant in America’s formative years but today he’s largely forgotten to most Americans. Even the 14th Street Bridge that provides a backdrop to the memorial, officially styled the George Mason Memorial Bridge, isn’t actually called that by anyone. The level of public ignorance about the man is a shame. If Mason is worthy of a monument in the heart of Washington, DC—and he’s one of only four non-presidents so honored—that should say something about the man’s bona fides. And the memorial itself is actually pretty cool. Once you get past the initial hesitation about going in, it has a certain casual charm that sets it apart from most other monuments to the founders. (More on this below.)
In his day Mason was widely considered to be in the top flight of Virginian patriots, right up there with Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. In the period leading up to the Revolution he played a huge role in Virginia politics. He was in the forefront of drafting the revolutionary Fairfax Resolves. He drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in May 1776, generally recognized as the colonies’ first attempt to articulate a coherent set of citizens’ rights. As such it was a major source of inspiration for Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, and it later served as a source for the Bill of Rights. These acts alone would give Mason “founding father” status.
Following the Revolution, Mason was again thrust into the national spotlight in 1787 when he attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Among the delegates, Mason stood out. He was a vocal and active voice in the convention, though his positions sometimes seemed questionable and put him at odds with prevailing opinion among his peers—over the issue of slavery, for example, where Mason spoke out against the institution even though he owned slaves himself. Ultimately, he refused to sign the final version of the Constitution—largely, he said, because of its lack of a Bill of Rights, though he noted a raft of other concerns he had about the document. This caused some surprise and exasperation among his peers, since Mason had been such a major force in shaping of the document. Perhaps this decision, which seems almost petulant to modern eyes, helps explain Mason’s loss of prominence in the history books.
So Mason clearly has dropped from the front rank of Founders to the second division, alongside such once-notable patriots as James Wilson and Robert Morris. Yet he still merits a memorial at the heart of the nation’s capital, even if it is out of the way. The memorial itself is not only well hidden; it’s also a fairly recent addition, having been dedicated as recently as 2002. Its youth makes it seem like, well, an afterthought—a bit like the Founding Father himself, at least from a 21st century perspective. But its recent vintage might just have imparted a quiet gift to the memorial that is unusual in DC: a lack of pomposity.
One thing the Mason memorial does have is charm. As one commentator in the Washington Post noted, “It is one of the most charming monuments in a city where monumental charm is in short supply.” Mason’s sculpture charms the pants off of those who get close to it. The man is depicted sitting—actually leaning off to one side—on a bench, his legs casually crossed, a pleasantly contemplative look on his face. There’s a book in his right hand, and he looks like he might actually be enjoying reading it. A tricorner hat and cane are slung carelessly to one side. This is a man who is relaxing. Mason’s position and his quiet, contemplative expression invite visitors to sit up close to him and have their photos taken alongside him. That’s not something you can say of most monuments to the Founders.
The same Post commentator (actually he was writing a book review for a biography of Mason) noted that children visiting the site “often climb onto the bench next to Mason, while their parents read the inscription behind him and try to figure out who he was.” There were no children there the day I visited, but I hope that he’s right about the regularity of visits by parents and children (presumably locals who know about the existence of the place). Mason could use a bit of a boost in present-day public esteem, and the informality and approachability of this modern monument just might help him with that boost—provided enough people are able to find it in the first place.
America’s Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. National Archives. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers_virginia.html
Jeff Broadwater (2006). George Mason: Forgotten Founder. University of North Carolina Press.
George Mason Memorial. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mason_Memorial
David O. Stewart (2007). The Summer of 1787. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jonathan Yardley (2006). A founding father insisted that the Constitution wasn’t worth ratifying without a bill of rights. Washington Post, November 5. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/02/AR2006110201182_pf.html