Publication Date

12-1-2004

Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts

Abstract

The present work investigates the often cited, but poorly supported, notion that Founding Father George Mason was a wealthy, slave-owning Virginian who vehemently opposed slavery. Utilizing Mason's state papers, letters, and other documents, as well as contemporaries' accounts of his speeches, this work will analyze those records' contextual construction, and it will deconstruct both Mason's written and spoken words and his actions and inactions relative to slavery. The goal of this effort is to determine whether Mason, who ostensibly played such an instrumental role in the development of the "rights" of Americans, and who remained a slaveholder—thereby trampling the rights of others—was truly opposed to slavery. Included in this work are chapters relating to the development of chattel slavery in the Tidewater, Virginia region from its inception and to the Mason family's mounting economic and political prominence, particularly the role of slaves in their attainment of that prominence. Two chapters analyze Mason's state papers, his writings on public matters, his public speeches, and other related material with a view towards determining their nexus with slavery and his role in their development. The final chapter focuses narrowly on Mason's personal relationship with slavery, and it includes both Mason's documents and his personal actions, with his documented actions concerning his own slaves meriting special attention. A portion of the chapter compares and contrasts Mason, Washington, and Jefferson on the matter of slave manumission. The argument is made that despite his consequential role in the development of some of America's revered founding documents, relative to his more prominent Virginia political peers, George Mason has garnered on rudimentary evaluation from the collective pens of more than two centuries of historians. Not only has Mason largely missed the genuine accolades befitting a Founding Father, some historians have simply ignored the contradictions of Mason's slave owning and his presumed abhorrence of slavery. Others have offered little more than a passing mention of Mason's slaveryrelated conundrum. Some have noted his slave-holding status, but then mistakenly considered anti-slavery and anti-slave trade as fungible positions and then proceeded to extol Mason's abhorrence of, and fight against, chattel slavery. Still others have claimed the institution was simply an unwelcome legacy entailed upon him. Mason, as an historical subject, stands under-reported, under-analyzed, often embellished, and generally carelessly considered. In spite of the effusive hyperbole of some Mason historians, this thesis argues Mason's apparently strong condemnations of the slave trade and of slavery were themselves strongly nuanced, and his actions (and, perhaps more importantly, his inactions) toward his own slaves run counter to the conclusive judgment of Mason as a slavery opponent. Nevertheless, Mason's statements and political actions—however tepid, and however nuanced—represent important work against the pernicious problem of slavery by a thoughtful, respected, and politically well-positioned Founding Father. This work will demonstrate Mason was likely neither the prescient anti-slavery advocate, as he is generally regarded among historians, nor fully a self-serving demagogue. Indeed, the definitive judgment of George Mason as a slave owning, Virginia planter, and Founding Father who served as a slavery opponent remains elusive.

Disciplines

History | United States History