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Conflicted Constitution

Gunston Hall guests faced with difficult decision on Constitution Day.

Constitution Day visitors to Gunston Hall will be faced with a choice: to sign or not to sign. It’s an epic choice, one that prompted a whirlwind debate in 1787 that in some ways continues to this very day.

Making the decision will require learning about the nature of republics, weighing the evidence of tyranny and creating a system of checks and balances. For George Mason, a member of the Virginia planter elite who had toiled all summer in the broiling hot afternoons of Philadelphia, it was an important moment.

After refusing to sign it, he published 17 specific objections.

“There is no Declaration of Rights,” Mason began. After enumerating his objections, the sage of Gunston Hall concluded that “the Declaration of Rights in the separate states are no security, nor are the people secured even in the enjoyment of the benefit of the common law.”

Of course, Mason wasn’t talking about Virginia — the Old Dominion had the benefit of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written largely by Mason himself in Williamsburg amid the famous spirit of 1776. Much less well-known, however, is Mason’s passionate objection to the Constitution just 11 summers later. His homestead at Gunston Hall became a war-room to defeat its ratification, with Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph joining in what became known as the “anti-federalist” cause. Although many historians essentially kicked him out of the Founding Father club for this phase of his career, the folks at Gunston Hall say that Mason is finally receiving his due.

“He’s certainly being acknowledged increasingly by scholars,” said Linda Hartman, an educational associate at Gunston Hall, now a museum administered by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

HARMAN SAID THAT Constitution Day will offer a number of attractions. Visitors can chat with Mason himself, debating the finer points of the 1787 document and its flaws. They can tour his house, learning about the lifestyle of the Virginia gentleman. The hearth kitchen will be cooking up a storm, flooding the senses with the full experience of 18th century life. In the schoolhouse, visitors can grab a quill and get a lesson in the fine art of penmanship. Mason is buried in the family cemetery nearby.

Upon leaving, visitors will be asked that simple question — the one Virginians were asking themselves 219 years ago. To sign or not to sign? This is the second year Gunston Hall has caucused Constitution Day visitors.

“It was pretty much neck in neck,” Hartman said of the final tally from last year’s poll. “It was really a draw.”

The rest of the story for Mason and the Constitution is that James Madison — Mason’s opponent in the ratification struggle — eventually changed sides and wrote a Bill of Rights, largely modeled on Mason’s work. Madison got all the credit and Mason fell into the mists of anti-federalist history.

“He’s the forgotten founder,” said Townsend Van Fleet, an Alexandria descendent of Mason. “History has shown that they needed a Bill of Rights, which is what Mason was fighting for all along.”