Thursday, July 18, 2013

John Mason and the French Revolution

By Mark Whatford 
Deputy Director

John was the second youngest son of George and Ann Mason, born at his grandmother’s home [which still stands] in Charles County, Maryland in April 1766.  After growing up at Gunston Hall, in 1785/86 he was apprenticed by his father to the Alexandrian merchant firm of Harper and Hartshorne, commission merchants dealing in flour, bread, pork, rum, etc…  John then accompanied his father to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. George Mason saw an opportunity to introduce John to the businessmen of Philadelphia and the possibility of a partnership for him with one of the firms there. No partnerships were made in this journey.  However, a new partnership was formed, under the guidance of his father, with the brothers James and Joseph Fenwick forming the firm of Fenwick Mason & Co in Georgetown. John’s initial capital in the new firm was £1,000. They conducted an export business between Bordeaux, France and Georgetown dealing in wheat and tobacco.  They operated under the sound business advice of George Mason of “giving no credit.”  George also advised his son that “Mr. Franklin’s intimacy’s have been more with the literati than the with the merchants, he[John]  should cultivate a Correspondence with the American minister, Mr. Jefferson; which I think will be serviceable to you & give Credit to the house.’

John sailed for Bordeaux in June 1788 with a letter from his father to Thomas Jefferson, American Minister at the Court of Versailles, with an introduction saying “I flatter myself you will find him a modest, chearful, sensible young man…”  While many of John Mason’s letters are missing, his father often mentioned the letters and the contents in his correspondence, particularly to Thomas Jefferson who would become a lifelong acquaintance to John.  George Washington thought highly of John Mason and asked, in October 1789, that the firm, Fenwick Mason & Co., conduct business for him.

Shipping Contract with James Fenwick
in September 1789.

With the convocation of the Estates-General in May 1789 and on August 26, 1789, the new National Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was influenced by both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. This early period of the revolution was filled with intrigues and radicalism with building resentment against the church and dominated by struggles between various liberal assemblies and supporters of the monarchy. John was a witness in Bordeaux of many events, which likely reminded him of the early years of the American Revolution, and undoubtedly had his support as well as his father’s.  John wrote to his father, who approved, of his taking the oath under the new French Constitution, which allowed him to continue business in Bordeaux. A local British merchant refused to take the oath and was expelled from France.

In May of 1790 John wrote of “The Members of Nobility who were hung [in effigy, for supporting conservative measures in the Assembly] here were distinguished by their parliamentary robes the Clergy by a Cross on their breast & something similar the usual dress of the abbess.”  John also wrote of first rumors, then confirmation of the Counter Revolution in Mountauban, about 80 miles South East of Bordeaux, by the local aristocracy and clergy in the spring of 1790. This was soon suppressed by the arrival of militiamen formed up by a local Bordeaux “Patriot Club.”  John himself belonged to one of these patriotic organizations.

In October 1790 he wrote of the threat of war with England and Spain
The Club of this City of the friends of the Constitution (to which I told you in my last I belonged) recommended last week to the national assembly to take immediately the most energetic Steps to prepare for Such an Event- & recommended the arming in the Course of the winter completely the 45 Ships of the line before decreed, that 60,000 regular troops be held in readiness to embark & that 400,000 Volunteers of the national guard be put directly into training to garrison all the frontier towns on the borders of Germany, Italy & Spain.
            I felicitate myself very much of having been admitted a member of this Club-it is a Society formed…

Both John and his father followed the revolution with interest and hope for positive change for the French people, but also with an eye on business. John informed his father on trade issues, the French issuance of paper currency, and the sale of seized land from the clergy and aristocracy. With Joseph Fenwick appointed American consul in Bordeaux, with the assistance of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson in 1790 [Fenwick served until 1798] the business interests of Fenwick Mason & Co. would have a representative in France.  Fenwick’s appointment, the fall in business caused by the disorder of the revolution, and ill health was reason enough for John to return home in June 1791on the ship Louise XVI, arriving in Norfolk August 14. John went on to Richmond and Petersburg to build business for the firm and to conduct other business dealings for his father.

John missed the news of the Royal family’s flight to Varennes in June, marking the beginning of the end for the King and the coming wars and counter revolutions followed by the reign of terror.  Business for John continued for a short while but the threat of war and a declining exchange rate was reason to liquidate the firm of Fenwick Mason & Co. in May 1792.   

The Recollections of John Mason ed. by Terry Dunn
The Five George Masons by Copeland & McMasters
The Papers of Geroge Mason ed by Robert Rutland

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