Thursday, January 9, 2014

George Mason on Education

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

For many Virginia planters, education was something that happened at home, under the oversight of tutors and governesses. Others were sent to academies, boarding schools or colleges for education, either in the colonies or in Great Britain. Records suggest that George Mason IV was educated by tutors engaged either by his mother, Ann Thomson Mason, or his Uncle John Mercer, or in small private schools. It is believed that Mason enhanced his education by frequent use of his uncle’s extensive library. When Mason had his own children, it seems he engaged both sides of the dichotomy for their education.

The current schoolhouse on Gunston Hall property.
We know that George Mason V had the privilege of a tutor, as his great uncle, John Mercer, writes of his distaste in the whole breed of tutors. He found that they were “without either good religion or morals & I attribute it to George Mason’s (the fifth) tutor that I have long doubted with a good deal of concern, that he has not improved in either.” In the Recollections of John Mason, another of George Mason’s sons writes about the tutors he recalls being present during his education at Gunston Hall. “The private tutors in my father’s family as far back as I can remember were: first a Mr. McPherson of Maryland and next a Mr. Davidson & then a Mr. Constable, of Scotland both…I remember I was so small when the first of these gentlemen had charge of the school that I was permitted to be an occasional visitor of it rather than made a regular attendant.”

All of the Mason children, as well as some friends, neighbors and cousins on occasion, were likely to have been tutored at the same time in the schoolhouse which John Mason later describes. A little further south of the Masons, on the Northern Neck, Philip Vickers Fithian describes the life of a tutor at a Virginia plantation, and lists the eight pupils, of varying ages and relations, he taught while employed by the Carters at Nomini Hall.

At least two of the Mason children also attended school off the plantation. John Mason includes commentary of the schools he attended including an academy in Stafford County and a small school with “a Mr. Hunter, a Scotchman also, and quite a recluse,” in Calvert County, Maryland. In the spring of 1787, the young Mason was apprenticed off to a merchant in Alexandria to learn the business. The other child known to attend school away from Gunston Hall was the youngest, Thomas. He, like John, was sent to the academy in Stafford. The two boys did not stay together however. The next record of Thomas being away at school is a postscript from George Mason to John, saying simply, “Your Brother Thomas is at the Academy in Fredericksburg.”

Advertisement in the Virginia Gazette.
What the children were learning at Gunston Hall is hard to say. The extent of George Mason’s commentary on the matter is limited to a note in which he asks about the “Price of a few School Books.” We can infer the general gist of things from what other students were learning in 18th century America. The Carter children were learning reading; writing, including spelling; math; and the older boys were studying Latin when Fithian first joined them. Pieces in the Virginia and Maryland Gazettes advertise and solicit for schools and tutors in other subjects such as Greek, French, Astronomy, Navigation, Trigonometry and Geometry.

Dancing and music were often a specializations in a tutor, and it appears that traveling Dance and Music Masters were common. In Alexandria, Miss Sarah Carlyle and her mother traveled to Mount Vernon for spinet lessons. Interestingly, John Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepson, reports on May 18, 1770, that his sister “Patsy Custis and Milly Posey went to Colonel Mason’s to the Dancing School.”

Upon the completion of the most basic of reading, writing and mathematical skills, the girls of the Mason family were undoubtedly removed from the schoolhouse for more feminine pursuits. John Mason writes of a tutoress, Mrs. Newman, who was responsible for his sisters. It is likely that the girls were learning the skills necessary to manage homes like the one they were growing up in. Eldest daughter Nancy Mason came to the duty out of order when her mother died in 1773, whereupon she became the mistress of the house and oversaw it with “an amiable Disposition…[and] a degree of Prudence far above her years,” owed potentially to her education.

Although we do not know the specific details of the education of the Mason family, it is likely they were not much different from so many other wealthy Virginia families. George Mason obviously cared about the education of his children, though he was not as vociferous on the subject as he was on others. He hired tutors, sent them to schools, and generally made it clear in his will that money was to be spent on their upkeep.

Dunn, Terry K., ed., The Recollections of John Mason. Mason Neck, VA: The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 2012.
Farish, Hunter Dickinson, ed., Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1978.
John Carlyle to George Carlyle, October 17, 1766. Letters of John Carlyle.  Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.
John Parke Custis to George Washington, August 30, 1770.  Papers of George Washington.  Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Mount Vernon, VA.Rutland, Robert A. The Papers of George Mason. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1970.

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