Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gunston Hall overrun by budding writers!

By Linda Hartman and Barbara Farner
Gunston Hall Docents

In the past year, we’ve had the British invasion on the Green, we’ve had British in their tents, Continental soldiers relaxing on the lawn, published authors touting the War of 1812, and a journey into the past with the history of Mason Neck.

On June 7, Gunston Hall offered a glimpse of what writers of the future look like in the form of 27 fourth and fifth grade authors-to-be at Gunston Hall’s Christy Hartman Myer’s Writing Workshop. Eager to begin the day, they swarmed into the Ann Mason Building and were busy by 9 a.m. examining Gunston Hall, the setting for their writing assignments. With notebooks and pencils in hand, the boys’ haversacks slung over their shoulders and the girls’ pockets tied about their waists, they listened to Col. George Mason and Nancy Mason, his daughter, (portrayed by Dan McMahon & Janis Harless) discuss the 1787 Philadelphia Federal Convention. The writers commiserated with Col. Mason about his injuries occasioned by the overturned carriage outside of Baltimore. A quick trip about the plantation acquainted the writers with Mason’s home before they settled in to spend the day learning the different ways to tell his story.

Poetry? How can they possibly write poetry? With the guidance of former Poet Laureate of Virginia Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda of course they could. They all wanted to share their work with each other, taking turns reading the remarkable verses they composed.

Then on to seeing what to do with nonfiction/ biography by interviewing Betsy Mason (portrayed by Lacey Villiva) about her father and her life growing up at Gunston. Guided by Joan Lewis and Carla Heymsfeld, they asked insightful questions and Betsy, in turn, answered them thoughtfully.

In journalism, the writers thought about the important difference between opinion and fact and how to keep opinion out of their news articles. Frank Barker led the writers through the mysteries of the 5 Ws & H of journalism (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How).

Sharon Rasmussen gave the writers the ability to control their literary creations through the power of fiction. As they heard the possibilities of what to do with fictional characters their ideas blossomed into impressive stories.

But then when all is said and done, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Linda Johnston showed the writers how to illustrate their stories - creating impressive images with the help of watercolor pencils and their imaginations.

And in-between writing sessions, there were snacks, lunch, a militia drill and dance lessons!

So were the budding writers ready to go home at 3:30? According to at least one group when asked the question, they responded with a resounding NO. “We want to continue.”

As Frank Barker said “What a great way to spend a day; teaching kids who want to learn and working with a group of adults eager to teach them. How can we not want to do our best when the children give up a beautiful June Saturday to come here--and one of them even shows up with a freshly fractured clavicle.”

 And best of all, from one of the parents, “Thank you very much for the wonderful writing experience my daughter enjoyed last Saturday. She loved every minute of her day.”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A New Constellation

By Frank N. Barker 
Assistant Education Coordinator

“Resolved that the flag of the thirteen united states to be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” These were the words that the Second Continental Congress used on June 14, 1777, to create the American Flag.

The Continental Colors, also
known as the Grand Union
The actual first national flag of the united colonies was a combination of the Grand Union flag of Great Britain (which was itself a combination of England’s red cross of St. George and Scotland’s white cross of St. Andrew) as the union and the alternating stripes representing the 13 colonies. Only half this flag was American, but in early 1776 when it was first used, the colonists were still fighting for their rights as Englishmen, not necessarily to be an independent nation.

British Red Ensign, flown on merchant ships in the 
18th and early 19th centuries.
The flag wasn’t as difficult to make as it might seem. All one needed was the British red ensign, which was the flag flown by British merchant ships, and six white stripes to sew on.

This “Continental Colors” flag was first hoisted over a Continental Navy vessel, the USS Alfred in December 1775, by Lt. John Paul Jones, and over the Continental Army at Cambridge, January 2, 1776, by General George Washington.

The resolution of June 14, 1777, that would change these half-British half-American flags into the full-fledged Stars and Stripes does not give much specific information about the flag’s design or proportions. How many points on the stars? How should this “new constellation” be arranged? Does the flag start with white stripes on top or red? Much was left up to interpretation. What did these first flags look like? How were they first used?

The Bennington flag, which may or may not have flown at the 
Battle of Bennington.
The first Stars and Stripes in combat was at the siege of Fort Stanwix, New York, in August 1777. According to tradition, this flag was improvised with white stripes and stars cut from the soldier’s shirts. The women of the garrison sacrificed their red flannel petticoats for the stripes, and the blue came from Capt. Abraham Swartwout’s cloak. The captain was later reimbursed by Congress for this contribution to the war effort. Exactly what this flag looked like is not known, but at least the colors were right.

The flag of the Green Mountain
boys which did fly at Bennington.
Later in August of ’77, at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, a peculiar variation of the flag may have been flown. This flag has a “76” sewn onto the blue canton surrounded by 13 six-pointed stars. In addition, the order of stripes is reversed, as the flag has white stripes top and bottom. This flag still exists, but many experts say it was a later creation, possibly made for the Centennial Celebration in 1876. It is certain that the regimental flag of the Green Mountain Boys was used at the battle. This flag had a blue union, with stars, but the rest of the flag was green.

The Hopkinson flag, with its six-pointed stars.
Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, designed a flag while he was Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department. He was the only person to have made such a claim during his own lifetime, when he sent a bill to Congress for his work. He Initially asked for a "Quarter Cask of the Public Wine" as payment. He was not paid, as Congress decided he had already received a salary as a member of Congress, and also he was not the only person to have contributed to the design.

And what of Betsy Ross? While the “Betsy Ross” flag design with the 13 stars in a circle was often used during the Revolution, and is perhaps the modern ideal of what a Revolutionary War flag should look like, she never submitted a design, didn’t meet with the flag committee, or George Washington. Her story only came to light nearly a century after the Revolution and was likely a creation by her grandson William Canby.

Nothing exists from Congress—no law, no executive order, no resolution—that gives an official reason for the colors of the American flag, but Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress helped design the Great Seal of the United States. In his report to Congress on June 20, 1782, the day the seal was approved he described the colors thusly: “White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue…signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. "Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions." Google Books. Web. 17 June 2014.
"Flag of the United States." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014. <>.
"Historical Flags for Sale | Historic American Flags | Historic Flags | Flags Unlimited." Web. 17 June 2014. <>.
Leepson, Marc. "Five Myths about the American Flag." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 June 2011. Web. 17 June 2014. <>.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Two Hundred Thirty-Eight Years Later

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 1.  This copy was likely not written by Mason, 
as it does not show some of the characteristics of 
his handwriting. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 12, 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was ratified. George Mason IV, an oft forgotten founder, was the author of the Declaration. It had only minor modifications from his original draft. The Virginia Declaration of Rights is still a bulwark of the Commonwealth of Virginia's government, and is the first article of its Constitution.

Mason opened the document:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first such document in America to secure freedom, independence and certain inalienable rights, which would shortly thereafter become a part of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The rights enumerated in this Declaration have remained largely unchanged in the modern Virginia Constitution, with most sections still word-for-word copied from the original.

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 2. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Significant portions of the original document are imminently applicable today. For example, Section 6 guarantees free and open elections, and that "all men...have the right of suffrage." Also, as enumerated in the Declaration, Virginia does not have a standing army, but rather "a well regulated militia" which is broken down into a variety of volunteer organizations, including branches of the National Guard, the Virginia Defense force and unorganized militia. These organizations currently work to bring aid in the case of weather-related and other disasters.

Sections 8, 8A and 11 are expansions of the originals, which protect the rights of Virginia citizens as related to criminal prosecution and civil court cases. These expansions include the enumerating the rights of the victims, governmental discrimination and the public use of private property. Sections 15A and 17 on the other hand are completely new to the original document.

Section 15A is a much debated addition to the Declaration, ratified in November 2006. This amendment pertains to the definition of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. While more heavily debated on a national level, it is also being brought to bear on a state level by current appeals to district courts. It is impossible to say what the ultimate outcome of this debate will be.

Final draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 
page 3. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Section 17, the last section of the document, prevents the limiting "of rights of the people not [herein] expressed." This is similar to the United States Bill of Rights, which secured undefined rights as the privilege of the States. It is unclear when this section was added to the Declaration.

In this day and age, 238 years after the ratification of the Declaration of Rights, it is still a very important part of the lives of Virginians. This Declaration, and the rights reflected in it, was one of the most important things Mason ever did. He was one of the strongest proponents for rights in the United States Constitution a little more than 10 years later. He wrote 17 objections to that Constitution, chief among them the lack of a bill of rights. Can you imagine what the United States and Virginia might have been like without explicit narration of the rights we all hold dear?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

George Mason’s Writing Table

By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director

In August of 2006 Gunston Hall acquired a small writing table now on display in the little parlour.  This writing table had been donated to the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) in 1881 by a great grandson of the family, George Mason of Alexandria, Va.  This item had been on loan from the VHS to Gunston Hall since 1951.

George Mason's writing desk in situ at Gunston Hall.
The table, just 27 5/8” h x 30 ½” w x 19 ¾ “ d, is made of American black walnut with secondary wood of yellow pine. The original drawer pulls have been lost, the lock replaced and the feet also replaced in the 19th century.  The 19th century restoration has been described as “sloppy” with the table being completely disassembled, partially refinished, re-glued and re-pegged. The missing pad feet were replaced with ball feet. The surface of the desk was left "as-is" but with a silver shield-shaped  plaque insert on center top with the Mason crest and “The writing table of George Mason Gunston Hall, Fairfax County, Va. upon which he wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights adopted in convention June 12th, 1776 Presented to the Virginia Historical Society by his Great grandson George Mason of Alexandria, Virginia

The great grandson left a colorful account of the table- “This table is of English oak and almost as it was in Col. Mason’s time- except of some very [?] attempts at repairs much after the war, to ‘reconstruct’ where injuries had been done by Yankee vandals-“ Another account tells of it being rescued after a fire.

Although the table was at Gunston hall during Mason’s lifetime, it is unlikely he carried it with him to Williamsburg, where he actually composed the Declaration of Rights. He may have used it to compile elements of the bill of rights or draft elements to the Virginia Constitution along with his estate accounts and letters.

In return for the table, Gunston Hall gave the VHS 167 volumes from the library of Robert Carter [1728-1804], alternately known as Robert Carter the Councillor or Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, a grandson of Robert “King” Carter. Gunston Hall had purchased these volumes from Kenmore Plantation in 1976.

Carter had a substantial library, estimated by Philip Vickers Fithian in his journal to have contained 1,500 volumes as early as 1774.