Thursday, March 26, 2015

This Month in 1785: The Mount Vernon Conference

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

On March 25, 1785, delegates from Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon to discuss issues of commerce and navigation rights along the Potomac and Pocomoke Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.  It is now referred to as the Mount Vernon Conference, and George Mason was one of the participants.  This was something that Mason had both a personal and a public stake in as the Potomac was the great waterway into much of Virginia and Gunston Hall, and properties he owned in Maryland, ran along the river.

The meeting was called together because the Articles of Confederation were proving to be a very loose form of government.  Congress, under the Articles, lacked the ability to regulate trade, particularly tariffs.  Newly formed states were treating each other as countries in and of themselves rather than the distinct, but joined bodies as they are recognized today.  The Maryland and Virginia governments saw this issue, and decided to take it upon themselves to create an agreement that defined the rights and usage of shared waterways.

This was one step in many that led to the downfall of the Articles of Confederation that would happen in the summer of 1787.  The fact that tariffs and taxes were one of very few ways that the early American government could bring in revenue only compounded the matter.  Other factors that would play into the collapse of the Articles would take place in the remainder of 1785 and 1786 before Congress called together the meeting in Philadelphia that would become the Constitutional Convention.

A selection of the objections discussing the composition of the legislature.
George Mason would bring ideas from this meeting, and his time as a delegate in the Virginia government to the Constitutional Convention.  In a letter to his oldest son, also George, he says that he "should be glad to have the Strictures I wrote some time ago on the Port Bill," clearly thinking of navigation and commerce in Virginia.  Subsequently, his most voluble objection to the completed Constitution was concerned with the ability of Congress to make such laws.  He thought that "By requiring only a majority to make all commercial and navigation laws, the five Southern States, whose produce and circumstances are totally different from that of the eight Northern and Eastern States, may be ruined." He was concerned that this might allow them to "demand exorbitant freight" and "monopolize the purchase of the commodities."

It is impossible to say for sure, but it is likely that Mason's concerns on this topic, especially the political, were colored by his participation in the Mount Vernon Conference in March of 1785.  For southern plantation owners like Mason, navigation and commerce would also have significant personal implications as they relied on northern states for shipbuilding and manufactured goods.  Virginia, specifically, shared significant waterways with Maryland, and those concerns would also need to be addressed under the newly structured government as laid out by the Constitution.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Is there Something You Want to Know About George Mason?

Is there something you have always wanted to know about George Mason? A burning question that has never quite been answered? We'd like to try to answer them for you over the course of our publishing year with the Blog. We'll do short posts based on the questions you ask us. Here's one as an example:

What is that ball and chain attached to the post in the Kitchen Yard?

The question is often asked with the thought that it might be a remnant of the institution of slavery at Gunston Hall.  However, that is not the case, it is part of an old mechanism to automatically close a gate that no longer exists here at Gunston Hall. The chain was attached to the gate, and the weight would have swung the door closed as soon as it was released.