Editors' pick

George Mason Memorial

George Mason Memorial photo
Michael O'Sullivan - The Washington post

Editorial Review

Bronze Tribute to an Iron Will
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 9, 2002

As of April 9, 2002, George Mason, perhaps the least known of the remarkable cadre of Revolutionary-era Virginians to whom we owe so much, will officially take a place in the national pantheon of the Mall.

Fittingly, the location of the George Mason National Memorial, on Ohio Drive near the Tidal Basin, is not quite on the Mall's center stage. Mason, after all, was a thinker more than a doer in political affairs, and nowhere near as central to the national story as fellow Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Indeed, Mason's second most famous political deed -- after his authorship in 1776 of the epochal Virginia Declaration of Rights, anticipating both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights -- was a non-act. In 1787, he refused to sign the Constitution written largely by his erstwhile disciple, James Madison.

The $2.1 million memorial was supported by private donations to the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, Mason's plantation in southern Fairfax County. The design of the memorial, by the Alexandria landscape architecture firm of Rhodeside & Harwell with a bronze figure by Bethesda sculptor Wendy Ross, likewise fits Mason's private, thoughtful character.

Trees and flower beds are arranged in concentric circles around a pool with a large, low fountain. The bronze likeness of a seated Mason occupies a marble bench under a trellis at the back edge of the space -- it is as if Mason had paused in thought while reading a book in his renowned formal gardens at Gunston Hall.

In designing the memorial setting, however, landscape architect Faye Harwell relied more on early 20th-century than 18th-century precedent. The site, facing the little bridge over the inlet from the Potomac River to the Tidal Basin (and backing up to an embankment for approaches to the George Mason Memorial Bridge), evolved in the 1920s from a rather happenstance, if symmetrical, series of plantings into something called the "Pansy Garden" -- so named for the bed of pansies that encircled the central pool.

At the request of the National Park Service, Harwell retained much of the 1920s plan, including the outer rings of magnolia and forsythia, the circular fountain (with its central jet reconfigured to emit a gentle bell-shaped spray) and a flower bed now freshly planted with some 5,000 multicolored pansies. But she judiciously filled in the other concentric beds with flowering perennials, added four wooden benches and filled out the highway embankment with screening evergreen and boxwood -- the latter a tribute to gardener Mason, who planted the boxwoods still flourishing at Gunston Hall.

Most importantly, Harwell inserted the curving trellis, the gray marble bench and two stone slabs for inscriptions culled from Mason's writings, giving the space a focus it previously lacked. The result is an open, serene, protected environment that looks as if it had been in the place for a long time.

Ross's statue brings this orderly setting vividly to life. Though seated, the larger-than-life-size figure is a study in dynamism at rest. (A diminutive 5 feet 6 inches tall in real life, Mason in bronze would rise nine feet if he were to stand.)

Dressed in what passed for casual attire in 18th-century Virginia -- buckled shoes, stockings, britches, half-length coat, vest and jabot -- the planter-intellectual sits with his legs crossed, leaning backward on the support of his rigid left arm. In his right hand he cradles a book -- by Cicero, defender of the Roman Republic -- with his index finger holding a place.

The pose is a difficult one -- just try it out -- but Mason looks relaxed. Rather, he looks perfectly poised. There is life in those bones, we are forced to feel -- as Renaissance and baroque sculptors were so fond of doing, Ross masterfully manipulates the figure's legs, torso, arms, shoulders and hands into a subtle sequence of thrust, counter-thrust. Even the tricorn hat and, especially, the leaning cane (Mason suffered from gout) contribute to the sense of contained movement.

The head atop this solid, sinuous body is an evocative, if idealized, portrait. With no reliable life images to work from, Ross was free to invent. (In addition to reading the accounts of Mason's family and friends, she also attended a dinner of Mason descendants, from which, she says, she derived Mason's aquiline nose, high forehead and deep-set eyes.)

But if Ross's likeness of Mason at middle age is perhaps more handsome than the real-life person -- a posthumous painting at Gunston Hall suggests this might be the case -- it is nonetheless immensely believable. Mason's gaze seems both inward and distant, and his expression at once enigmatic and thoughtful.

Certainly, the bronze Mason is more approachable than most heroic sculptures on the Mall -- think, for instance, of Abraham Lincoln in his throne-like elevation, or of the standing Jefferson, 19 feet tall on top of an already towering pedestal. Why, a visitor can sit down on the bench right beside the Virginia gentleman, as his friends Jefferson, Madison and Washington must have done on many occasions.

This approachability should not be mistaken for cuddliness, however. The bronze Mason's very size separates him from the ordinary, and the figure retains a certain steely psychological distance no matter how close you get. This is appropriate, for contemporaries noted that the real-life Mason could be sharp and flinty, and he didn't back down in an argument.

Even Washington, at the height of his prestige, for instance, could not persuade Mason to give up his opposition to the Constitution. Mason's primary reason was that the document contained no specific protections of individual rights such as the ones he wrote into the Virginia constitution. But Mason had many other reasons, stemming from his deep suspicions of the power the Constitution took from the states and gave to the federal government.

Fortunately, Mason won one big argument -- the Bill of Rights owes much to his constant pressure. Fortunately, too, he lost his other points -- the young nation was practically falling apart from disunity before the Constitution was adopted.

In the memorial's inscriptions, Mason's irreversible support of human rights is directly invoked, while his anti-Constitution stances are ignored. Memorials have this way of freezing, and simplifying, history. The direction of Mason's gaze, however, back toward the towering monument to his old friend Washington, suggests that their argument, more than two centuries old, continues in the air above the Tidal Basin. This is what happens on the Mall, where politics and aesthetics are inextricably linked.

Another old question hovering in the air above that triangle formed by the monuments to the three Virginians -- Washington, Jefferson and Mason -- is how the three, and others like them, could so strongly support universal human rights while prospering on the backs of slave labor.

An inscription at the Mason memorial records his abhorrence of slavery, "that slow Poisin, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People." But Mason, like Jefferson and almost all the other revolutionary slaveholders, did nothing about it in his lifetime. (Washington, at least, freed his slaves when he died.)

Standing at the Mason memorial, you cannot help but reflect once again on this profound irony of American history, that at the founding of the nation such noble aspiration and base practice did coexist. It makes you look forward to the day, not too far off, when the planned memorial to 20th-century civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. takes its place on the Mall close by the Virginians.

Mason, you have to believe, would approve.