American Sabbatical 68: 3/11/97

St. Mary's City

3/11... chasing the Virgin.

Monday night had come off lowery with sprinkles, but Tuesday morn smiled again and brushed us with a warm hand. Going SOUTH is different from heading WEST. Out that way you climb through dramatic changes, feel an opening out.. and you are chasing the old American Dream. Going this way the changes are more subtle, there is a thickening of the air.. and you’re sinking into the American Subconscious.

The South is the dark place in our national psychology. We got two kinds of messages from friends about going south: you are going to love it, the people will overwhelm you.. or: watch out, it’s dangerous down there. This is the storied land of Momma and Deliverance. That drawl is the voice of midnight stories.

So my ears were cocked for traces of deep dialect, full of mystery and romance. And I'd looked forward to driving through some transparent barrier into floral fragrances, skin-tingling rays, and riotous pastels: SPRING. Maybe in southern Georgia, or FLA. What I’d forgotten is that spring is a progression of gentle hints and promises. More like a waltz than a slam dance.. a courting ritual. Is it the first daffs, or forsythia? Leaves breaking out, or the songbirds returning? Every day we encounter more and more signs, but the deep woods are still stark and bare, and the breeze has an edge. One minute we’re cruising in our shirtsleeves with the windows down, the next we’re all bundled up wondering why we left our longjohns home. I guess that’s like spring in Maine, Huh?

Tuesday morning Peggy had to swallow one plantation before breakfast, so we perused George Mason’s, which was hard by the EconoLodge. You can’t move down here by the Potomac without bumping into an historic marker, and you could easily spend a month touring colonial era and civil war sites. We settled for Gunston Hall.

(Memo #57)

March 11 George Mason - Gunston Hall

Who? radical revolutionary leader

What? author of first Bill of Rights

Where? Virginia planter, neighbor / friend of George Washington

When? before and during Revolution

How? wrote, spoke, lobbied for individual rights

Topics: Bill of Rights, Revolution, revolutionary leaders

Questions: Why isn’t George Mason better known? Why was he considered a radical?

Gunston Hall

The Virginia Bill of Rights (included in the state’s 1776 Constitution) laid out the individual and natural rights that its chief author, George Mason of Gunston Hall, Virginia, thought were crucial. His eloquence and reasoning lead his friend Thomas Jefferson to use passages from the Virginia document in the Declaration of Independence. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (our national Bill of Rights) show Mason’s influence as well. He lobbied long and hard for these guarantees of personal liberty, for religious tolerance, for trial by jury. Mason was active in the tense period before the Revolution in Virginia. He brainstormed the 1760’s boycotts of English goods, authoring the Non-Importation Resolutions of Virginia. He gets credited by some people for the French constitutional guarantees of rights and the UN Charter. Just before the recent reunification of Germany, German legislator came to Virginia to study the writings of George Mason (!).

Why then is Mason relatively unknown, eclipsed by his neighbor and friend George Washington and the other Revolutionary leaders (Madison, Henry, Adams, Jefferson)? Mason was a radical, unwilling to compromise for the sake of political necessity. He was eloquent and well-read, a “man of the first order of wisdom” according to Thomas Jefferson. He went to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was once of the most active delegates there, speaking over 136 times and writing 18 objections. He had two main causes - personal liberties and an end to the slave trade. At the end of the long hot summer he took the stand that a Constitution without a Bill of Rights and one that allowed the trade in humans (though the slave trade was - according to the Constitution - to end in 1808) was wrong... and he refused to sign the document laboriously hammered out in Philadelphia. He was one of three delegates not to sign. George Washington, his neighbor and longtime friend, never forgave him. Mason was never invited to nearby Mt. Vernon again and was referred to as “my former friend.”

I went to Gunston Hall to get a better sense of this man who would risk his dearest friendships for principle. Perhaps ten miles south of Mount Vernon, a mile inland from the Potomac, Mason's abode is a brick house at the end of a long beautiful avenue of magnolia trees. The house is modest in size when compared to other plantations, but richly decorated. It must have been stuffed to the eaves by Mason’s twelve children, paid employees, indentured servants, and slaves. A lovely formal garden with extensive boxwood allees stretch toward the river with a smaller formal garden below it and a deer park between the two and the river.

Once again I was forced to question historical reconstruction. Gunston Hall was a contrast to Mt. Vernon where so many of the furnishings actually belonged to Martha and George and the rooms are know from period prints and drawings. At Gunston Hall we heard the phrases “from the era”, “much like the ones that would have been used”, and “typical of the period”. Few of the furnishings had actually belonged to George Mason (I asked). But, then, the house Mason had designed was lived in and renovated by his descendants. And he was not seen as significant enough to enshrine.

We saw reconstruction in progress. It was fascinating to see the “ghost” shapes of the earliest molding or pediments uncovered on the original walls and hear how the staff recreated the original wallpaper (the earliest Chinese wallpaper in the US) from fragments, used 18th century paint formulas, and uncovered the back stairway (still to be reconstructed). Four rooms open off the great central hall, two on either side. A master bedroom and study on one side, the dining room and formal parlor on the other. Upstairs there are five bedrooms and a box room. The treasure of this plantation house is the wooden carving - arches and trim and details and fireplace surrounds in intricate beautiful detailed carving, the work of an indentured servant named William Buckland whose reward was "meat, drink, washing, lodging and twenty pounds a year" for four years.

Gunston Hall was once a 5500 acre plantation producing tobacco and wheat for sale. It had its own landing on the Potomac. At one time there were 30 outbuildings. Six remain. I toured the cookhouse, washhouse, smokehouse, and schoolhouse. The specialists may have lived above their workshops in each case. Little is know about the Gunston Hall workforce. Mason apparently mentioned 45 slaves by name in his will and had perhaps 90 at Gunston Hall. The guide said he had a large number of paid and indentured workers too.

There is a museum nearby that displays Mason family artifacts and historical items - the horticulture books used by the Virginia farmers and the pew rental agreement signed by Washington and Mason.

It is a beautiful house and garden, but I did not get a full sense of the plantation enterprise, nor of the fascinating man who lived there.


“All men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights”
- George Mason

3/11.. cont.

A bald eagle swooped low over Gunston Hall as I waited for the teacher to finish her snack. The docents told me there are now paddlewheel boat trips up the Rappahannock to see eagles nesting. She said there were three pairs doing their courting spiral over the Potomac yesterday. One was enough to cheer me.

We made wingbeats out onto Rt.1 again, but my attempts to cross some degrees of latitude didn’t make it past teacher’s cheat-sheet. Peggy has refined her navigation to a science, and she has a library of guides, maps and encyclopedia at her fingertips. She had been muttering about St. Mary’s City, the first Catholic settlement, over on the Maryland shore, and my attempts to dodge the crossing were futile. Turn here, she said.

I’m glad we did. The dogwoods lining downtown Fredericksburg are in full bloom, and couples were sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe on the brick sidewalk. All along the tidewater back roads ornamental plantings are exploding in pinks, and whites, and lavender, and forsythia is shouting. Even the fresh orange cutbanks at building sites seemed jovial.

Down all these Chesapeake fingers there’s a discordant mix of rundown agriculture and elegant gentleman estates, beater bungalows and gated condo developments. I have to wonder if the US and THEM thing is torquing the social order here the way it has in coastal Maine, or does the old hierarchies simply perpetuate themselves.. Massa? Today, with the willows weeping pale green, and the new grass so virulent it almost hurts, it’s hard to imagine any hostility churning these waters.

Blue Barns at St. Mary's City

We ran through aisles of tidewater piney woods and tall hardwood groves, meandered across wide agricultural flats with lines of green shoots sprouting, and past winter meadows where the old straw was a glowing russet against the graying sky. Coming down to the shore at St. Mary’s City the mouth of the river was chopping up white across the blue-gray waters.

(Memo #58)

March 11 St. Mary’s City - Religious Freedom

Who? first settlers of Maryland, Catholics in colonial America

What? Catholic immigrants from England

Where? colony on small bay near mouth of Potomac River

When? 1634

How? Lord Calvert given right by king to start a Catholic refuge

Topics: religious freedom, Toleration Act, colonization of Maryland

Questions: What does freedom of religion mean? How has it been interpreted and extended in United States history?

St. Mary's

High school students always state that the Puritans (Boston) and Pilgrims (Plimoth - original spelling) came to this country for religious freedom. This is true, but not our modern concept of religious freedom. Today you are free to practice any religion or none in the USA. In Massachusetts Bay Colony or Plimoth in the 1600’s you were free to be LIKE THEM, free to be only a single distinctive type of Protestant.

This New England Protestantism WAS a step in the development of religious freedom since Pilgrims and Puritans had been persecuted in England. They were free in New England to practice their own brand of Protestantism, but Catholics, Quakers, Jews were not allowed in either colony. There are records, for example, of Quakers being branded and expelled from Boston.

Roger Williams, a minister, and Anne Hutchinson were thrown out of Massachusetts for daring to interpret the Bible their own ways. These two radicals were simply following the ideas that had started the Reformation: the INDIVIDUAL could read and interpret the Bible, it was not necessary to have a hierarchy of churchmen clarifying dogma. Freedom of religion in the United States is very much tied to freedom of the press and to free public education and to the separation of church and state, and to individualism. Press to provide books and Bibles, education so you can read, separation so that public money is not spent on church affairs. Yet the establishment of our contemporary freedom of religion came slowly.

Museum Skeleton
It all happened in small steady steps. Quakers settled Pennsylvania and allowed any form of monotheism in their colony. Roger Williams went to the ultimate extreme and created a colony (Rhode Island) where you were free to worship according to the dictates of your conscience (logically, the first US synagogue was in Newport). George Mason was part of the Virginia debate as to whether clergymen should continue to be paid by the government. The religious test for voting was ended by the time of the Revolution (colonial men could not vote unless they were rich AND in good standing with the church).

St. Mary’s City was the beginning of the state of Maryland and the first English colony where Catholics were welcomed. (Remember the struggle in England between Roundheads and Cavaliers, between Mary the Catholic Queen and her sister Elizabeth the Protestant one?)

St. Mary’s City did not become part of a modern metropolis. The Maryland capital moved and the site eventually fell into ruin. The small College of St. Mary’s lies adjacent to the site, beautiful pastures and woods overlooking a small bay. It is about two hours southeast of Washington D.C. on a peninsula that juts out into Chesapeake Bay north of the mouth of the Potomac.

The site was not officially open which is a mixed blessing. The paths are empty of tourists and we could wander at will. The few complete building (the first capitol, the tavern, a house), however, were not open and there was no official literature available. Still it was lovely. The trees were budding and there were clumps of daffodils here and there.

The staff has opted for accuracy. Since they only know what the foundation of the Catholic church was like, they have created a framework of timbers, not a full building. The structure looms empty against the sky. A sign tells you of the many lost graves nearby marked by wooden crosses that rotted. Each house site has a frame of a building. There are many signs as you walk through the village orienting you to the original roads and buildings. A small ship is moored to the dock. A gazebo and garden are dedicated to Margaret Brent, a woman basically left in charge of the colony by the Governor at one point who fought (unsuccessfully) to be accepted as a woman leader.

The peaceful site does not show the colony’s drama, the continuing fight for religious tolerance and power. In 1949 The Maryland Toleration Act guaranteed freedom of conscience to anyone believing in Jesus Christ (i.e. all Christians). The colony was legally more tolerant of religious differences than Mass. Bay or Plimoth, less tolerant than Pennsylvania or Rhode Island. Even limited tolerance was under constant attack. Protestants seized control of the colony in 1654 and made “Popery or Prelacy” a crime. The struggle continued, focused more on power and control of colonial matters than religion. The precedent remained.

Catholics had later struggles in the United States. The great wave of Irish immigration in the 1840’s caused by the potato blight and widespread famine was met by prejudice and discrimination. “No Catholics or Dogs” read signs in Boston businesses. I remember in 1960 when John Kennedy was running for President that cartoons and editorials said he couldn’t be president because the Pope would run the USA!

Church Site

Today we continue to debate and legally test freedom of religion. Can student religious groups meet in schools? Can a town finance Christmas decorations? As America becomes more diverse we will have other decisions to make. How can a school accommodate the need of Muslim students to pray during the school day? How can a Jew go on an airplane and observe kosher eating rules? Why should stores or business be shut on Sunday when Friday and Saturday are the holy days for other religions in America? There are endless points to discuss and debate.

St. Mary’s City is one of the places where religious freedom began. The empty timber frames of its building are symbolic of the work still to be done.

3/11.. cont.

After this Catholic interlude, we pushed our daily limit by backtracking to the Potomac crossing with the sunset in our eyes, and marching on to Ashland, just outside Richmond. Every signpost was an accusation. The Army of the Potomac took four years to get this far, watering these woods with blood, and we were rushing past looking for a cheap motel.

In January I read U.S.Grant’s memoirs, the best presidential autobiography of them all, and I’d galloped across this terrain with “Sam” Grant, while he was earning the name of “Butcher.” His book teaches that he brought history to Appomattox because he was singleminded in his stubbornness, had a superior sense of grand strategy, forged a back-channel alliance with Lincoln, and had fighting generals he could trust. But the cost was horrendous, and so much of the blood was shed between the Potomac and the James. But we are saving our Civil War touring for “the West”, where Grant became the man who could beat Lee. We bivouacked in the Super8 in Ashland.

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