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George Mason

Finding Americas Forgotten Founder: My Journey to Discover George Mason

December 13, 2016 by Joe Ziarko

George Mason seems to want to be left alone, but that’s not an option for me. As Colonial Williamsburg’s newest Nation Builder, it is my task is to learn all I can about this “forgotten founder.”

Anyone’s story can become altered through time, warped by legend, or entirely lost to obscurity. It’s our job to peel back the years and pore over surviving details to reveal the truth of these people through their writings and actions long since recorded.

Getting beyond a superficial level of understanding is the obligation of every historian, but there is an added weight when you intend to “become” this person. There are multiple levels of responsibility: becoming academics, as expert scholars on our subjects; directors, as we script new programs; and actors, whenever we use our interpretive skills to bring these giants of history back to life.

Familiarity can be a blessing and curse for historical interpreters. Obviously Americans know George Washington, but it can be hard to parse fact from legend. They may be familiar with Thomas Jefferson, but they know his quotes better than the man. James Madison may be synonymous with the Constitution, but that neglects his own changing opinions and nuanced views of government.

For one who is lesser known, a blank slate in the public consciousness, there is an opportunity to teach something new. That’s why I was thrilled when I heard that Colonial Williamsburg was looking for a George Mason, a man vital to Virginia’s (and then America’s) history who has long been neglected.

George Mason IV of Gunston Hall was a mixture of typical Virginian and unique persona (the “typical” Virginian combining possibilities of fortune with harsh reality). At 10 he was orphaned, not an uncommon occurrence in that uncertain era, but he would prove himself by becoming one of the richest men in Fairfax.

He lacked a formal education outside the occasional tutor but was sought far and wide for his political and legal opinions. He had a large family (nine of 12 children would survive to adulthood) and loved his first wife but felt the all-too-familiar tragedy of loss, which instilled in him a constant desire to protect his posterity. He measured his own life by his children and family, but history would remember him for other reasons.

The name George Mason is unknown to so many Americans, and yet, in his own time, he was sought out and respected by many of those we recognize as synonymous with our Revolution. He was a friend of George and Martha Washington and a neighbor to their home at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson described him as “a man of the first order of wisdom” with an “expansive mind, profound judgement.” And James Madison described him as “the ablest man in debate” he had ever seen.

Mason is perhaps best known for writing Virginia’s Declaration of Rights for Williamsburg’s Fifth Virginia Convention in June 1776. Its echoes resounded through the Declaration of Independence and, later, the federal Bill of Rights. He spent a majority of his life at his home, Gunston Hall in Fairfax, Virginia, because he preferred the “the happiness of independence and a private station to the troubles and vexations of public business.”

Mason came out of retirement repeatedly to serve his country when he was needed the most. He was one of the five most frequent speakers at the Constitutional Convention and one of only three who refused to sign the document upon the conclusion of that convention. And yet, people know the school named after him better than they know the namesake.

My appreciation goes deeper. For the past 5 months I have immersed myself in the history and style of this man. Though he is not the most popular founding father, there are still multiple biographies, each with its own perspective. The Complete Papers presents Mason in his own words, but useful insights can be hidden amidst the mundane business of daily life.

To this add the books and treatises that Mason read as well as academic writings that illuminate the sometimes dense history in all of its Constitutional and philosophical nuance.

This man was known in his own time for being reclusive and curmudgeonly, but when you read his words, you realize his genuine aversion to public notoriety was due to his love for his family first and foremost. His hesitation to leave his home did not lead to a limited understanding. Instead, he found wisdom by finding a balance between the best aspects of the old order and the progressive philosophy of the future.

I have treasured the time that I have spent with Mason thus far and look forward to sharing him with you, our guests, in the near future. He is a complex figure in history and a relatively untapped voice from the pantheon of Founders. My studies have begun but there is still so much more to research. My reading list only gets longer and for every book I finish, I discover two more.

What we do here is new and constantly evolving. Unlike the academic, the director, or the actor who ultimately must step away from the culmination of their work, my study of George Mason will never be complete. But I’m looking forward to continuing my research this winter, introducing him on the streets this spring, testing his wits against Mr. Jefferson in new programming, and ultimately bringing this great man to life for our visitors.


Joe Ziarko’s first stint at Colonial Williamsburg began nine years ago, shortly after he graduated from Dickinson College with a double major in American History and Theatre. He began as a theatrical interpreter, a logical extension of his “unique” educational combination.

As a member of our actor Interpreter team, Joe portrayed Edmund Randolph for several years. Coincidentally, Randolph, like Mason, refused to sign the Constitution. Joe says this is where he discovered a particular propensity for portraying less appreciated historical figures.

After serving as Manager of Interpretation at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Va. the past two years, Joe returned to Colonial Williamsburg to take up the role of George Mason in August 2016.