By Mark Dreisonstok
Donald McAndrews has spent a good portion of his life explaining George Mason to his fellow Americans. McAndrews began his craft of historical interpretation in Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria among historical reenactors who encouraged him to portray a colonial doctor in early Virginia; from there, he took on the role of George Mason and also sometimes Benjamin Franklin. Mason was, of course, one of the founding fathers of both the nation and also of Virginia. Those honors are why he became the namesake of both a state university in Fairfax and a high school in Falls Church, the latter of which will no longer be so as Mason’s name is dropped in favor of Meridian High School effective July 1.
After years of portraying Mason, McAndrews comments that “It boggles my mind that he is not known by everyone!” The Virginia Declaration of Rights states “that all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…,” words which would find an echo in U.S. founding documents. In those documents,“Other people wrote the words, but the ideas were George Mason’s,” according to McAndrews.
George Mason himself was a man with little formal schooling, instead being self-educated from the books in his uncle’s library. Mason wrote much of the Virginia Constitution as well as the 15-article Virginia Declaration of Rights, the model for the Bill of Rights amended to the U.S. Constitution. Although Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (the farthest he ever ventured from Virginia), he did not initially sign the Constitution, as it did not have a Bill of Rights that would guarantee important notions such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Mason’s reluctance to sign the Constitution earned him the ire of his erstwhile friend and neighbor George Washington.
Mason once owned the area now known as Rosslyn as well as Theodore Roosevelt Island, formally called Mason Island and used by his son for providing a ferry service between Virginia and Georgetown across the Potomac River. His estate was Gunston Hall, the historic mansion in Mason Neck where McAndrews regularly portrays this founding father.
Mason was an Anglican/Episcopalian and this provides a link between the founding father and the Falls Church area: He was on the vestry of the Truro parish which oversaw the Falls Church.
Falls Church historian Bradley E. Gernand explained to the Falls Church News-Press that in colonial-era Virginia, the Church of England operated regional parishes, each anchored by a physical church. These churches served as both religious centers and also provided government services.
Church overseers, known as vestrymen, were leaders of society. In the 1700s, the Church of England established a small frame church at the crossroads of ancient native trails.
The spot, in the heart of today’s City of Falls Church, was referred to as the “church up at the falls” (a.k.a. the Little Falls on the Potomac).
Ron Anzalone, the chair of the City’s Historical Commission, also noted that “It looks like Mason and Washington helped decide to build the brick church to replace the old frame one in Falls Church.” Today this church is known as The Falls Church Episcopal and thus Mason plays a significant role in the history of not only Virginia and the U.S., but of the modern City of Falls Church.
In part due to his faith, George Mason opposed slavery, viewing it as an abomination and a moral evil, though puzzlingly he also owned 150 slaves. McAndrews holds that the reason for this seeming contradiction is that Mason saw that the harsh laws imposed on both freed slaves and their former owners meant that slavery had to be abolished by everyone simultaneously for freedom to be truly effective.
Schools, historic Masonic lodges, and former Chief Justices Warren Burger and William Rehnquist have witnessed McAndrews’ performances and McAndrews served as a model for a statue of George Mason in Washington, D.C., near the Jefferson Memorial. The Manassas resident runs an advertising agency for a career, but for McAndrews, the first-person interpretation of George Mason is his passion.