Posts Tagged ‘The Bill of Rights’

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The George Mason Memorial

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited the national memorial to a man who George Washington regarded as his mentor, and who was described by Thomas Jefferson as “the wisest man of his generation.” The memorial honors George Mason, and is located at 900 Ohio Drive (MAP), near the Tidal Basin and The Jefferson Memorial, in southwest D.C.’s West Potomac Park.

George Mason, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, devoted himself to achieving American independence, despite being a widower with nine children to raise.  He was the author of the Fairfax Resolves that recommended a “continental congress” to preserve colonial rights.  And in 1776, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Mason wrote the Virginia Constitution and the landmark Virginia Declaration of Rights, the seminal document that not only influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but also France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United Nations’ 1954 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, and took an active role in drafting the United States Constitution, he refused to sign it or participate in its signing ceremony, which occurred on this day, September 17th, in 1787.  The decision not to sign the Constitution would cost him his friendship with George Washington.  He objected with the final draft of the Constitution because, as an Anti-Federalist, he thought that the document did not contain provisions to sufficiently guarantee individual human rights and protect citizens from the power of the Federal government.  He also refused to sign the Constitution because it failed to ban the importation of slaves, an institution which he considered morally objectionable, despite the fact that he was one of the largest slaveholders in the area, possibly second only to George Washington.  In fact, he not only refused to sign the Constitution, but along with Patrick Henry he actively led a fight against its ratification.  For this he would come to be known as “the reluctant statesman.”  Four years later, after the subsequent adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, Mason stated that he could finally devote his “heart to the new Government.”

The George Mason Memorial features a 72-foot long stone wall with a larger than life-sized bronze statue of Mason staring off into the distance.  He is depicted sitting with his legs crossed, holding a book, with his walking stick and hat on the bench to his right and a stack of books to his left.  The statue is situated under a trellis, in a landscaped grove of trees and flower beds set among concentric circles around a circular pool with a fountain. The memorial was designed by sculptor Wendy M. Ross and landscape architect Faye B. Harwell.

Because there were no reliable images of Mason for her to accurately render her statue of him, Ross’s depiction is based on descriptions from Mason’s family and friends, a meeting with Mason’s living relatives, and a single posthumous painting of Mason which is located at Gunston Hall, Mason’s Georgian-style mansion near the Potomac River just 24 miles south of the memorial in nearby Mason Neck, Virginia.

Harwell designed the memorial’s landscaping features to adapt to the site’s history as a formal garden, as well as Mason’s love of gardens.  The site had originally been a Victorian garden in the late 19th century, which was subsequently designated in 1902 as one of the four national gardens established by The McMillan Plan, a comprehensive planning document for the development of the national capital city’s monumental core and the park system.  In 1929, the site was redesigned as The Pansy Garden.  This garden and its accompanying fountain which was used by Harwell in the design of the memorial.

The George Mason Memorial was authorized by Congress in August of 1990, with groundbreaking just over a decade later in October of 2000. It was completed and dedicated in April of 2002, and is managed by the National Park Service.  It is the first memorial in the Tidal Basin area dedicated to an individual who did not serve as president, and among the last to be sited on the grounds of the National Mall.

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The Archives of The United States of America

The Archives of The United States of America

The National Archives and Records Administration is the nation’s record keeper. Many people know the National Archives as the custodian of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – the three main formative documents of the U.S. and its government. It is also the keeper of a copy of the Magna Carta, confirmed by Edward I in 1297. Other important historical documents maintained at the National Archives include the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Emancipation Proclamation, and collections of photography, art works, and other historically and culturally significant artifacts.  But they also maintain the public records about and for ordinary American citizens, such as textual and microfilm records relating to genealogy, census data, American Indians, the District of Columbia, maritime matters, charts, architectural and engineering drawings, and the records of the U.S. Congress and all Federal government agencies.

Opened as its original headquarters in 1935, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Building is located approximately halfway between The White House and the U.S. Capitol Building, between 7th and 9th Streets at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in downtown D.C. Known informally as Archives I, the building has entrances on Pennsylvania Avenue and on Constitution Avenue just north of the National Mall.

Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the National Archives and Records Administration building was intended to be on par with the other national monuments and symbols on the National Mall. The massive building covers two full city blocks, and is among the most impressive and architecturally striking buildings on the National Mall. During the cornerstone ceremony conducted in 1933, President Herbert Hoover stated, “This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul.”

The National Archives building is highly decorated with pediments, sculptures, medallions, and classical carvings. Imbedded in its size and beauty, the building has specific messages and symbolism in the inscriptions that encircle the building, and the sculptures that surround it.

The inscriptions declare the building’s goals. On the west side of the building is inscribed, “The glory and romance of our history are here preserved in the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation.” The inscription on the east side of the building states, “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.” And the south side inscription reads, “The ties that bind the lives of our people in one indissoluble union are perpetuated in the archives of our government and to their custody this building is dedicated.”

The four massive statues around the National Archives building were each was cut from a single block of limestone weighing 125 tons. Sculptor Robert I. Aitken’s statue “The Future” sits on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building to the left of the main entrance. The young woman appears to lift her eyes from the pages of an open book and gaze into the future. Its base is inscribed with a line inspired by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest: “What is Past is Prologue.” To the right of the main entrance is another sculpture by Aitken, entitled “The Past,” which depicts an aged figure with a scroll and closed book imparting the knowledge of past generations.”  The words on the base enjoin, “Study the Past.”

To the rear of the building on Constitution Avenue sit “Heritage” and “Guardianship,” both sculpted by James Earle Fraser. Heritage is located to the right of the entrance, and depicts a woman who holds a child and a sheaf of wheat in her right hand as symbols of growth and hopefulness. In her left hand she protects an urn, symbolic of the ashes of past generations. The base is inscribed, “The Heritage of the Past is the Seed that Brings Forth the Harvest of the future.” And finally, “Guardianship,” to the left of the rear entrance, uses martial symbols, such as the helmet, sword, and lion skin to convey the need to protect the historical record for future generations. This sculpture is inscribed “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”

A visit to the National Archives can be very productive in terms of research and information. But the building itself can make a visit worthwhile, even if you don’t go inside.

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