Original Intentions by Catherine Cole Rogers | Script Revolution

Original Intentions

On the cusp of the formation of the United States a man must choose between freedom and his long time friend who is against slavery.



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George Mason, the man who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, owner of Gunston Hall and 100 slaves, a man who traveled to Philadelphia in 1787 to become one of the main debaters during the Constitutional Convention, swore he would sooner "chop off his right hand" than sign the that auspicious document. Why? The USA’s Constitution may not be perfect, but many call it a living document, one that can be altered with amendments. The Bill of Rights were the first of these amendments. Mason not only supported their inclusion but as the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights his support had merit. Yet before they could be added he declared he would chop his hand off. These are strong words, words that provoke anger, fear; even blood. Although some people might argue George Mason refused to sign the Constitution because he favored the Confederacy, Original Intentions argues he refused to sign because of his insistence for freedom and an unwillingness to compromise. George Mason’s own internal contradictions can never be thoroughly known but Original Intentions makes clear he had them.

Mason’s “I would sooner chop off my right hand” is obviously a rhetorical threat. He did not want to lose his hand but he did want to make a point, a very strong point. Early in the story Mason tells Washington “We might as well be as black as our slaves, for that is what he is turning us into.” It’s well known that the colonies were being taxed without representation, but the King of England also cut off Colonial trade with the world, refused to allow them to pass their own laws, kept an army among them to insure his will, and prevented immigration from foreign countries as well as settlements west of the Appalachians. A fear of enslavement translates into a demand for freedom. Mason spent the war years raising money to fund the American rebels, he penned letters to the English Parliament demanding an end to the fires and pillaging of his Fairfax neighborhood. Two of Mason’s sons were in the war. In this context his threat to “chop off my right hand” was a passionate stand for freedom against tyranny. His close relationship with George Washington also added to his rhetorical threat. Mason could not help but see his friend as an America hero, a steady force to calm and steer the new country but Mason did not completely trust him either. Mason had witnessed Washington’s ego, he knew his friend enjoyed power. Further, Mason knew Washington had not only his persuasive personal power but the power of the military. With it, he could run the county as a monarch, a despot or worse. Many were encouraging this including Alexander Hamilton. During the war Washington ordered the execution of a small group of mutineers. Mason’s son, William, under the direction of Washington tracked down the malcontents, brought them back to face punishment and argued against execution, finding it too harsh. The General had them shot anyways. Mason was concerned Washington would be a threat to democracy if elected President and if not the General, then others who would soon take his place. This very strong point was not lost on anyone. Washington felt misunderstood and Mason’s “I would sooner chop off my right hand” and refusal to sign the Constitution shattered their friendship. Mason’s rhetorical threat was also steeped in loss.

Mason’s threat to “chop of my right hand” was a spontaneous reaction to loss. He lost his father when he was nine years old. His wife died in childbirth leaving him to raise nine children on his own. He had to bury his eldest son because of consumption. His eldest daughter lost both husband and infant child during the war years. He was determined to secure his families survival and it would be a survival with freedom. The responsibility Mason felt for his family is made clear throughout the story of Original Intentions. Further, Mason had a great hatred for Gouverneur Morris. Morris was a delegate from New York. A lawyer by trade it was Morris who sided with Hamilton for a robust and powerful Executive branch. Mason was successful in curbing the idea of a monarchy and insuring the idea of democracy, as well as the idea of checks and balances. It was with the passage of the Second Compromise when all of this unraveled. It was Morris whose scheme placed the southern states at the mercy of the northern. The script makes clear that Morris had no fondness for Mason either. “My, my, my, if it isn’t our southern neighbors. Planning a coup de etat’? Scheming to set fire to the State House, hum? Or are you just plotting a way to skewer old Mr. Mason?” Morris was out to grab power and in this he was successful. He pushed through the compromise that allowed the south to continue to acquire slaves from Africa; in return, the north would retain all shipping and navigational rules governing trade. This meant that ships (most built in Boston) could charge any price they wanted to move the tobacco, the cotton and sugar cane grown in the south. Mason saw this as a way to subordinate the southern states to the northern state’s interests. Control of trade was something King George had done. To Mason this was power unchecked. He did not trust posterity to fix this defect. Mason found men like Morris repulsive to the idea of freedom and Washington’s blasé attitude to the whole thing indicated his complicity with this grab for power. Mason feared the south, with its farms and its plantations, would soon become enslaved.

To “chop off my right hand” provokes a need to end some kind of bondage. As if one is caught in an iron wrist shackle. The story begins and ends with the slave woman, Charlotte. Charlotte was raised along with the Mason and his brothers. Being the only girl, Mason’s mother and Nan Gate, Charlotte’s mother, treated her with gentle love and great care. Mrs. Mason bought her nice things. Charlotte learned how to sew and to make artful lace and grew into an elegant and sensual young woman. This led to Mason’s younger brothers having desires that were upsetting the two mothers and causing strife at Gunston Hall. By this time Mason had fallen in love with Ann Eilbeck and with Nan Gate and Mrs. Mason’s permission he gave Charlotte to his soon to be mother-in-law Mrs. Eilbeck. This arrangement backfired a few years later when Charlotte fell in love and became pregnant by his brother-in-law, Richard Eilbeck. For her part, Charlotte wanted freedom, freedom to love a white man, freedom to raise a family. Charlotte wanted the dignity that only freedom can bring. All of this is denied her and William tells us she became as, “ornery as a hornet”. Because of this Mason sells her to a slave trader. Charlotte, now suicidal, continues her battle for freedom until the trader beats her to death leaving her body by the side of the road. Mason’s fear of bondage is so great that this primeval bloodletting, this chopping off of one’s hand, underscores his refusal to sign the Constitution. Mason’s hypocrisy of his actions is not lost him. His existential angst coming to a full climatic end.

So, what does Original Intentions mean to us in the 21st century? The Confederacy was an unrecognized republic in North America that existed from 1861 to 1865. Mason died in 1792. He may have foreseen the civil war eighty years before it began but his story should not be framed by that war. Instead, his story should remind us that people need and deserve freedom. People from around the world have come to America seeking it. In our current state of fake news, rigged elections, personal attacks, and foreign interference Mason eerily reminds us that the Constitution is only a document, and it up to the people of America to make it a living one.

Submitted: January 4, 2020
Last Updated: December 10, 2020

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The Writer: Catherine Cole Rogers

Catherine Cole Rogers is a MFA graduate from the University of Washington, Seattle. She was published in InterSections 2007 for a short story called Concrete Desert and was the recipient of an Artist Trust Grant for a theatre play, Stalking Rainbows. She was a reader for the Seattle Review in 2015. Also in 2015 Catherine came in second place for The FilmSchool’s 8th Annual Great American Short Screenplay Contest for her play Street Wedding. A workshop of her screenplay Original Intentions was conducted February 2016, sponsored by the UW English Department’s MFA Graduate Student Program. Go to bio

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