James Murray Mason

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
James Murray Mason
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
January 6, 1857 – March 4, 1857
Preceded byJesse D. Bright
Succeeded byThomas J. Rusk
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
January 21, 1847 – March 28, 1861
Preceded byIsaac S. Pennybacker
Succeeded byWaitman T. Willey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 15th district
In office
March 4, 1837 – March 3, 1839
Preceded byEdward Lucas
Succeeded byWilliam Lucas
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Frederick County
In office
Preceded byWilliam M. Barton
Succeeded byConstituency reorganized
In office
Preceded byGeorge Kiger
Succeeded byWilliam M. Barton
Personal details
Born(1798-11-03)November 3, 1798
Analostan Island, D.C., U.S.
DiedApril 28, 1871(1871-04-28) (aged 72)
Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Eliza Margaretta Chew
Alma materUniversity of Pennsylvania, College of William and Mary (law)
ProfessionPolitician, Lawyer

James Murray Mason (November 3, 1798 – April 28, 1871),[1][2] a grandson of George Mason, was a Senator from Virginia. He was chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 1851 until his expulsion in 1861.

He strongly supported slavery and the secession of Virginia. He was the leading diplomat of the Confederate States of America, and traveled to Europe seeking support for it, but was unable to get the United Kingdom to recognize the Confederacy as a country.

On his way to England in November 1861, he was forcibly removed from a British ship by agents of the U.S. Navy, giving rise to the Trent Affair. He was released in two months, and continued his trip.

Early life[edit]

Mason was born on Analostan Island, now Theodore Roosevelt Island, in the District of Columbia. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (1818) and received a law degree from the College of William & Mary (1820).

Political career[edit]

He practiced law in Virginia and was a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830 and a member of the House of Delegates. He was elected to the Twenty-fifth United States Congress in 1836 as a Jackson Democrat.

In 1847, he was elected to the Senate after the death of Isaac S. Pennybacker, and he was re-elected in 1850 and 1856. Mason famously read aloud the dying Senator John C. Calhoun's final speech to the Senate, on March 4, 1850, which warned of the likely breakup of the country if the North did not permanently accept the existence of slavery in the South, as well as its expansion inoto the Western territories. He also complained of Northern personal liberty laws, intended to help fugitive slaves: "Although the loss of property is felt, the loss of honor is felt still more."[3]

Champion of slavery[edit]

Mason "championed the Southern political platform", "and slavery, another of the three themes that most affected his life, lay at the core of that political ideology."[4]

Mason was not only a white supremacist—most white Southerners and many Northerners were—, he believed that negroes were "the great curse of the country". Giving Blacks the vote particularly offended him; it was, he thought, the rule of the mob and the "end of the republic."[5]

He so believed in the beneficence of slavery that he did not support the colonization project that led to the founding of Liberia. According to him, they were better off enslaved in the United States than they could possibly be in Africa. Mason's solution to the "problem" of free blacks was returning them to slavery, which he believed was in their best interest.

He believed that slavery did not need to be established or require a law to make it legal; it had already been established by God, as recorded in the Bible. It already existed in Africa: "The negro is as much property in Africa as the bullock or the ox". His position was that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery anywhere, and certainly not in Kansas.[6] Slavery was a condition, not an institution, by which he meant that Americans were not enslaving Africans, they were merely purchasing them from other Africans that had enslaved them.

Mason wrote the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, arguably the most hated and openly evaded Federal legislation in U.S. history. Mason also was the chair and wrote the report of the ad-hoc Senate committee that investigated John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. He also wrote its report, informally known as the Mason Report.[7] He believed that Brown had been put up to his raid by Northern abolitiknists, and was disappointed when his committee, after six montgs f work, could not find any basis to dispute Brown%'s statement that it was his own idea.

Mason was President pro tempore of the Senate in 1857 but was expelled from the Senate in 1861 for support of the Confederate States.

Champion of secession[edit]

Continuing the tradition of his mentor John C. Calhoun, whose last speech Mason read to the Senate when Calhlun was too sick to do so himself, Mason strongly believed states had the right to secede. Furthermore, the North's intolerance of their "peculiar institution", their "property rights" (the right to own human beings), the North was leaving them no other choice. He said he didn't need reasons to leave the Union, he needed a reason to stay in the Union.[4]:101

He worked behind the scenes to enable Virginia's secession, remaining in the Senate, from which he was expelled in March 1861, because he could get information useful for the seceding states, a type of spy behind enemy lines.[4]:100 He and Virginia's other Senator, Robert Hunter told the commissioners of the new Confederate states that Virginia would join the secession if Jefferson Davis were elected president of a Southern confederacy, but not if it were pro-slavery Alabama fire-eater William L. Yancey, seen in Virginia as extreme. Davis was chosen as president three days later.[4]:103

Confederate diplomat[edit]

While he was traveling to his new post as Confederate envoy to Britain on the British mail steamer RMS Trent, the ship was stopped by USS San Jacinto on November 8, 1861. Mason and John Slidell were confined in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, precipitating the Trent Affair, which threatened to bring Britain into open war with the United States.

The US public erupted with a huge display of triumphalism at this dramatic capture. Even the cool-headed Lincoln was swept along in the celebratory spirit, but when he and his cabinet studied the likely consequences of a war with Britain, their enthusiasm waned. After some careful diplomatic exchanges, they admitted that the capture had been conducted contrary to maritime law and that private citizens could not be classified as "enemy despatches." Slidell and Mason were released, and war was averted. The two diplomats set sail for England again on January 1, 1862.

Mason represented the Confederacy in England, bringing up Union blockades and unsuccessfully seeking diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy. After Britain issued its refusal in 1863, he moved to Paris, continuing his unsuccessful search for a nation that would recognize or assist the Confederacy. He was there until April 1865.[8]

Later life[edit]

First Selma mansion, Winchester, Virginia, destroyed in 1863

When the Union army took over Winchester in 1862, at first "Selma", Mason's house, was used for regimental offices.[9]:67–68 (There are other houses named Selma in Eastville and Leesburg, Virginia.) The lower officers probably did not know who Mason was. But General Banks, formerly a congressman and then governor of Massachusetts, certainly knew. Learning of Mason's pro-slavery activism and his authorship of the hated Fugitive Slave Act, the soldiers, on their own initiative, set about destroying Selma. The roof came off first. Sometime later the walls were pulled down and everything burnable was chopped into firewood. They were so thorough that "from turret to foundation stone, not one stone remains upon another; the negro houses, the out-buildings [there was an ice house], the fences are all gone, and even the trees are many of them girdled".[10] According to Mason, the house was "obliterated".[5] He never lived in Winchester again.

From 1865 until 1868 he lived in exile in Canada. After sanctions on Confederate officials were lifted, he bought the Clarens Estate, today in Alexandria, Virginia. He went to some trouble to find white household workers, as he did not want to hire any Blacks. He died at Clarens in 1871.[1][2] He was interred in the churchyard of Christ Church (Alexandria, Virginia).[1][2]

James M. Mason, photograph by Mathew Brady


Marriage and children[edit]

Mason married Eliza Margaretta Chew (1798–1874) on 25 July 1822 at Cliveden in Germantown, Pennsylvania.[1][2] The couple had eight children:[1]

  • Anna Maria Mason Ambler (31 January 1825 – 17 August 1863)[1]
  • Benjamin Chew Mason (1826–1847)[1]
  • Catharine Chew Mason Dorsey (24 March 1828 – 28 April 1893)[1]
  • George Mason (16 April 1830 – 3 February 1895)[1]
  • Virginia Mason (12 December 1833 – 11 October 1920)[1]
  • Eliza Ida Oswald Mason (10 August 1836 – 16 December 1885)[1]
  • James Murray Mason, Jr. (24 August 1839 – 10 January 1923)[1]
  • John A. Mason (17 November 1841 – 6 June 1925)[1]

He was a grandson of George Mason (1725–1792); nephew of George Mason V (1753–1796);[1][2] grandnephew of Thomson Mason (1733–1785);[1][2] first cousin once removed of Stevens Thomson Mason (1760–1803) and John Thomson Mason (1765–1824);[1][2] son of John Mason (1766–1849) and Anna Maria Murray Mason (1776–1857);[1][2] first cousin of Thomson Francis Mason (1785–1838), George Mason VI (1786–1834), and Richard Barnes Mason (1797–1850);[1][2] second cousin of Armistead Thomson Mason (1787–1819), John Thomson Mason (1787–1850), and John Thomson Mason, Jr. (1815–1873);[1][2] second cousin once removed of Stevens Thomson Mason (1811–1843);[1][2] and first cousin thrice removed of Charles O'Conor Goolrick.[1][2] A first cousin 5 times removed was Betty Mason (1836-1899) first wife of Gen. Edward Porter Alexander.[11][12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Lee, Michele (May 18, 2011). "James Murray Mason". Gunston Hall. Archived from the original on September 26, 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-07.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Mason family of Virginia". The Political Graveyard. June 16, 2008. Retrieved 2009-03-07.
  3. ^ James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), p. 79.
  4. ^ a b c d Young, Robert W. (1998). James Murray Mason : defender of the old South. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. p. 46. ISBN 9780870499982.
  5. ^ a b Thomas III, William G. (July 15, 2009). "Sen. James Murday Mason, black labor, and the aftermath of the Civil War".
  6. ^ Property in Territories. Speech of Hon. J.M. Mason, of Virginia, delivered in the Senate of the United States, May 18, 1860. The quote on p. 14. 1860.CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. ^ Mason, James M.; Collamer, Jacob (June 15, 1860). Report [of] the Select committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the late invasion and seizure of the public property at Harper's Ferry.
  8. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 193.
  9. ^ Phipps, Sheila R. (2003). Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807128856 – via Project MUSE.
  10. ^ Beakes, George M. (March 25, 1863). "Letter from an army surgeon". Middletown Whig Press (Middletown, Orange County, New York). p. 1 – via newspaperarchive.com.
  11. ^ Mason genealogy
  12. ^ Stafford County family Group Sheets
  13. ^ Mason Genealogy

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Edward Lucas
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 15th congressional district

March 4, 1837 – March 4, 1839
Succeeded by
William Lucas
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Isaac S. Pennybacker
U.S. senator (Class 1) from Virginia
January 21, 1847 – March 28, 1861
Served alongside: William S. Archer and Robert M. T. Hunter
Succeeded by
Waitman T. Willey
Political offices
Preceded by
Jesse D. Bright
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
January 6, 1857 – March 4, 1857
Succeeded by
Thomas J. Rusk