James M. 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
December 1, 1828 – December 4, 1831
Serving with William Castleman, William Wood
Preceded byWilliam Barton
Succeeded byConstituency reestablished
In office
December 4, 1826 – December 2, 1827
Serving with James Ship
Preceded byGeorge Kiger
Succeeded byWilliam Barton
Personal details
James Murray Mason

(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
SpouseEliza Chew
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania (BA)
College of William and Mary (LLB)

James Murray Mason (November 3, 1798 – April 28, 1871) was an American lawyer, politician, and Confederate statesman. He served as senator from Virginia, having previously represented Frederick County, Virginia, in the Virginia House of Delegates.[1][2]

A grandson of George Mason, Mason strongly supported slavery as well as Virginia's secession as the American Civil War began. As chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 1851 until his expulsion in 1861 for supporting the Confederate States of America, Mason took great interest in protecting American cotton exporters. As the Confederacy's leading diplomat, he traveled to Europe seeking support, but proved unable to get the United Kingdom to recognize the Confederacy as a country. As Mason sailed to England in November 1861, the U.S. Navy captured his ship and detained him, in what became known as the Trent Affair. Released after two months, Mason continued his voyage, and assisted Confederate purchases from Britain and Europe but failed to achieve their diplomatic involvement. As the war ended, Mason went into exile in Canada, but later returned to Alexandria, Virginia, where he died in 1871.[3]

Early life

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

Political career

Following admission to the Virginia bar, Mason practiced law in Virginia, and also operated a plantation in Frederick County. Despite a sloppy and damaged census record, he may have owned 5 slaves in the 1830 census.[4] In the 1850 federal census, Mason owned ten enslaved people, half of them children under ten years of age.[5] In that year, he (or another man of similar name) also owned a 25 year old Black woman and her four children in nearby Rappahannock County.[6] In the 1860 census, Mason owned a 49 year old Black man, 35 year old Black woman, and children aged 14, 13, 12, 10 and 3 years old.[7] and he or another James M. Mason owned seven enslaved children (the oldest a 13-year-old girl) in southern Culpeper County.[8]

Mason soon began his political career, well before his father's death, winning election several times as one of Frederick County's (part-time) representatives in the Virginia House of Delegates. His first term began on December 4, 1826, alongside one-term veteran James Ship, but only Ship won re-election the following year. In 1828, Ship failed to win re-election and Mason won the election to represent the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley together with William Castleman, Jr., and both won re-election the following year. After veteran legislator Hierome L. Opie, one of the four joint delegates of Frederick and neighboring Jefferson County to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830, resigned, Mason took his place alongside John R. Cooke, congressman Alfred H. Powell and fellow delegate Thomas Griggs Jr. Although some had hoped that convention would limit slaveholder power, the resulting constitution only gave additional votes to western Virginians (including those in Frederick County and those counties which would secede and become West Virginia during the American Civil War), so Mason and Castleman were re-elected and joined by William Wood for the 1830-1831 legislative session.[9]

In 1836, Congressman Edward Lucas of Shepherdstown (in what would become West Virginia decades later) announced his retirement. Voters in Virginia's 15th congressional district elected Mason as his successor in the Twenty-fifth United States Congress. The Jackson Democrat only served a single term, succeeded by Lucas' brother William Lucas.[10]

In 1847, Virginia legislators elected Mason to the Senate after incumbent Isaac S. Pennybacker died in office, and Mason won re-election 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 into the Western territories. Mason 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."[11]

Mason was President pro tempore of the Senate in 1857.

Champion of slavery

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."[12] (The other two themes were the secession of Virginia and the establishment of the Confederacy.)

Mason was not only a white supremacist, 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."[13][14]: 260 

He so believed in the beneficence of slavery that, unlike many others in Frederick County, Mason refused to support the colonization project that led to the founding of Liberia. Mason's solution to the "problem" of free blacks was returning them to slavery, stating they were better off enslaved in the United States than they could possibly be in Africa. Mason 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.[15] 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 already enslaved them.

Mason wrote the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, arguably the most hated and openly-evaded Federal legislation in U.S. history. The whole idea of using "popular sovereignty" as a means to expand slavery into the Western territories, starting with Kansas, leading to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the violence of the Bleeding Kansas period, was hatched in Mason's Washington boarding house.[14]: 65  Mason also was the chair of the ad-hoc Senate committee that investigated John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, and wrote its report, informally known as the Mason Report.[16]

Secession advocate

Continuing the tradition of his mentor John C. Calhoun, whose last speech (1850) Mason read to the Senate when Calhoun 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), left them no other choice than secession. He said he didn't need reasons to leave the Union, he needed a reason to stay in the Union.[12]: 101 

Mason strongly favored the South's "immediate, absolute, and eternal separation" if anti-slavery, Republican candidate John C. Frémont were elected president in 1856.[12]: 83 

In 1861 Mason worked behind the scenes to enable Virginia's secession, remaining in the Senate because he could get information useful for the seceding states, a type of spy behind enemy lines.[12]: 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.[12]: 103 

Mason disappears from Senate activities in March. He and other Southern senators were expelled from the Senate on July 11, 1861, by a vote of 32 to 10, because "they were engaged in a conspiracy for the destruction of the Union and Government, or, with full knowledge of said conspiracy, had failed to advise the Government of its progress or aid in its suppression."[17][18]

Confederate diplomat

Mason became one of Virginia's representatives to the Provisional Confederate Congress from February 1861 through February 1862.[19] However, his legislative duties were interrupted by a diplomatic assignment. While Mason sailed toward England as a 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 fellow Confederate diplomat John Slidell were confined in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. The Trent Affair threatened to bring Britain into open war with the United States, despite triumphant rhetoric in the north. Even the cool-headed Lincoln was swept along in the celebratory spirit, but enthusiasm waned when he and his cabinet studied the likely consequences of a war with Britain. After careful diplomatic exchanges, they admitted that the capture was 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.[20]

Later life

First Selma mansion, Winchester, Virginia, destroyed in 1863

When the Union army took over Winchester in 1862, at first "Selma", Mason's house, was requisitioned for regimental offices.[21]: 67–68  (Other Virginia houses named Selma are 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".[22] According to Mason, the house was "obliterated".[13] He never lived in Winchester again.

From 1865 until 1868 Mason lived in exile in Canada. After sanctions on Confederate officials were lifted, he returned to the United States, and bought the Clarens Estate, on 26 acres (11 ha), today in Alexandria, Virginia. (In 2008 the house alone sold for over $8,000,000 (equivalent to $11,321,175 in 2023).)[14]: 258–259  He brought white servants from Canada, and went to some trouble to find others, as he did not want to hire any blacks; he believed free blacks to be "worse than worthless".[14]: 260  He died at Clarens in 1871, and was interred in the churchyard of Christ Church (Alexandria, Virginia).[1][2] His death was not noted by anyone outside his family.[14]: 264 

James M. Mason, photograph by Mathew Brady


Marriage and children

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

Assessments by political opponents

One perspective comes from Republican politician Carl Schurz. His visit to Washington coincided with debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Still another type was represented to me by Senator Mason of Virginia, a thick-set, heavily built man with a decided expression of dullness in his face. What he had to say appeared to me to come from a sluggish intellect spurred into activity by an overweening self-conceit. He, too, would constantly assert in manner, even more than in language, the superiority of the Southern slave-holder over the Northern people. But it was not the prancing pride of Senator Butler nor the cheery buoyancy of the fighting spirit of Toombs that animated him. It appeared rather to be the surly pretension of a naturally stupid person to be something better than other people, and the insistence that they must bow to his assumed aristocracy and all its claims. When I heard Senator Mason speak, I felt that if I were a member of the Senate, his supercilious attitude and his pompous utterances of dull commonplace, sometimes very offensive by their overbearing tone, would have been particularly exasperating to me.[23]

A leading Republican Senator Charles Sumner commented:

Among these hostile senators, there is yet another, with all the prejudices of the senator from South Carolina, but without his generous impulses, who, on account of his character. before the country, and the rancor of his opposition, deserves to be named. I mean the senator from Virginia [Mr. Mason], who, as the author of the Fugitive Slave Bill, has associated himself with a special act of inhumanity and tyranny. Of him I shall say little, for he has said little in this debate, though within that little was compressed the bitterness of a life absorbed in the support of Slavery. He holds the commission of Virginia; but he does not represent that early Virginia, so clear to our hearts, which gave to us the pen of Jefferson, by which the equality of men was declared, and the sword of Washington, by which Independence was secured; but he represents that other Virginia, from which Washington and Jefferson now avert their faces, where human beings are bred as cattle for the shambles, and where a dungeon rewards the pious matron who teaches little children to relieve their bondage by reading the Book of Life. It is proper that such a senator, representing such a State, should rail against Free Kansas.[24]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Lee, Michele (May 18, 2011). "James Murray Mason". Gunston Hall. Archived from the original on September 26, 2009. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Mason family of Virginia". The Political Graveyard. June 16, 2008. Archived from the original on April 4, 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2009.
  3. ^ Young, 1998.
  4. ^ 1830 U.S. Federal Census for Western District, Frederick County, Virginia, p. 101 of 116
  5. ^ 1850 U.S. Federal Census for District 16, Frederick County, Virginia, Slave Schedule p. 16 of 28
  6. ^ 1850 U.S. Federal Census for Rappahannock County, Virginia, Slave Schedule p. 6 of 47.
  7. ^ 1860 U.S. Federal Census for District 4, Frederick County, Virginia, Slave Schedule p. 4 of 4
  8. ^ 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Southern Division, Culpeper County, Virginia, Slave Schedule p. 3 of 38
  9. ^ Cynthia Miller Leonard, The Virginia General Assembly 1619-1978 (Virginia State Library, Richmond 1978) pp. 334, 344, 349, 353, 355
  10. ^ Leonard, p. xxvi
  11. ^ James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), pg. 79.
  12. ^ a b c d e Young, Robert W. (1998). James Murray Mason : defender of the old South. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. p. 46. ISBN 9780870499982.
  13. ^ a b Thomas III, William G. (July 15, 2009). "Sen. James Murday Mason, black labor, and the aftermath of the Civil War". Archived from the original on October 25, 2020. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  14. ^ a b c d e Gawalt, Gerard W (2015). Clashing dynasties : Charles Francis Adams and James Murray Mason in the fiery cauldron of civil war. North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1519347916.
  15. ^ 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. [Washington] Printed by L. Towers. 1860.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Mason, Virginia (1906). The public life and diplomatic correspondence of James M. Mason, with some personal history. New York and Washington: Neale Publishing Company. p. 191.
  18. ^ Brockell, Gillian (January 5, 2021). "The senators who were expelled after refusing to accept Lincoln's election". Washington Post. Archived from the original on January 7, 2021. Retrieved January 8, 2021.
  19. ^ Leonard, pg. xxix
  20. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 193.
  21. ^ Phipps, Sheila R. (2003). Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807128856. Archived from the original on June 4, 2021. Retrieved February 26, 2021 – via Project MUSE.
  22. ^ Beakes, George M. (March 25, 1863). "Letter from an army surgeon". Middletown Whig Press (Middletown, Orange County, New York). p. 1. Archived from the original on June 4, 2021. Retrieved October 12, 2020 – via newspaperarchive.com.
  23. ^ Schurz, Carl (1909). "First Years in America—Visit to Washington". The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. Vol. 2. London: John Murray. pp. 35–36.
  24. ^ Sumner, Charles (1856). "The crime against Kansas. The apolgies for the crime. The true remedy". Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, in the Senate of the United States 19th and 20th May, 1856. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company. pp. 88–89.

Further reading

U.S. House of Representatives Preceded byEdward Lucas Member of the U.S. House of Representativesfrom Virginia's 15th congressional district 1837–1839 Succeeded byWilliam Lucas U.S. Senate Preceded byIsaac S. Pennybacker U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Virginia 1847–1861 Served alongside: William S. Archer, Robert Hunter Succeeded byWaitman T. Willey Chair of the Senate Claims Committee 1847–1849 Succeeded byMoses Norris Jr. Preceded byHerschel Johnson Chair of the Senate District of Columbia Committee 1849–1851 Succeeded byJames Shields Preceded byDavid Levy Yulee Chair of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee 1851–1852 Succeeded byWilliam M. Gwin Preceded byHenry S. Foote Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 1852–1861 Succeeded byCharles Sumner Political offices Preceded byJesse D. Bright President pro tempore of the United States Senate 1857 Succeeded byThomas Rusk