Friday, March 7, 2014

Stevens T. Mason: Michigan’s Boy Governor

By Frank Boles

On March 5, Don Faber, biographer of Michigan’s first elected governor and the author of, The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics, shared the history of a remarkable individual who was extraordinarily successful as a young man.

Mason was part of Virginia’s successful Mason family, which included a member of the constitutional convention and two U.S. Senators. His father, John Thomas, had struck out to Kentucky. It did not go well, and eventually he used his family connections to gain an appointed position. He was named Secretary of the Michigan Territory and John Thomas, along with his son Stevens, traveled to the territory’s capital, Detroit.

John Thomas soon decided Michigan was not to his liking, resigned his appointment, and traveled south to find his fortune in Texas. The Territory’s governor, Lewis Cass, had taken a liking to Stevens, who although only nineteen proved a far more adept politician than his father. With Cass's support, in 1831 Stevens T. Mason was appointed to succeed his father as Territorial Secretary. The appointment of the young man raised more than a few eyebrows, but he proved both administratively and political adept. Cass was soon tapped by Jackson to join his cabinet, and the young man found himself acting territorial governor. Indeed he “acted” as governor for the next several years, since the man Jackson appointed as territorial governor, George Bryan Porter, had business interests in the East that made him a very infrequent visitor to Detroit. When he did visit, Porter showed extraordinarily poor timing. In particular, arriving in the middle of a cholera epidemic, a disease which soon led to his death. As a result, President Jackson appointed the young Mason governor.

Jackson lived to regret the decision. Mason was a strong proponent of Michigan becoming a state and used his authority to move that cause forward. The major roadblock to this happening was conflicting claims between Michigan Territory and the state of Ohio over the “Toledo strip,” an approximately 400 square mile piece of land that included the city of Toledo. The dispute formally centered on cartography. By act of Congress, the border between the two entities was a straight line beginning at the southernmost point of Lake Michigan and travelling east until it reached Lake Erie. The problem became that both Michigan and Ohio hired surveyors to mark that line, and both surveys put Toledo squarely in the territory of the governmental unit which paid for the survey.

What really was at stake was economics. Ohio had authorized construction of an expensive series of canals to connect the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The most sensible place for these canals to enter Lake Erie was at Toledo, and the state of Ohio was not about to spend a considerable sum of money and then gift Michigan Territory with their canal system’s northern terminus.

Into 1835, Mason, who truly believed that right, if not politics, was on his side, sought to retain control over the Toledo Strip. Andrew Jackson, given an issue that divided his Democratic Party, wished the problem to go away. When increasingly obvious messages to Mason failed to put him in a conciliatory mood, Jackson simply removed “the Young Hotspur” from office.

Mason, however, was nothing if not resourceful. By 1835 the Territory had adopted a constitution, petitioned Congress for admission to the Union, and most importantly was prepared to conduct elections for state officials. Mason ran for and was elected state governor. The political reality, however, was Ohio was a state, while Michigan was a territory, and in the end, despite significant legal and moral victories, Congress served Michigan Territory an ultimatum: abandon the claim to the Toledo Strip as the condition of becoming a state. Although it took two conventions to achieve local agreement, eventually Mason and Michigan’s other political leaders acceded. Congress agreed to allow Michigan Territory to enter the Union in 1837, and, to place some salve on the wounds that had been created by its rough handling of the situation, added the western Upper Peninsula to the new state.

Mason was re-elected governor in 1837 and advocated an ambitious plan for both internal improvements, including a canal at Sault Ste. Marie, and a progressive educational policy. All this came to naught, however, when the nation plunged into the Panic of 1837. The money to support Mason’s vision was simply unavailable. Mason kept the state afloat with a loan he personally negotiated in New York City, but in many ways the deal became his undoing, since when he arrived in Detroit with the trunkful of money lent to the state, some of it was missing. Although eventually all of the money was accounted for, his political opponents made much of the situation and Mason did not run for re-election.

The talented young man and his new bride, whom he had met in New York City while negotiating a loan on the state's behalf, resided in Detroit until 1841, when they moved to New York City. There, in January 1843, he died of pneumonia.

In a footnote, Don Faber told the strange tale of Mason’s mortal remains. Mason was originally buried in New York. However in 1905, amid much pomp and ceremony, his remains were returned to Michigan and interred in Detroit’s Capitol Park, a small strip of green in downtown Detroit that commemorates the location of the state’s first capitol building. In 1955, a decision to build a bus terminal in the park led to another relocation of the Governor’s remains. A second exhumation and reburial took place, again in Capitol Park. In 2010, new construction in the park led to a third exhumation and relocation of the by now well- traveled body. The 2010 project led to newspaper headlines when construction workers failed to find Mason’s body where it was thought to lie. Four days of digging eventually relocated the slightly misplaced former governor. Today, his remains are located above ground, in the pedestal of a statue erected in his memory that stands in Capitol Park.

Don Faber’s presentation offered insight into early Michigan history, a fascinating life, and the not particularly eternal rest granted to Stevens T. Mason.