Christ Church Cemetery

The Author of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act

James Murray Mason (November 3, 1798 – April 28, 1871), laid to rest in Alexandria’s Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery, was a complex figure in American history. As the son of John Mason and grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall, his historical footprint is marked by his authorship of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This contentious piece of legislation targeted escaped slaves who had self-emancipated and fled to the Northern states, leading to widespread criticism for its harsh implications and significant impact on the events leading up to the Civil War.

James Mason. Library of Congress.

Born on Analostan Island, also known as Mason’s Island, now called Theodore Roosevelt Island, in Arlington County, Virginia. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and The College of William and Mary. He worked as a lawyer in Frederick County, Virginia. He served as a representative for that county multiple times in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1826 to 1832, except for 1827-1828.

He served as a representative for Virginia’s 15th Congressional District during the 25th Congress of the United States from March 4, 1837, to March 3, 1839.

In 1849, he got elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate because Isaac S. Pennybacker had died. He got elected again in 1850 and 1856 and served from January 21, 1847, until March 28, 1861. He left the Senate after supporting Virginia’s decision to leave the Union.

Before he left, he worked privately, using his position as a United States Senator to obtain necessary information for the new Southern Confederacy. Soon after, he was chosen as one of Virginia’s representatives to the Provisional Confederate Congress, where he served until March of 1862.

He and nine other senators from the South were officially removed from the United States Senate on July 11, 1861. This happened because they refused to acknowledge that Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States.

Fierce Advocate for Slavery

Mason was known as confident, bossy, and arrogant; he firmly believed that each state should have the power to make its own decisions. He firmly believed that slavery was an essential part of Southern society, and he was among the first to think Virginia should leave the United States, especially if it meant keeping slavery safe.

Unlike many of his friends, who were part of the American Colonization Society, he believed that the solution to the issue with “free blacks” was to send them back to slavery. He also believed that blacks were the “major problem of the country.”

When California asked Congress to join the United States in 1850 as a state without slavery, it caused more problems between the Southern and Northern states. Many people from the South believed California would be a good place for slavery, but the gold rush in 1849 brought in many people who preferred free work instead of using slaves. Senators like Mason and Jefferson Davis from Mississippi were very angry about this.

Mason and nine other Senators from the South disagreed with the California bill. They expressed their concerns in a letter to their colleagues.

Because the right of the slaveholding States to a common and equal enjoyment of the territory of the Union has been South’sed by a system of measures which, without the authority of precedent, of law, or of the Constitution, were manifestly contrived for that purpose, and which Congress must sanction and adopt, should this bill become a law.1Virginia Mason. The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason with some personal History. The Neal Publishing Company. New York. 1906. P. 79.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

One of the things that bothered the South about the North was that the North was sheltering enslaved people who ran away from the South to be free. These escaped enslaved people were called “fugitive slaves,” they were mainly protected by local communities in the North who mostly ignored the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. This act permitted local governments to capture and send back escapees to their owners, and it also punished anyone who helped them escape.

Realizing that California would most likely join the United States, Mason wrote and introduced the Fugitive Slave Act: “I introduced the bill here to fulfill my duty to the people I represent and in obedience to the instructions of the General Assembly of Virginia. I must admit,” he continued, “that although the bill and the amendments have been carefully crafted and the amendments have received approval from the Committee on the Judiciary, I have little hope that it will provide the intended remedy. I’m afraid that even this law will have little effect in protecting the rights of those it’s supposed to benefit. However, if the proposed solutions could be enforced, they would be of great value and importance, not only to the people of the State I represent, but to all the Southern States currently holding the African race in slavery.”

After much discussion, the law was ultimately approved along with four other laws, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. These other laws involved granting California the status of a non-slavery state, banning the trade of enslaved people in the District of Columbia, creating a government for the Utah Territory, determining the borders of Texas, and establishing the New Mexico Territory.

The Injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act represented a dark chapter in American history, mandating federal judicial officials across all states, including those where slavery was illegal, to aid in returning escaped enslaved individuals to their owners in the South.

The law imposed severe penalties on law enforcement officials, including Federal Marshals and other government officers, if they failed to arrest someone alleged to be a runaway slave. A fine of $1,000 was levied for non-compliance. These officials were obliged to detain anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave based solely on a claimant’s affidavit.

The Act denied suspected runaway slaves the right to a trial by jury and the opportunity to present evidence in their defense. It criminalized any form of assistance to these individuals, such as providing food or shelter. Violators faced six months of imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Additionally, officers who apprehended runaway slaves were entitled to a fee, with the federal government bearing the cost.

This law significantly impacted Northern sentiment, fueling the abolitionist movement more than any prior event. Widespread opposition to the Act led to numerous violent confrontations, as free black communities and their allies actively resisted efforts to capture fugitive slaves. In a landmark move, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1855.

Despite the law’s reach, only about 300 out of the thousands of self-emancipated individuals living in the North were forcibly returned to enslavement in the South. Tragically, many who had found refuge and built new lives in the North were compelled to flee once again, seeking safety in Canada from relentless pursuit by U.S. government agents.

Also known for the Trent Affair.

Mason is also famous for the Trent Affair, a diplomatic problem between the United States and Great Britain at the start of the American Civil War.

After running away to Richmond, he was chosen as Commissioner of the Confederacy to Great Britain and France and given the responsibility of persuading these two countries to acknowledge the new southern confederacy. While on the way to Great Britain, he and fellow commissioner John Slidell from Louisiana, who had managed to avoid the blockade and reach Havana, were forcibly removed on November 8, 1861, from the British mail steamer RMS Trent in the open sea by the USS San Jacinto (1850), breaking international law. Mason and Slidell were taken to Fort Warren in Boston, Massachusetts.

The sidewheeler Steam Ship, the USS San Jacinto, stopped the RMS Trent on the high seas to remove James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate Commissioners, to Europe. The San Jacinto was commanded by Charles Wilkes, discoverer of Antarctica. His Great Uncle was John Wilkes, whom Alexandria’s Wilkes Street is named after.

Ironically, the person in charge of the San Jacinto who forcefully took Mason and Slidell off the Trent was Donald Fairfax. Donald was born at Mount Eagle, where the Montebello Condominiums are located, south of Alexandria. He was the only member of his family who supported the North during the Civil War. Fairfax County in Virginia is named after the Fairfax family.

The British became very angry because of the action. They warned that they might begin a war against the United States. Lincoln understood that he couldn’t fight two wars at the same time. Consequently, he chose to release Mason and Slidell, which occurred on January 1, 1862, permitting them to continue their diplomatic mission in Europe.

Mason’s strategy of using cotton as a diplomatic tool didn’t work because Great Britain was smart enough to prepare and store enough American cotton for the next two years before the Civil War began. They also believed that acknowledging Mason as a representative would anger the Union, and they wanted to retain access to essential ports like New York.

After the war, Mason escaped to Canada until President Johnson made a public announcement granting complete forgiveness and freedom from punishment for treason against the United States in 1868.

Mason’s Final Years at Clarens

Clarens Estate: A Historical Haven

After being pardoned, Mason returned to Alexandria and purchased the Clarens Estate, residing there until his death in 1871. Clarens, still standing today at 318 North Quaker Lane in Alexandria, VA, holds a significant place in history. Mason, however, famously refrained from using the house’s porches, as they offered a view of Washington D.C., the city he believed betrayed his Confederacy. He once remarked, “The feature that mars all is that we are but eight miles distant from Washington, that nest of serpents, which is in full view, but I have no communication with them.”

Clarens: A Glimpse into History – Nestled atop Alexandria’s Seminary Hills, this historic estate at 316 N. Quaker Lane, Virginia, offers breathtaking views from its vantage point on ‘Traitor’s Hill.’ Constructed between 1814 and 1816, Clarens is a testament to the era’s architectural elegance and rich history.

Clarens’ Role in Education and War

In the 1850s, Clarens was home to “The Fairfax School,” led by Reverend George Smith, educating notable figures like George Washington Custis Lee and George M. Dallas. During the Civil War, it served as a hospital, with Union troops building a fort on the estate. Post-war, Mason hosted notable figures at Clarens, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. After Mason’s wife’s demise in 1874, Clarens evolved from a girls’ school to a private residence.

Family Life and Legacy

Eliza Margaretta Chew Mason

James Murray Mason’s life was deeply intertwined with that of his wife, Eliza Margaretta Chew, born at “Cliveden” in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Daughter of Benjamin Chew Jr. and Katherine Banning, she married Mason on July 25, 1822, and became Eliza Mason. The couple had eight children, and Eliza spent her final years at Clarens, passing away on February 14, 1874. She was buried in Christ Church Cemetery.

Mason’s Resting Place and Family Connections

James Murray Mason rests in the family plot beside his father, Brigadier General John Mason, who famously sent Francis Scott Key on his historic mission, indirectly leading to the creation of the National Anthem. Also in the family plot is his sister, Anna Maria Mason Lee, affectionately known as “Nannie,” who married Sydney Smith Lee, Robert E. Lee’s older brother. Mason’s grave is a site of historical significance, marking the legacy of a family deeply woven into the fabric of American history.

James Murray Mason’s gravestone is in Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery, Wilkes Street Complex, Alexandria, VA. Directly behind his grave is the Douglas Memorial Cemetery, named after Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist, lecturer, and statesman who fled from Slavery in 1838. The Douglas Cemetery was formed in 1895 as an African American Cemetery. Maintained by the City of Alexandria, there are approximately 2200 burials, but only 605 gravestones (including footstones and other markers) are visible in the now-abandoned cemetery—photo by D Heiby.
of Selma, near Winchester. Va.
November 3rd, 1798
at Clarens, Fairfax Co. Va.
April 28th 1871
Lot C, with an Obelisk.

Sources of Information

Virginia Mason. The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason, with some Personal History by Virginia Mason (his daughter). The Neale Publishing Company. Washington and New York. 1906.

Welsey E. Pippenger. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia (Volume 3). Family Line Publications. Westminster, Maryland. 1992.

Ernest B. Furgurson. Freedom Rising, Washington in the Civil War. Vintage Books. New York. 2004.

Mary Kay Ricks. Escape on the Pearl. The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. Harper Collins. 2007.

See William G. Thomas III’s blog about Mason, Black Labor, and the Aftermath of the Civil War. Accessed 2022.

See William G. Thomas III’s blog about Senator James Muray Mason, Black Labor and the Aftermath of the Civil War. I accessed 2022.

See the City of Alexandria’s Douglas Cemetery Drainage and Preservation Update. Presented by city staff on June 12, 2023, at the Lee Center.

Gunston Hall. (n.d.). George Mason’s Descendants. Retrieved from

  • 1
    Virginia Mason. The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason with some personal History. The Neal Publishing Company. New York. 1906. P. 79.
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By David

Hello. With a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The Presbyterian Cemetery has close ties to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, situated one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in this cemetery, which holds a special place in my heart.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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