James Murray Mason was laid to rest in Alexandria’s Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery (November 3, 1798 – April 28, 1871). He was the son of John Mason and the grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall. He also wrote the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.
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.
An Evil Law
The law was evil, requiring federal judicial officials in all states and territories, including free states, to assist with returning escaped enslaved people to their masters in slave states.
Moreover, any law enforcement officer in the United States, such as a Federal Marshal or other government officials, who failed to arrest a supposed runaway slave could be fined $1,000. It was their responsibility to apprehend anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave, even if there was only a claimant’s sworn statement as evidence of ownership.
Suspected enslaved people couldn’t request a trial by a group of citizens nor provide evidence to support themselves. Helping a runaway enslaved person with food or a place to stay became a crime across the entire country. Those found guilty of this crime faced a punishment of six months in prison and a fine of $1,000. Officers who captured a runaway enslaved person were entitled to receive payment for their efforts, and this expense was to be covered by the Federal Government.
The Act influenced how people in the North felt and helped the movement to end slavery grow more than anything else had before that time. Many places didn’t agree with the law, and there were many incidents where those trying to catch escaped enslaved people turned into violence because free black people and their neighbors came together to resist those attempting to capture fugitive slaves. In 1855, the Supreme Court in Wisconsin even said the law was against the Constitution.
Of the thousands of people who were once enslaved and living in the North, only 300 were captured and sent back to their owners in the South. It is heartbreaking that many formerly enslaved individuals had made a new home in the North after escaping slavery. Unfortunately, they were forced to flee again, but this time to Canada, to avoid being pursued by government officials.
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.
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. As a result, he decided to let Mason and Slidell go free and allowed them to carry on with their 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 returned to Alexandria, where he purchased Clarens Estate and stayed there until he died in 1871. Clarens, which is still standing, can be found at 318 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA. Mason didn’t want to sit on any of the house’s porches because they offered a view of the country’s capital city that defeated his beloved confederacy. He said:
“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.”
Mason is buried in the family plot next to his father, Brigadier General John Mason (April 4, 1766 – March 19, 1849), the official who sent Francis Scott Key on the mission that led to composing the parody that became our National Anthem. Also nearby are other family members, including his sister, Anna Maria Mason Lee, known as “Nannie” (February 26, 1811 – November 3, 1898), who married Sydney Smith Lee, the older brother of Robert E. Lee.
|JAMES MURRAY MASON|
of Selma, near Winchester. Va.
November 3rd, 1798
at Clarens, Fairfax Co. Va.
April 28th 1871
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. 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.
- 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.