Hon. James Murray Mason, of ‘Mason & Slidell’ fame.A Tribute to this exalted patriot by Hon. Henry A. Wise.
The Hon. James Murray Mason is no more. His death has already been announced, but we deem it a pleasure, as well as a duty, to take more than a cursory notice of the loss of such a man to the once honored State, which he and his ancestors served so long and so eminently, at a time when her glory was the chief pride of her sons. Descended from the Masons of Gunston, in Virginia, and from the Murrays of Maryland, he was born November 3, 1798, in the county of Fairfax, and after early boyhood was reared and educated chiefly in the city of Philadelphia, with every opportunity for attaining accomplishments of a high order. He was a resident in a French family of superior refinement, and was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, A. D. 1818. Thus trained to the age of his majority he could not be other than a gentleman, in the highest sense of that much abused term. The son of General John Mason, Sr., of ‘Claremont,’ the grandson of George Mason, of ‘Gunston,’ the only rival of George Washington, and the author of the first Bill of Rights, properly conceived and expressed, ever penned for mankind, and sprung from a mother more like a ‘mother of the Gracchi,’ than almost any woman of her day, James M. Mason could not but feel the  pride of birth and a sense that he had an escutcheon never to be stained, always to be kept in honor. But he had no other pride of family than that which required of him every attainment and every virtue to maintain his position in society and his relations to the State. He was far above the boasting of his blood. Philadelphia, at that day, was not only the cleanest city in the world, with the best founded and governed municipal institutions on this continent, under strict Quaker regime, but had a society of the world, the most cultivated in all its grades. Mr. Mason had free access to that society, sought it, and availed himself of all its advantages. Among other families of high ‘grace and decorum,’ he was happily intimate in that of the eminent Benjamin Chew, of Germantown, whose house was battered by the balls of the Revolution; and early after graduating in the profession of the law he wedded one of the proudest daughters of that house. It was not a case of ‘noblesse oblige,’ but a beautiful love-match between ‘lady and knight,’ both accomplished, peerless and true. That lady survives the honored lord, who cherished her devotedly a long life-time through; and next to the solace which God gives to one bereaved like her, she has the comfort of the many pledges of their true love in the children and grandchildren of their marriage. We are informed that Mr. Mason studied law with Mr. Benjamin Watkins Leigh, of the Richmond bar. He evidently studied law, especially the English common law and its history, more with the view to its application to the science of government than to its practice in the forum. In politics he was hereditarily a Democratic Republican, opposed to all implied powers, for strict construction and strong limitations of constitutional powers of government, and extremely jealous of the separate, independent and sovereign rights of the States, and especially maintained the right of self-government in the States in respect to their own domestic and internal relations. His political faith was of the order of the stock of men from which he sprung—it was after the model of his grandfather, and he aspired to political preferment from the first of his career. He settled in the town of Winchester, in the rich county of Frederick, of the valley of the Shenandoah, and the first time we had personal knowledge of him was in 1826, when he was in the twenty-ninth year of his age. On the 4th of July of that year he delivered the oration of the day in that town to a large concourse of citizens, and we were struck with the singularly same ring of metal which sounds in the old George Mason Bill of Rights. He was not, however,  neglectful of his profession, was diligent in its practice, and the bench and bar of Winchester and surrounding circuits then, even more than now, were distinguished for eminent lawyers, such as Henry St. George Tucker, Alfred H. Powell and John R. Cooke, and a younger tier of professional devotees, such as the two Marshalls, the Conrads and Moses Hunter, the best wit of them all. Mr. Mason took a high rank among them at the bar, but always looked to politics for his field of distinction; yet he was no demagogue, and spurned the ad captandum of the vulgar electioneerer. His forte was good taste; and he had the keenest relish for the aesthetical. The word ‘proper’ with him embraced not only what was befitting, in good phase and seeming, but what was just, manly and right in itself. His education partook of the French school, and it modified his English temperament, American habits and Virginian abandon into a peculiar form. It made him self-possessed in his manner, and no scion of chivalry was ever more manly; and yet there was inexplicably mixed in him qualities confused in the composition, which made him seem to strangers what he was not—somewhat haughty in his carriage. There was a geniality mixed with a hauteur uncongenial; a hearty laugh contrasted with the sternest frown; a brusqueness with a reticent and commanding dignity; a John Bull bluffness with a French-like air of finished politeness; a Virginian old plantation way with marked attention to niceties; a jealous regard for conventional forms, and yet he would violate them imperiously. His integrity was sterling—exact to truth; his firmness was rock-like; his sense of honor was of the highest tone, and his every word and action was guided by a discretion always sound and always on guard. In the family, both of his father and his own home at Winchester, he was the model of husband, father, son and brother; among his friends and associates he was supreme in their confidence, and he was among the few men known ever to have magnified by the nearer approach to him; he was greater near to him than he appeared to be at a distance, because he preferred the intrinsic and real to any looming of the mirage of greatness, and he was far higher in his moral than in his mental faculties and powers. A man thus stamped with the seal of nobleness could not fail to attract the homage of those around him, or to be afforded the opportunities for the aspirations he indulged. Honest, he was trusted; discreet, he was relied on to ‘do justice and judgment;’ and brave, all felt assured that he could make the ‘sacrifice’ when called on. He did nobly make it at the last extremity, without a murmur and without soiling his  escutcheon; he made no palinode of his principles, and soiled not his good faith. At that day Winchester was, though less than now, freely accessible to Baltimore, Alexandria and Washington city. He was often at the two latter places and had full intercourse with the leading men of the day. He had the highest admiration for John Randolph, of Roanoke, and Mr. Randolph had an exalted admiration for him. It was, if we remember aright, in 1828, when the presidential canvass was going on between General A. Jackson and Mr. John Quincy Adams, that Mr. Randolph made his inimitable speech in the Senate of the United States, comparing wisdom and knowledge, the personations of which were Jackson and Adams, contrasted. It was unique in all its characteristics, extremely eloquent, and nicely critical, and was, perhaps, the last, if not the first, speech of Mr. Randolph which he ever reported for himself. He called it his ‘longo emendacior’ speech, had it printed in pamphlet form, and circulated it among his friends and those whom he specially admired. One of the copies was inscribed by him to Mr. Mason as ‘a worthy son of worthy sires.’ This was written on the back of the printed speech, and it is to be hoped that the copy has been preserved. It was an encomium which any man might envy, and this was before Mr. Mason had any prestige of public service—whilst he was a young man and before he took his seat in Congress. A young man, just thirty-one years of age, might well be proud to have a compliment such as this paid to him by the most sensitive and observing critic of his age. In such a community as then governed itself in Frederick, Mr. Mason was soon called into the public service. He was sent to the House of Delegates in the General Assembly of Virginia, where so many great men had found a school to train them for usefulness and for the glory of their country. The halls of the General Assembly were then graced by a galaxy of talents, such as those of John Thompson Brown and others, his peers, and the city of Richmond was then rich in the grand social graces of the great houses of the olden time, in the midst of which Mr. Mason shone and became generally known in the State. In the year 1837, in the fortieth year of his age he was elected to the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, and served one term, until 1839, when he betook himself again to his profession, and was, eight years thereafter, in the year 1847, elected to the Senate of the United States. He was never distinguished there for any one great speech, or report  or measure, but his whole course was so sensible, dignified and discreet, as to be worthy of Conscript Fathers, and he was for years at the head of the high Commmittee of Foreign Relations.1 He was twice re-elected, and before his third term expired, he was obliged to retire by the impending Civil War, which threatened all he held dear, and summoned him to the defence of his mother State of Virginia. He sought no distinction in either house of Congress, but contented himself with the even tenor of his way, doing his duty diligently, conserving the Constitution of the Federal Government, and guarding the rights of the States and the liberties of the people. To any and all opponents he yielded nothing on these points, and was practical and persistent in his course. He was always practical on questions of mere expediency, where no question of morals was concerned; and the moment any question of moral obligation arose, involving the faith and truth of men and States, he knew where the true practical was, which but few men ever know, and they are seldom distinguished in public political life. When the Constitution, which the faith of men and States was pledged to support, was violated, he paused not to consider what was the present profit of submission; and when self-respect and honor called upon him to vindicate both, he counted not the cost of contending for both. He knew by his honorable instincts, trained by the discipline of his childhood, by the associations of his youth, and by the calls of his manhood, that there was no profit in sacrificing sound morals to a dread of defeat, or to the dross of immediate gains. He counted the cost, and knew the danger of loss for the time, but also knew that to be practical in the end was to be true to the moral law, and himself. Though a staunch, unwavering Democrat, he was never a mere partizan; party was hig servant, not his master, and he adhered to it only as long as it violated no fundamental law or principles, and kept good faith. When its representatives proved hesitating or recreant in defending the Constitution, in protecting the people, and in preserving the public peace against the enemies of all three, he then proudly and independently was relf-reliant, and claimed the right of self-government for himself and for his constituents. In the conflict of States as to what was the fundamental law, he took the side of strict Construction, and of Limited Powers—as his fathers before him did against George III; and considering the covenant  and bond of union broken, he espoused the cause of the Southern Confederacy, ‘without fear and without reproach.’ He was incapable of treason. In the war he was honored by President Davis with the high trust, jointly with Mr. Slidell, of Commissioner to the European Powers; his residence was in England, and he was most efficient in obtaining credit, in furthering Confederate privateering, and in putting his Government and people in the most respectible attitude before the nations and courts of Europe. On the passage out in October, 1861, he and Mr. Slidell arrived at Havanna, sailed thence on the royal mail steamer Trent, for England, and on the 8th of November, the Trent was boarded by the United States war steamer San Jacinto, Captain Wilkes in command, and the Confederate Commissioners were captured as prisoners of war, and taken from the British deck to Boston. This was the first time that under any such pretext the British flag was ever violated on the high seas, under Britain's own old pretension of the right of search and seizure, by a United States man-of-war under that same old pretension of Great Britain. After the United States, from Independence day down to that time had fought against that pretension and in favor of ‘Free Trade and Sailor's rights,’ against Great Britain, and had at last by treaty gained the abandonment of any such claim on the part of England, Captain Wilkes attempted to set it up and enforce it on the part of the United States against the flag of England herself. The prisoners were sent to Fort Warren, but were quickly, though not gracefully surrendered on the peremptory demand of Great Britain. We would gladly recall an incident at the time of this capture, or during the captivity of Mr. Mason, which went the rounds of the papers at the time, illustrative of the lofty bearing of the old cavalier, erect, stern, dignified, and commanding, cutting in his manner and wit like a two-edged sword; but the particulars of the incident escape our memory. The Puritan who accosted him with religious tracts, was so shocked that he set him down as an irredeemable infidel. But Mr. Mason was no infidel, and we rejoice to be informed that in his last hours he had the ministering of the venerable Bishop Johns, now the head of that Episcopacy in the State which consecrated the house at Occaquon, in the county of Fairfax, where George Mason led his family of old to worship God. After the war Mr. Mason remained a while in England, then came to Canada, and there remained until within the last two years, when  assured that his person would be safe in returning to Virginia, here to die among his household gods, and the silent and familiar things of his reminiscences, and the few faithful friends who remained true to his faith and their own. It was not in the course of nature, or in the reason of things that he could remain with us longer. The disasters to the Confederacy and the South, the wounds to his pride, the aching agony of seeing all his hopes of liberty and self-government and the State Rights blasted, and the desecration of sacred things, and the devastation and demoralization he witnessed on coming home, were too much tension on the nerves of an aged man of delicate sensibilities and proud sense of honor. After toiling for a settlement near his father's old home at Claremont, near Alexandria, and fixing for a quiet retirement, his system collapsed, and he fell under paralysis. His last moments were without pain, and he died as he had lived, composed and firm, April 29, 1871. He was an honest man, a highly cultivated gentleman, a well trained and practised lawyer, a sound statesman, and a pure patriot. And as sure as the assurance of God's own word that ‘he who doeth truth, cometh to the Light,’ James M. Mason's great and grand soul, unstained by earth in the natural life, hath now come in the spirit to the Light of Heaven.