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Mason, James Murray

Legislator; born on Mason's Island, Fairfax co., Va., Nov. 3, 1798; graduated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1818; began the practice of law in 1820; served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1826 to 1832, was a member of Congress from 1837 to 1839; and United States Senator from 1847 until expelled in July. 1861. Senator Mason was the author of the fugitive [126] slave law (q. v.); an active leader in the disunion movement in 1860-61; and a member of the Confederate Congress. He died near Alexandria, Va., April 28, 1871.

Early in the career of the Confederate government they sent diplomatic agents to European courts who proved to be incompetent. Then the government undertook to correct the mistake by sending two of their ablest men to represent their cause at the courts of Great Britain and France respectively. These were James M.

James Murray Mason.

Mason, of Virginia, and John Slidell, of Louisiana, who was deeply interested in the scheme for reopening the African slave-trade. These ambassadors, each accompanied by a secretary of legation, left Charleston Harbor on a stormy night (Oct. 12, 1861), eluded the blockading squadron, and landed in Havana, Cuba, where they were cordially greeted by the British consul and other sympathizers. There they embarked for St. Thomas on the British mail-steamer Trent, intending to go to England in the regular packet from the latter port. While the vessel was on her way to St. Thomas, and when off the northern coast of Cuba, she fell in with the American war-ship San Jacinto, Capt. Charles Wilkes (q. v.), then on his way home from the coast of Africa. He had touched at Havana, where he heard of the movement of the Confederate ambassadors. Satisfied that the English rule concerning neutrals and belligerents would justify him in seizing these men on the Trent and transferring them to his own vessel, he went out in search of her. Hefound her on Nov. 8, and brought her to by firing a shell across her bow. Then he sent Lieutenant Fairfax, a kinsman of Mason, on board the Trent to demand of the captain the delivery of the ambassadors and their secretaries to Captain Wilkes.

The officers of the Trent protested, and the ambassadors refused to leave the ship unless forced by physical power to do so. Lieutenant Greer and a few marines were sent to help Fairfax, who then took Mason by the shoulders and placed him in a boat belonging to the San Jacinto. Then the lieutenant returned to Slidell. The passengers were greatly excited. They gathered around him, some making contemptuous allusions to the lieutenant, and even crying out “Shoot him!” The daughter of Slidell slapped Fairfax in the face three times as she clung to the neck of her father. The marines were called, and Slidell and the two secretaries were compelled to go. The captive ambassadors were conveyed to Boston and lodged in Fort Warren as prisoners of state. The British government pronounced the act of Wilkes a “great outrage,” though in exact accordance with their code of international law as expounded by their judges and publicists; and the British government prepared for war on the United States. It did not wait for diplomatic correspondence, but made extensive preparations for hostilities before sending a peremptory demand for the release of the prisoners. The Tory papers abused the American government without stint. While these preparations were going on, and Congress and other legislative bodies. were thanking Captain Wilkes, the United States government, acting upon the wise counsel of President Lincoln, and true to its long-cherished principles concerning the sacredness of neutrality, proceeded to disavow the act of Wilkes and to release the prisoners. They were placed on board a British vessel, and went to England, where they were treated with marked coldness. The London Times, which had teemed with abuse of the Americans because of the arrest, now declared that the ambassadors were “worthless,” and added, “England would have done as much for two negroes.” [127]

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