James Murray Mason (1798-1871), U.S. Senator and Confederate diplomat, is best known for his authorship of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and his Confederate mission to England.
James M. Mason was born on Nov. 3, 1798, at Georgetown, D.C. After an excellent elementary education, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1818. He studied law at the College of William and Mary and established his law practice at Winchester, Va., in 1820.
During the 1820s Mason served in the Virginia Legislature. In 1837 he served one term in the U.S. Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat. The Virginia Legislature selected him for the Senate in 1847.
In Washington, Mason associated with the most prominent Southern Rights Democrats, especially John C. Calhoun. It is not surprising that Mason drafted the famous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 or that he read Calhoun's speech to the Senate on the proposed compromise measures. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Mason argued for Southern secession. For Mason, the "irrepressible conflict" was between two social and economic civilizations, one agrarian and the other industrial. Slavery, advocated by Mason, was only one part of the Southern civilization.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed Mason diplomatic commissioner to England in 1861. Mason had great personal charm, despite his critics' charge that he was untidy and chewed tobacco and spat on the floor of Parliament. He possessed impressive qualifications: a clear position on the issue of Southern rights, a conciliatory demeanor, high social connections, and 10 years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The U.S. Navy's seizure of Mason and John Slidell, Confederate commissioner to France, while they were aboard the British ship Trent caused a serious diplomatic crisis between the United States and England. In January 1862 Mason and Slidell were released and resumed their mission.
Mason was never received officially by the British government, and he obtained only three interviews with British officials, all as a private citizen. He cultivated friendships with powerful political and economic figures, acted as a central purchasing agent for the Confederacy, cooperated with propagandists, and promoted the sale of Confederate bonds. Yet his primary mission, to persuade the British to recognize and aid the Confederacy, was singularly unsuccessful.
After the Civil War, Mason fled to Canada. In 1868 he returned to Virginia and settled near Alexandria, where he died on April 28, 1871.
The only attempt to treat Mason's life is Virginia Mason, The Public Life and Diplomatic Correspondence of James M. Mason with Some Personal History (1903). Charles Francis Adams, The Trent Affair (1912), is useful for this aspect of his life. □
The British general James Murray (1721-1794) came to prominence during the campaigns against the French in North America. After the fall of Quebec, he became its first English military governor and then its first civil governor.
James Murray was born on Jan. 21, 1721, at Ballencrief, Scotland. He was the fifth son of Alexander, the 4th Lord Elibank. In 1740 Murray was appointed a second lieutenant in Wynyard's Marines and served subsequently in the West Indies, Flanders, and Brittany and at the defense of Ostend in 1745. He took part in the Rochfort expedition of 1757 and commanded a brigade during the successful siege of Louisbourg, Cape Breton, in 1758.
At the decisive battle of the Plains of Abraham near old Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759, Murray commanded the left wing of the British army. After the death of James Wolfe and the French surrender of the garrison, he was put in charge with 4,000 troops under his command.
After a winter filled with hardships both for the British forces and for the French inhabitants of Quebec, Murray was faced in the spring of 1760 with a French force greatly superior in numbers. On April 28, 1760, he met the French at Saint-Foy but was forced to retreat to the citadel. The French forces, led by Levis, laid siege to Quebec but were forced to retire when, on May 15, a British naval squadron arrived. Murray then reorganized his forces and proceeded to Montreal. He was there with his troops when Vaudreuil surrendered Montreal and New France to the British on Sept. 13, 1760.
In October 1760 Murray was appointed military governor, and, after the signing of peace between England and France in 1763, he became the first civil governor of Quebec. He got on well with many of the leading French Canadians in the colony and ignored the imperial authorities' wishes for the summoning of an elected assembly. The English merchants demanded not only an elected assembly but the introduction of English civil law, and when these demands were not met, they forced Murray's recall.
In 1774 Murray was appointed governor of Minorca off Spain. In August 1781 a force of 16,000 French and Spanish troops laid siege to Fort St. Philip on Minorca. Murray held out for some months but finally was forced to surrender on Feb. 5, 1782. He was subsequently tried by a general court-martial, but he was acquitted early in 1783 of all charges except two minor ones. He was made a full general in February 1783 and subsequently served for a time as governor of Hull in Yorkshire. He died at his residence, Beauport House, near Battle, Sussex, on June 18, 1794.
There is no recent biography of Murray. An early study is R. H. Mahon, Life of General the Hon. James Murray, a Builder of Canada (1921). Hilda Neatby, Quebec: The Revolutionary Age, 1760-1791 (1966), offers a fresh view of Murray and places his career within the context of the period. □