If war is a continuation of politics by other means, as von Clausewitz suggests, Iowa Democrat Charles Mason saw both sides of the coin.[i]
Edging out Lee
Civil War buffs remember Cadet Charles Mason as besting Robert E. Lee in West Point’s Class of 1829. Neither man had any demerits, but Mason earned slightly more points than Lee.
After West Point, Mason became a lawyer and then chief justice of the Iowa Territorial Court. In 1839, he wrote the decision, “In the Matter of Ralph.”
Ground-breaking Iowa court decision
In this case, in 1834, Missouri slave-owner Mr. Montgomery gave his slave, Ralph, permission to buy his freedom for $550 by working in the Dubuque lead mines. A few years later, Ralph hadn’t paid off his debt, so slave hunters arrested him.
A judge issued a writ of habeas corpus for Ralph. The judge in 1839 persuaded the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court to hear Ralph’s case.
Ralph’s attorney argued that Ralph should be free, drawing upon American law, British law, Natural Law, and the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:15).
Chief Justice Charles Mason responded that slavery was illegal in Iowa based on the Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise (passed in 1820).
Mason explained that Ralph was free because “property, in the slave, cannot exist without the existence of slavery.”[ii] Therefore, Ralph.’s former owner, Montgomery, illegally deprived “a human being of his liberty.”
It is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.[iii]
Mason commented that this case involved “an important question which may ere long, if unsettled, become an exciting one.” Over the next 22 years, tensions continued to rise over the expansion of slavery into the territories.
Intervening years after Ralph
Mason became U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C., from 1853-1857. He then returned to Burlington, Iowa, and served on the State Board of Education.[iv]
During this time, Mason’s beloved Iowa Democratic Party split into two embittered factions. Republicans rose in strength, and Democrats became weaker and weaker.
When Confederate troops fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, Iowa Republicans flocked to enlist in the Union Army and Navy. Many Democrats enlisted, too, men who supported using the sword to restore the Union.
Not long after Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln began suspending habeas corpus in the North. This meant that federal authorities could arrest and imprison civilians, without any charges. The civilians wouldn’t get a trial, and their civil liberties would be violated.
Many Democratic editors in Iowa complained about this, stating that only Congress could suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln said he had authority to do it. After all, he was commander-in-chief.
The former jurist analyzes secession
In summer 1861, there was an Iowa governor’s race, and Mason was the Democratic candidate. As a conservative Democrat, Mason said the Union must be preserved, but he thought the war, at that time, was unwise and possibly illegal.
To examine Mason’s statement, it is helpful to remember President Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Lincoln had said, “In contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union is perpetual.”[v] According to this view, the Confederacy was made up of insurgents who lived in states that remained loyal to the Union. Mason disagreed with this legal fiction.
Mason suggested that secession may represent “the uprising of a whole people against what they deem injustice and oppression.” He also suggested it may be “the voice of one-third of the Sovereign parties to our present Constitution claiming the rights of securing the happiness of their citizens by changing the form of their Government in accordance, as they contend,” with the Declaration of Independence.
Mason agreed with Republicans that the Union must be restored. But, he said, the federal government must first exhaust every possible means of compromise and conciliation. Otherwise, the federal government was engaged in “naked, arbitrary, down-right coercion.”
Mason then predicted that “a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military Despotism.”[vi]
Republican newspapers and politicians called Mason a dis-unionist. He felt great pressure and dropped out of the race. A Republican became governor.
Mason advocated for peace, writing letters to editors and advising like-minded Democrats. Late in the war, Mason returned to Washington, D.C., to practice patent law.[vii]
Prominent Iowa Democrats seemingly trusted Mason’s political insights. A few of them who had Confederate sons asked Mason to intervene with federal authorities when those sons were captured by Union troops.
During the war, Mason read about his fellow West Point Cadet, Robert E. Lee. Mason wrote in his diary:
General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain. Some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did.
Iowa Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads, were soundly defeated during the war. Sometime after Appomattox, Mason wrote in his diary, “I played the game of life at a great crisis and lost. I must be satisfied.”[viii]
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[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: 1984), 87.
[ii] Eastin Morris, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Iowa, Vol. I (Iowa City: 1847), 1-7.
[iii] Henry K. Peterson, “The First Decision Rendered by the Supreme Court of Iowa,” The Annals of Iowa 34 (1958), 304-307.
[iv] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253
[v] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” in editor Andrew Delbanco, The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: 1992), 197.
[vi] “Judge Mason, acceptance of the nomination for governor of Iowa,” Dubuque Daily Herald, 8/11/1861.
[vii] Richard Acton, “Charles Mason,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=253
[viii] Charles Mason, Charles Mason Remey, The Life and Letters of Charles Mason: Chief Justice of Iowa, 1804-1882 (Washington, D.C.: 1939).