Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Secession

Trained for war, but pursuing peace: Charles Mason, Jurist

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.”

Charles Mason (State Historical Society of Iowa)

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.”

Mason concluded:

It is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.[iii]

Prophetic insight

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.

Charles Mason (Library of Congress)

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.

War-time activities

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.

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

Final thoughts

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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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[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,

[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,

[viii] Charles Mason, Charles Mason Remey, The Life and Letters of Charles Mason:  Chief Justice of Iowa, 1804-1882 (Washington, D.C.:  1939).

If you help my child, you help me: Jefferson Davis’s 11th-hour mission

Pressing on through severe facial pain and “unutterable griefs,” Jefferson Davis wrote his farewell speech to the U.S. Senate.  His personal struggles in January 1861 (after Mississippi seceded) foreshadowed the nation’s trial by fire.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

He also wrapped up loose ends in Washington, D.C.  That included writing his college friend (and former U.S. senator from Iowa) George Wallace Jones.

Helping the son of a friend

A few years earlier, George Wallace Jones’s second son, William A.B. Jones, was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the First Regiment, U.S. Cavalry.  William rode a “wild spirited horse … without bridle or saddle,” resulting in a rupture.

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

William resigned his commission (based on a doctor’s diagnosis).  Surprisingly, William recovered, and he wanted his old job back.    Davis asked Secretary of War John B. Floyd to reinstate William’s commission, but there were no vacancies.

Letter to a friend

On January 20, 1861, the day before his farewell speech, Davis wrote George Wallace Jones that William wouldn’t be reappointed.   Davis also shared his thoughts about secession with his old friend and political ally.

Davis wrote that Jones wouldn’t be surprised that he was leaving the Senate.  He continued:

I am sorry to be separated from many true friends at the North, whose inability to secure an observance of the Constitution does not diminish our gratitude to them for the efforts they have made.  The progress has been steady towards a transfer of the government into the hands of the abolitionists.

Many states like Iowa have denied our rights, disregarded their obligations, and have sacrificed their true representatives.

Jones recognized himself in Davis’s description.  Two years earlier, Jones was not re-elected the U.S. Senate because he had voted for the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution.

Davis continued:

To us, it has become a necessity to transfer our domestic institutions from hostile to friendly hands … There seems to be but little prospect that we will be permitted to do so peacefully …

I know you will sympathize with us although you cannot act with us, that we shall never find you or yours in the ranks of our enemies.

I am as ever very truly your friend,

Jeffn Davis

After the speech

About three months after Jefferson Davis said goodbye to the Senate, Confederate artillerists fired upon Fort Sumter.

William A.B. Jones headed to Colorado Territory, and he never served either side during the Civil War.  In contrast, both of his brothers served the Confederacy.   (If you’d like to read more about William’s brothers, please click here, here, and here.)

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Lincoln in a new light: An Independence Day special

Abraham Lincoln had an incredible journey.  Two of his speeches show how far he came in his thinking about this country.

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln, the revolutionary

In January 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln gave a speech about the disputed boundary between Texas and Mexico.  Lincoln said that the farthest reaches of Texas’s territory depended upon revolution.

Lincoln continued:

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.  This is a most valuable, a most sacred right – a right which, we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.

Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it.  Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much territory as they may inhabit.  More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with, or near about them, who may oppose their movement.  Such minority was precisely the case of the Tories of our own Revolution.

It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines, or old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones.[i]

President Lincoln (Library of Congress)

President Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Lincoln, the Conservative

Thirteen years later, in 1861, President Lincoln gave his first inaugural address.  He said “the Union is perpetual.”  He continued:

No State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; … resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and … acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.[ii]

A Democratic congressman asks:  Encouragement to secede?

Ohio Congressman A.G. Thurman, discussed Lincoln’s 1848 remarks.  Thurman asked in 1872:

[was] a word ever spoken, or line ever written, by a northern Democrat that was calculated to give a hundredth part as much encouragement to the secessionists of the South as were the utterances of Mr. Lincoln [?] …

Mr. Lincoln’s remarks were not confined to the case of Texas,, which he discussed, or to any particular time or revolution.  In what he said he laid down rules that he considered applicable to all times, all countries, and all circumstances.  And by these rules he said, in effect, to the southern people, in 1860 and 1861, ‘If you are inclined and have the power, you have the right to rise up and shake off the existing Government and form a new one that suits you better.  This is a most valuable, a most sacred right.  Any portion of you has this right, and, if there is a minority among you who cling to the Union, you have a right to put those unionists down.’

This was what Mr. Lincoln said in substance to the southern people, and when he became President-elect of the United States, these opinions of his were circulated everywhere in the South as proof that secession would not be resisted by the North.[iii]

A historian weighs in

Historian  David M. Potter stated:

Lincoln apparently thought that the preservation, by the use of force, of the Union formed in 1787 was more important for mankind than the purely voluntary self-determination of peoples. [iv]

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Thanks for reading my blog!  Please leave any comments and questions below.


[i] Harry Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Oxford, 2000), 347, quoting Abraham Lincoln, speech in House of Representatives, 1/12/1848, Appendix to the Congressional Globe, Thirtieth Congress, first session, volume 19, pg. 95.

[ii] “First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln,” the Avalon Project, the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale University, (accessed 6/24/2016).

[iii] A.G. Thurman, speech in House of Representatives, “Extension of the Ku Klux Act,” 5/21/1872, Appendix to the Congressional Globe, Second Session, Forty-second Congress, 665-668.

[iv] David M. Potter, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa, ” The American Historical Review, July 1962, pp. 924-950.


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