Boy Wonder

Stevens T. Mason was 24 years old when he became Michigan’s governor.
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Stand Proud - A statue of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s first governor, was created in 1908 by Albert Weinert and placed in Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. The statue still stands in the park, which marked the location of the state’s first capitol, but was moved several feet as part of a recent renovation of the urban square.  // Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library
Stand Proud – A statue of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s first governor, was created in 1908 by Albert Weinert and placed in Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. The statue still stands in the park, which marked the location of the state’s first capitol, but was moved several feet as part of a recent renovation of the urban square. // Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library

The run-up to the Toledo War of 1835 found the Michigan Territory’s leaders hanging on to a 75-mile strip of land along their southern border. As the result of conflicting surveys, parallel lines a few miles apart extended from Indiana to Lake Erie, creating the disputed area.

The grand prize was Maumee Bay, starting point of a potential canal leading south, and Ohio wanted it.

“When the dispute with Ohio is called in question, we have but one course to pursue,” proclaimed Michigan’s acting governor, Stevens T. Mason, a Democrat who was 24 years old. He meant to prevent new federal legislation on behalf of Ohio’s claim to the strip. But Ohio had already achieved statehood and it boasted a congressional delegation, not to mention electoral votes — all of which the Michigan Territory lacked.

Both sides organized militias, and the parties nearly faced off in April of 1835 before being disbanded in favor of negotiations. Mason — whom President Andrew Jackson called “Hotspur,” after Shakespeare’s character in “Henry IV” — wouldn’t relinquish Michigan’s claim. When a surveying party tried in the fall to re-mark the earlier, northern boundary line favorable to Ohio, a Lenawee County posse arrested nine men.

Mason’s biographer, Lawton Hemans, writes that others fled toward Perrysburg, with “someone of the Michigan party, to increase their speed, fir(ing) a gun over their heads, which had every effect that could be desired.”

Additional negotiations and congressional debate settled the matter in 1836, when Michigan agreed to honor Ohio’s claim to title in exchange for a surplus-revenue payout from the National Treasury and adding the Upper Peninsula.

Mason’s father, John, had brought his family to Detroit in 1830 after President Jackson appointed him secretary to territorial governor Lewis Cass. The following year, Cass went to Washington, D.C., as Secretary of War, John Mason embarked on a mission to Mexico, and Stevens Thomson Mason — then just 19 and commonly known as Tom — served as secretary to the new governor, George Porter. It was a patronage appointment for Porter, a member of the so-called Lancaster (Penn.) Regency that aided Jackson’s election.

Porter soon returned to Pennsylvania on business, and Mason — not even old enough to vote — started his first stint as acting governor. The Western Emigrant newspaper of Ann Arbor called him “the stripling,” but Mason encountered editor George Corselius in Detroit and “administered to the newspaper man a most vigorous cuffing,” Hemans writes.

Young Mason served until June 11, 1832, and was commander in chief at the outbreak of the Black Hawk War. With Porter back in town, he resumed secretarial duties and endured that summer’s cholera epidemic. After the scourge abated, he advocated establishing “common free schools” and helped to lay the groundwork for statehood. Porter died two years later in a second epidemic. Replacing him once again, Mason became established as the “popular idol of the Territory.”

After the Toledo War, President Jackson appointed John Horner as governor — but an election weeks later, on Oct. 5, 1835, ratified a new state constitution and returned Mason to the governorship. Michigan was effectively a state without a union until statehood was granted on Jan. 26, 1837.

The Panic of 1837 marred Mason’s four-year term; railroad and canal schemes failed, leaving a deep debt. Mason didn’t seek re-election and his successor, William Woodbridge, sought to humiliate him. With his wife, Julia, Mason went to New York City to practice law but died there at age 31 of “a suppressed scarlet fever.” Today, his remains are interred in Detroit’s Capitol Park, inside the pedestal of Albert Weinert’s bronze statue of the boy governor. 

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