The Boy Governor
Don Faber gets to know Stevens T. Mason
by Grace Shackman
Don Faber had hoped to get his biography, The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics, ready to publish by 2011, in time for Mason's 200th birthday. Faber didn't quite make it, but the delay gave him the unique opportunity to spend time with Mason's remains--"a chance to visit with the governor," as he puts it.
This opportunity came when Mason's body was exhumed during reconstruction of Detroit's Capitol Park, site of Michigan's first state house. Mason was originally buried in New York City, where he died in 1843. In 1905 his remains were moved to Detroit amid much ceremony. Since then, they have stayed in the park but have been moved two more times, in 1955 to make room for a bus station and in 2010 during a major revamping of the park aimed at revitalizing the area.
When Faber heard of the latest move, he asked permission from the funeral home to view the body, explaining that "I wasn't some kind of ghoul, but a serious scholar." They agreed to let him look into the casket. "Seeing his remains was very meaningful," says Faber, adding, "What was left was pretty much a skeleton."
Faber became interested in Mason while working on his 2008 book, The Toledo War: The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry, in which Mason played a prominent part. "I wanted to go more in-depth on this young man. He was such a visionary. And there had not been a good biography of him in some time," says Faber.
Mason was just nineteen when president Andrew Jackson appointed him acting secretary of the Michigan Territory in 1831. Although severely criticized by Jackson's political opponents, the appointment was not as inappropriate as it sounds. Mason had already been helping the previous territorial secretary--his father, a friend of Jackson's--as well as then-territorial governor Lewis Cass.
In 1834, Jackson promoted Mason to territorial governor--only to remove him in 1835 for insisting that Toledo belonged to Michigan, not Ohio. That
fall, though, Michigan voters approved a state constitution and returned him to office as the first elected governor--though Congress refused to admit the new state until the Toledo situation was resolved.
Though Mason had led the fight to keep the "Toledo strip," he eventually accepted a compromise in which Ohio kept the city and Michigan got a greatly expanded swath of the Upper Peninsula. "He knew it would pay for itself because he listened to [geographer Henry] Schoolcraft and Lewis Cass, who told him about the copper and other minerals there," explains Faber.
Mason helped to write the first state constitution and as governor tried to implement its ideals. He worked to create an infrastructure, including railroads and canals, to encourage economic development. He appointed Douglass Houghton as state geologist to discover what other riches the state offered. A proponent of education, he approved the U-M's move to Ann Arbor from Detroit and was the first president of its board of regents.
Unfortunately, the economic panic of 1837 doomed most of the costly building projects, and Mason was blamed for the state's subsequent economic woes. He decided not to run for reelection in 1840 and left the state feeling that he was a failure. But in the following years, much of what he had championed came into being, including the Soo Locks.
Mason moved to New York City, where his wife had family, but died of pneumonia less than two years later. He was just thirty-one.
Faber, who spent most of his career at the now defunct Ann Arbor News, spent about three years working on the book. His one regret is that he wishes he could have learned more about Mason's wife, Julia Phelps Mason.
It's known that the couple met when Mason was in New York looking for financing for the canal and railroad projects, and they had three children, but that's about it. "There's a paucity of details," says Faber. "I'd love to know more how they met, their courtship, and what a New York society girl thought of Detroit."
[Originally published in February, 2013.]