The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Mason, Charles
(October 24, 1804–February 25, 1882)

–Iowa territorial chief justice, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, politician, and businessman—was the sixth of seven children of Chauncey Mason, a farmer, and Esther (Dodge) Mason. Born in Pompey, Onandaga County, New York, he went to local schools. In 1825 he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and in 1829 graduated first in his class, which included Robert E. Lee.

    Mason became an assistant professor of engineering at West Point. After two years, he left the army and read law in a New York lawyer's office. In June 1832 he passed the bar examination and for two years practiced in a partnership in Newburgh, New York. A lifelong Democrat, Mason returned to New York City and wrote for the New York Evening Post, a radical Democrat newspaper.

    In 1836 Mason moved to Wisconsin Territory. In 1837 Governor Henry Dodge made him one of his aides and the public prosecutor of Des Moines County. On August 1, 1837, Mason married Angelica Gear, and the couple had three daughters. They lived on a farm near Burlington.

    On July 4, 1838, Iowa became a territory, and President Martin Van Buren appointed Mason chief justice of the three-man Territorial Supreme Court. Mason was a hard worker, writing 166 of the court's 191 opinions.

    The case In the matter of Ralph (a colored man) on Habeas Corpus in 1839 was Mason's first and most famous decision. Ralph was a Missouri slave who had been allowed by his master, Jordan J. Montgomery, to come to Iowa in exchange for a promise of payment of $550 to buy his freedom. Ralph did not pay, and Montgomery tried to force him back into slavery in Missouri. Mason ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was "forever prohibited."Mason wrote, "The master who, subsequently to that Act, permits his slave to become a resident here, cannot, afterwards, exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory."

    Mason did not let legal technicalities obstruct his commitment to justice. In one case, the defendant argued that the jury was not lawfully sworn, thus invalidating its verdict. Mason disagreed. In another decision, he ruled that if a defendant had failed to plead, the court would presume he would plead "not guilty."Similarly, Mason refused to be bound by legal precedent while carving out law in the new territory. In a case where all precedents forbade partnerships from suing in the firms' names, Mason ruled it permissible.

    In 1838 the territorial legislature resolved that the judges of the supreme court should submit draft bills. The most important of these was Mason's draft bill that became the territorial criminal code.

    Mason was reappointed to the supreme court in 1842 and 1846 (the year of statehood). He resigned the following year, and in 1848 Governor Ansel Briggs appointed him to represent Iowa in the U.S. Supreme Court case to decide the nine-year border dispute between Iowa and Missouri. Iowa prevailed.

    In January 1848 the state legislature appointed Mason to chair a three-man commission "to draft, revise and prepare a code of laws."After prodigious labor, the Code of 1851 became law. The code was hailed for its clarification and reorganization of existing statutory law. Among many new provisions added by the commissioners were the creation of county judges, the broadening of laws on incorporation, and the abolition of common law procedure in civil actions. The commissioners also removed the statutory ban on interracial marriages.

    In April 1853 President Franklin Pierce appointed Mason the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C. His responsibilities included agriculture and weather information. A farmer himself, Mason promoted agricultural research, collected world statistics on tobacco and cotton, and authorized a system of obtaining national weather information by telegraph. An energetic reformer, Mason reorganized the system of applying for patents and hired the first women in regular employment in a federal office. Unhappy with the new administration of President James Buchanan, he resigned as commissioner in August 1857. In 1862 he returned to Washington, D.C., to found a lucrative patent law firm–Mason, Fenwick, & Lawrence.

    Meanwhile, in Iowa in 1858 Mason was elected to the State Board of Education. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Republican Governor Samuel Kirkwood appointed him to a state bond commission, but he soon came out as a Peace Democrat. In 1861 Mason was the Democratic nominee for governor. In his campaign, although opposing secession, Mason stood up for the constitutional rights of the Southern states. He castigated the policy of the "Irrepressible Conflict," which he believed boosted Northern antagonism toward the South. Moreover, he maintained that the Union "can never be perpetuated by force of arms and that a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military Despotism."

    The Democrats split, and Mason withdrew from the campaign. During the rest of the war, he expressed his views in the Dubuque Herald, Iowa's leading Democratic newspaper, in a series of letters signed "X."He formed committees in Washington, D.C., to try to oust Lincoln in the 1864 election and also chaired the Democratic National Central Committee. In 1867, as Democratic nominee for governor of Iowa again, he was defeated by 89,144 to 62,657 votes. Reflecting on those years in his diary, he wrote, "I played the game of life at a great crisis and lost. I must be satisfied."

    Local affairs occupied Mason's remaining years. He was president of the Burlington Water Company, the Burlington Street Railway Company, the Burlington & North Western Railway, and the Burlington, Keosauqua & Western Railway Company. He chaired the German-American Savings Bank and was treasurer of the Burlington school board. He died on his Burlington farm, at the age of 77.
Sources include Charles Remey, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Mason: Chief Justice of Iowa, 1804–1882 (1939); Emlin McClain, "Charles Mason-Iowa's First Jurist," Annals of Iowa 4 (1901), 595–609; and Willard Irving Toussaint, "Biography of an Iowa Businessman: Charles Mason, 1804–1882" (Ph.D. diss., State University of Iowa, 1963).
Contributor: Richard Acton