Michigan's 'boy governor' Tom Mason: 'lightning rod, prophet, and statesman'

Michigan State Archives shows a portrait of Michigan's first Governor Stevens T. Mason.
Michigan State Archives shows a portrait of Michigan's first Governor Stevens T. Mason.

Stevens T. Mason may be all-but-forgotten now, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to be. Indeed, he had a career like no other governor in history. Incredibly, President Andrew Jackson put him in charge of the vast Michigan territory in 1831, when Mason was still a teenager too young to vote.

Within a few years, “Tom” Mason, who was born in Virginia, had won over the hearts and minds of the rough-hewn pioneers who inhabited his adopted place, and led Michigan in a drive for respect, power and statehood.

Still in his early twenties, he defied President Jackson – his political hero – proclaimed Michigan a state before it was recognized by Congress, and led his ragged troops in the famous “Toledo War” against Ohio. He ended up winning by losing, giving up Toledo, as author Don Faber notes, “for 9,000 square miles of a mineral-rich region that paid for itself many times over.

The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics. By Don Faber. University of Michigan Press. 205 pages. $26.95

Before long, he managed to parlay his pluck into official statehood and his election and re-election as the state’s first governor as the ripe old age of 25.

Then, as speedily as his star had risen, disaster. Tom Mason was long on inspiring others; short on understanding money, loans and banks, and get-rich schemes. Within a few short months the hero became a goat, more or less driven out of town after a state financial collapse. Depressed, ruined, he fled to his wife’s home state to try and make a living practicing law; in the end, the only cases he could get were those wretched ones assigned to the public defender.

Worse followed; what seemed to be a cold caught at a New Year’s Eve ball swiftly became pneumonia. Suddenly, on Jan.5, 1843, the man whose career had, in the author’s words, “flared like a comet across the skies of Michigan” was barely 31 years old – and dead.

Dead, and for many years forgotten. Which was, as author and former Ann Arbor News editor Don Faber notes, undeserved. Handsome, tall and far-seeing, Tom Mason was an enormous figure in his day. Faber, the author of an early well-regarded book, The Toledo War, has attempted to redress the balance with the first modern biography of Stevens T. Mason in many years.

For history buffs, the book is very much worth reading. “Michigan would have gotten off to a very different start if its fortunes had been left to the cautious old men of the territory rather than to the bold and youthful Mason,” Faber notes.

Nobody else would have had the audacity to simply declare statehood, he notes, concluding “it took a leader like Mason to take the status quo and turn it on (its) head, and it took a visionary to shape and mold the way he did.”

Two years ago, there was a brief flurry of interest in the young pioneer, whose body had been brought back more than a century before to be interred on the site of Michigan’s first primitive capitol, in Detroit.

The state had to renovate what is now Capitol Park, and the governor had to be disinterred, something that caused the state some embarrassment when workmen for some time couldn’t find his body. When they did, they discovered that his bones had been lovingly stitched with thread to a mattress.

Today, you can have lunch downtown, and stroll over – as this reviewer did a few weeks ago – to the state’s boy governor, who now sleeps in an above ground monument in the center of a city he’d have a hard time recognizing today.

He might, however, be somewhat sympathetic to his state’s continuing economic problems; some things really don’t change.

In the final analysis, Mason was, and is, the author tells us, “a romantic figure from another century – a lightning rod, prophet and statesman.” Nobody younger has ever done more to shape the history of both Ohio and Michigan. This book deserves to be read, and Stevens T. Mason’s brilliant and tragic story deserves to be remembered. In fact, it might even make a pretty fair movie.