Boy governor, new state faced grown-up politics

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Politics is a tough business in today’s era of massive campaign spending, instantaneous electronic sliming, dirty tricks, deceptive advertising, bribes and voting fraud.
But it also was a dirty, corrosive business in the earliest days of Michigan’s statehood, according to a new biography of its first governor, Stevens T. Mason.
When it came to politics, the American frontier was no Eden and politicians were no angels.

Cover of “The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics.” Credit University of Michigan Press.

Cover of “The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics.” Credit University of Michigan Press.

The Virginia-born Mason moved to Detroit and became secretary of the Michigan Territory when President Andrew Jackson, a fellow Democrat, appointed him at age 19 – too young to vote. He replaced his father in the patronage post.
Jackson fired him in 1835 in a bid to retain political support in neighboring Ohio, a move Mason took “very calmly and simply told his people he was no longer their leader,” writes Ann Arbor biographer Don Faber in “The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics” (University of Michigan Press, $26.95).
But Mason promptly won the first of two terms as governor of the newborn state. He was only 24.
Members of the rival Whig Party belittled him with the label “Boy Governor,” a nickname he detested.
He had the bad timing to be governor when the Panic of 1837 struck. That national economic crisis triggered a massive recession that, among other things, scuttled Mason’s controversial “internal improvements” plan to borrow $5 million to upgrade the state’s roads and canals.
And by age 28 — when he was two years older than the three youngest current members of the House, Reps. Andrea LaFontaine, R-Richmond; David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights; and Frank Foster, R-Pellston —his political career had crumbled into dust. Fearing defeat, he didn’t run for a third term in 1839.
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He was frank about having shortcomings. “That I committed errors I do not pretend to doubt,” Mason acknowledged in his 1838 inaugural address after narrowly winning reelection by 514 votes – although, ever the politician, he added in his own defense: “but I can truly say they have not been errors of intention.” And in his farewell address, he said, “I cannot be insensible to the many errors I committed.”
After leaving the governorship, Mason became the target of libelous accusations of embezzlement, corruption and self-dealing, and the Legislature denied him the opportunity to tell his side of the story about a tainted loan deal. Says Faber: “The men who had so maliciously pursued him had, in all cowardice, carried on their business when Mason wasn’t around to answer charges.”
A deflated Mason moved to New York City to practice law, and died of pneumonia at age 31.
“And long after he left office, Stevens T. Mason would be excoriated for bringing Michigan to a state of bankruptcy,” according to Faber.
Faber calls him “a man of outstanding vision,” yet a man who made mistakes and had serious weaknesses, including lack of fiscal expertise.
“He is a romantic figure from another century in Michigan history – a lightning rod, prophet and statesman,” Faber writes, someone who – like many politicians in the 21st century – “knew disgrace and embarrassment.”
Online resources for CNS editors
University of Michigan Press

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