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Posted on Wed, Jan 16, 2013 : 7:18 a.m.

Legacy of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan's 'boy governor,' explored in new biography

By Roger LeLievre


courtesy of the University of Michigan Press

Chances are the name Stevens T. Mason isn’t familiar to many Michiganians these days. However, a new biography, “The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics,” by Ann Arborite Don Faber, goes a long way toward telling the story of man who made an indelible mark during the state’s early years.

Without Mason, said Faber, Michigan might be missing its Upper Peninsula, the Soo Locks might never have been built, and the University of Michigan might not occupy a fair-sized chunk of Ann Arbor.

“He’s such a pivotal figure in early Michigan history,” Faber said.

In 1831, Mason was named Secretary of the Michigan Territory at the age of 19, two years before he could even vote and the youngest presidential appointee in American history. After championing the territory’s successful push for statehood without congressional authorization, he would defend his new state’s border in defiance of the country’s political elite and then orchestrate its expansion—all before his official election as Michigan’s first governor at age 24, the youngest chief executive in any state’s history.

“He set in place so many institutions that we have today," Faber said. "In one remarkable year he led the fight for statehood, prosecuted that war with Ohio (that resulted in Michigan getting much of the Upper Peninsula in exchange for the so-called Toledo Strip), helped to write the first constitution—a very progressive and liberal document for that time—banned slavery, called for the first superintendent of public instruction, and also managed to get himself fired for insubordination by President Jackson (for his actions) in the Toledo affair. Then, one month later, at the age of 24, he got himself elected the first governor of Michigan”

The Mason biography came out late last year, published by the University of Michigan Press, to roughly coincide with Mason’s 200th birthday. He died from pneumonia at age 31 in 1843, however he lived long enough to see the U-M relocated from Detroit to Ann Arbor and he was on the board of regents ex-officio, Faber said. Mason Hall on the U-M campus is named after him, as is the city of Mason, Mich.

A former editor and columnist for The Ann Arbor News, Faber’s previous book with the University of Michigan Press, “The Toledo War,” was named a Notable New Book by the Michigan Library Association in 2009 and was also named first-prize winner in history writing by the Michigan Historical Society.

Faber said Mason never liked being referred to as the boy governor.

“It was a term that was fixed on him at the time, and it was a term he really disliked. But he had to learn to live with it. In fact it was the editor of one of the two Ann Arbor papers at the time who stuck that term on him. He disliked it so much, so the story goes, that he met (the editor) on the streets of Detroit once, and punched him out.”

Faber said it’s not that much of a stretch to think of Mason as the father of the University of Michigan. “It was Mason who all along, in his governorship, was calling for a state university that would be the ‘ornament and honor of the west,” he said. “This would be an institution that would be ‘unparalleled in the land.’

Oddly enough, Faber even had some alone time with the boy governor, or at least his remains, when the body was exhumed in 2010 so the city of Detroit could revamp the downtown Capitol Park, where Mason is buried.

“I asked permission from the funeral home … (I asked) could I come and see the boy governor. I’m a historian, a scholar, not some ghoul, and they said ‘sure come on down.’” Faber recalled.

“I had some time with the open casket - there was a fully intact skeleton and a molar. … To me, that was very meaningful, to have a glimpse into history. I only had 10-15 minutes but it was enough for me to kind of drift back in time.”

Although Faber said Mason died in disgrace due to the difficult economic situation his program of building roads, canals and railroads caused Michigan during the financial panic of 1837, the passage of time has clearly burnished his image.

“A century later, I think he’s among Michigan’s foremost statesmen and women,” said Faber. “After Lewis Cass, probably it would be Mason. And even though Cass has the place of honor in statuary hall in Congress, Mason has a place of honor all his own in downtown Detroit at Capitol Park.”

Don Faber will talk about Mason and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, as well as on March 14, at 4 p.m., at the William L. Clements Library. Both are on the University of Michigan campus.


David Kempner

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:16 p.m.

We honor The Boy Governor every fall with "The Masi Cup" - Ryder Cup style golf match between teams from the Michigan and Ohio Bar Associations. For the record, Michigan has won (or retained) the Cup every year!

P. J. Murphy

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 8:34 p.m.

Don Faber's book on the Michigan/Ohio dispute was an excellent local history. Well written and documented, it opens a window on to the earliest days of our state. This new book is definitely on my "must read" list. It's fascinating to delve into to the history of our state and see the origin of things we take for granted today. So many things have changed, an surprisingly enough, so many haven't.

Ren Farley

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 2:14 p.m.

I enjoyed Don Faber's very informative book about the Toledo war and the emergence of Michigan as a state. I look forward to this one about Stevens T. Mason. The Michigan Central Railroad line from Ypsi to KZoo will soon be owned by the state of Michigan. This was one of the internal developments Mason promoted but work on it was truncated by the Panic of 1837. Michigan will need a name for its railroad. What about calling it the Stevens T. Mason Line?


Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 4:43 a.m.

Don Faber. I'm just wondering? Did you disclose that "Young Hotspur" and "The Stripling" was the scion of a powerful Virginia family? He was once an Andy Jackson favorite. What about Jackson's appointment of John ("Little Jack") Horner as Michigan Territorial Governor because of Steven's action during the Toledo War? Did you disclose that? Did you write of the "Frostbite Convention," convened in Ann Arbor, where it was agreed to give-up our claim to the "Toledo Strip" in exchange for the U.P? Later the dude departed Michigan and died in New York City, a victim of pneumonia. It was not until 1905 that his bones were brought to Deetroit. If you omitted any of these facts from your biography, then it is seriously flawed. Inquiring Minds should like to ken! Speak Up Don!!!

Linda Peck

Wed, Jan 16, 2013 : 8:53 p.m.

Very much enjoyed this one! Thank you!


Wed, Jan 16, 2013 : 3:12 p.m.

Nice article. As a history lover I appreciate Don Faber's work on this. Very interesting.

Chip Reed

Wed, Jan 16, 2013 : 12:28 p.m.

His Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal got dug from Mount Clemens to Rochester (35-40 miles) before the new-fangled technology of railroads overtook it.