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BOOK REVIEWS85 Senator James Murry Mason: Defender ofthe Old South. By Robert W. Young. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998. Pp. xvii, 288. $47.50.) As a familiar player in that long-running and constantly re-staged saga of the American sectional crisis, James Murray Mason is a supporting actor extraordinaire . Typically, he enters the narrative in 1 850, introducing the fugitive slave bill and then arising before the Senate to deliver a dying John C. Calhoun's last major speech. His next scene, in 1 854, usually occurs in the shadows of the "F Street Mess," a politicians' boardinghouse where Mason and three other senators relentlessly scheme to open Kansas to slavery. TheseWashington set-pieces are an appropriate warm-up to a wartime climax on the high seas, when in the fall of 1 86 1 the Union navy seizes Mason and the Louisiana statesman John Slidell from the British ship Trent. During their brief imprisonment, this pair of Confederate diplomats precipitatean international controversy that nearly brings the United States and Great Britain to war. Once safely in England, Mason sporadically reports back from London, personifying the challenges of Confederate diplomacy before signaling, in 1865, his government's eleventh-hour flexibility ending slavery in exchange for British recognition. After each of these, the long-hairedVirginian, usually garbed in Southern-made homespun and spitting Tidewater tobacco, accomplishes the momentous task at hand and then exits until his next appearance. Historians have appreciated Mason's penchant for appearing at such pivotal moments by routinely placing him in their cast of characters. They have been much less concerned with providing any sense of the man himself apart from these episodes, perhaps because they have lacked the basic scholarly tools to do so. Before Robert W. Young's biography appeared, no full-length study of Mason's life existed, save the valuable memoirs prepared by his daughter, Virginia , nearly a century ago. Such lack of attention has tended to make the Senator the stock "establishment" figure of the Old Dominion, whose significance lay mainly in furthering the storyline at criticaljunctures along the road to Southern secession and then to destruction. Young's crisp, clearly presented study may or may not change this inclination. Nevertheless, it provides a signal service by charting the totality of Mason's career and providing a point of departure for basic information about his life and work as a "Defender of the Old South." Young's book combines a chronological approach to Mason's life with a sustained account of three intertwining themes. First, it stresses his credentials as a "strict interpreter of the Constitution" who associated his own hostility to federal activism with the example ofhis grandfather, the revolutionary leader George Mason. Second, it documents Mason's unflagging defense of the institution of slavery, a stance that Young insists distinguished the senator from an earlier generation of Virginians. In pursuing this theme, Young draws from Mason's Congressional debates and public letters and also considers a searching memorandum on "Emancipation" that Mason wrote in the late 1850s but never published . The third theme, Mason's participation in foreign affairs, charts both his 86CIVIL WAR HISTORY leading role in the United States Senate throughout the 1 850s and his activities as Confederate envoy to England, the most important post in his country's diplomatic corps.Young provides evidence that wartime diplomatic pressures eventually won out over commitments to slavery and restricted federal power, though he does not frame the issue in these terms. More sustained attention to the Confederacy's willingness to pursue emancipation as a national emergency measure might have brought out the tensions between these three themes and have demonstrated their interaction under one set of desperate circumstances. Young's portrait implies that Mason is worth investigation on his own terms, and not merely because of the series of well-known episodes with which he is popularly associated. This is important, especially since a second Mason biography is very unlikely in the near future. Instead of arguing for his relevance, however, the book concludes that Mason was an "anachronism," an assessment that isolates him from those contexts that established his importance to contemporaries and defined his significance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 85-86
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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