Judge Charles T. Mason – first Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, politician, and businessman – was born in Pompey (Onandaga County) New York on October 24, 1804. At the age of 21 (1825), he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating (1829) first in his class, which included Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Charles became an assistant professor of engineering at West Point, and after two years, he left the army to study law. In June 1832 he passed the bar examination and for two years practiced in a partnership in Newburgh, New York. A lifelong Democrat, Mason moved to New York City and wrote for the New York Evening Post, a radical Democrat newspaper.
In 1836, Charles, influenced greatly by Albert Lea‘s book, ventured west to explore Wisconsin Territory. Writing in his diary, Mason pondered…
“Something is continually whispering to me that there is a more favorable field for my future exertions, either professional or political.”
At first, he assumed he would follow that whisper to Belmont, Wisconsin, but when Territorial Governor Henry Dodge announced the decision to move the territorial capital south into Iowa (1837), Mason wisely chose to follow suit, relocating to Burlington instead. Apparently, it didn’t take long for Governor Dodge to become impressed with Charles, inviting him to become one of his aides and appointing him the public prosecutor of Des Moines County. Later that same year (August 1, 1837), Mason married Angelica Gear of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who had come west with her brother and sister to live in Galena, Illinois. Together, the couple had three lovely daughters, living the remainder of their lives on a farm near Burlington.
On July 4, 1838, when Iowa became a territory, President Martin Van Buren appointed Charles T. Mason as Chief Justice of the three-man Territorial Supreme Court. The other two men chosen were Joseph Williams from Muscatine and Thomas S. Wilson from Dubuque.
As the Chief Justice of the three-man court, Charles Mason went right to work, eventually writing 166 of the court’s 191 opinions between 1838-1847. One of Mason’s most prominent decisions was actually the very first case tried before the newly-formed Supreme Court. The case was entitled: In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus, and focused on a Missouri farmer named Jordan J. Montgomery and his slave, Ralph, who was living and working in Dubuque. Click here to read the full details of this case…
In a huge decision that truly bolstered the abolitionist movement, Judge George T. Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited” and that “no man can be reduced to slavery.” 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.
On July 4, 1839 – Independence Day – Ralph, the former slave, was a free man! And records show that Ralph remained in Dubuque for the remainder of his life. Click here to read more…
Read more about the abolitionist/anti-slavery movement in Iowa prior to the Civil War.
Click here to read more about Judge Joseph M. Beck, Iowa’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, who ruled in favor of civil rights for blacks and women in 1873.
Judge Mason was reappointed to the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court in 1842 and 1846 – the year of statehood – but resigned when Governor Ansel Briggs appointed him (1848) to represent Iowa in the U.S. Supreme Court case, deciding the eleven-year border dispute (1849) between Iowa and Missouri –The 1839 Honey War. This squabble over the southern border of Iowa had nearly erupted into a conflict, with both sides gathering troops near the state line. Under Judge Mason’s leadership before the nation’s highest court, Iowa was able to retain the land that Missouri attempted to call their own.
By the late 1840’s, I’m guessing Charles Mason just might not have been too popular with the pro-slavery movement nor the good folks of the Show Me State! In another move against racial injustice, in January 1848, the state legislature appointed Mason to chair a three-man commission “to draft, revise and prepare a code of laws.” The result was the Code of 1851, which was hailed for its clarification and reorganization of existing statutory laws. 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, including the removal of the statutory ban on interracial marriages.
Read more about this season of Judge Mason’s career and his life in Burlington.
Judge Charles T. Mason (left) and General Abner Clark (A.C.) Harding (right) are businessmen, both heavily invested in the development of American railroads. To give you a fair comparison, a businessman investing in railroads in the early 1850’s is similar to a savvy business person investing in space technology today. Numerous railroad companies were springing up everywhere, all working to capture the growing transportation needs of thousands of Americans as they were moving westward across the continent. In January of 1852, when A.C. Harding wrote his letter to Judge Mason, both were investors and board members of the Peoria and Oquawka Rail Road Company.
As the name indicates, the original plan of the railroad was to connect Peoria, in central Illinois, with Oquawka, a small farming community on the Mississippi River. Railroad historian A.W. Newton describes this 84-mile railway…
Judge Charles Mason, living in Burlington, represented that city’s interest in this fledgling Illinois railroad. A.C. Harding, on the other hand, was a hard-nosed lawyer from Monmouth, representing those who wanted the railroad to focus efforts in other directions. By 1852, the railroad’s board was filled with rather divisive men from different Illinois communities, all wanting their hometown to benefit the most by having the railroad come thru their fair city.
While our January 7th letter seems to be fairly cordial in nature, records show that Harding, along with several other board members, would soon cause so much tension on the board, Mason, who served as Board President beginning in February of 1852, would resign from the board, selling his interests in P&O all within a year or so of our letter’s writing!
As it turned out, the Peoria and Oquawka Rail Road successfully operated for a few years (1855-1860) after Judge Mason left the organization, but eventually fell to its long-standing financial shortcomings and poor management. The rail line was bought out by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), thus becoming just another casualty of the railroad wars of the mid-nineteenth century.
Read a bit more about this season in the life of Charles T. Mason.
In March of 1853, soon after Charles had resigned from the P&O Board, President Franklin Pierce appointed him to head up the U.S. Commission 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, Charles reorganized the system of applying for patents and hired the first women in regular employment in a federal office.
Read a bit more about this season in the life of Charles T. Mason.
With the election of a new president – James Buchanan – in 1856, the Masons returned back home in 1857, with local business affairs occupying Charles’ remaining years. He became president of the Burlington Water Company and chaired the German-American Savings Bank. Still involved in transportation, Charles took up the presidency of the Burlington Street Railway Company, the Burlington & North Western Railway, and the Burlington, Keosauqua & Western Railway. In his spare time, he also became the treasurer of the Burlington school board, and in 1858, Charles was elected as one of the first members of the Iowa State Board of Education.
Judge Charles T. Mason (October 24, 1804 – February 25, 1882) died on his farm near Burlington, at the age of seventy-seven. One fellow judge said of him…
As a man, he was as much respected and esteemed as any of the early jurists and public men of our Territory and State.
Hail to the Judge. Iowa thanks you.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Charles Mason, Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, 1903
Charles Mason, University of Iowa – The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa
Biography of An Iowa Businessman: Charles Mason 1804-1882, Willard Irving Toussalnt, Water Work History
Portrait of Charles Mason, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa
Past Justices, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov
Early Civil Rights Cases, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov
Civil Rights: Celebrating 50 Years of Higher Quality Through Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 2015
Iowa Territorial Supreme Court Case of “Ralph,” Pieces of Iowa’s Past, February 26, 2020, Legislative Services Agency
Shattering Silence, Darcy Maulsby blog
Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
The Peoria and Oquawka Railroad, A.W. Newton, The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin No. 82 (April, 1951), p 25
Charles Mason and the Burlington-Northwestern Narrow Gauge Railroad, Willard I. Toussaint, The Annals of Iowa Volume 38 Number 3, Winter 1966, pp186-203
Angelica Gear Mason, Find-A-Grave
Angelica Gear Mason – Memorial, Find-A-Grave
Charles Thomas Mason, Find-A-Grave
Judge Charles Mason – Memorial, Find-A-Grave
Abner Clark Harding, Find-A-Grave
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