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He was born on the 27th day of April, 1768, at Lebanon in Connecticut. His remotest ancestor in this country was Captain John Mason (an officer who had served with distinction in the Netherlands, under Sir Thomas Fairfax), who came from England in 1630, and settled at Dorchester in the Colony of Massachusetts. His great-grandfather lived at Haddam. His grandfather, born in 1705, lived at Norwich, and died in the year 1779. Mr. Mason remembered him, and recollected his character, as that of a respectable and deeply religious man. His ancestor on the maternal side was James Fitch, a learned divine, who came from England and settled in Saybrook, but removed to Lebanon, where he died. A Latin epitaph, in the ancient burying-ground of that town, records his merits. One of his descendants held a large tract of land in the parish of Goshen, in the town of Lebanon, by grant from the Indians ; one half of which, near a century afterwards, was bequeathed to his daughter, Elizabeth Fitch, the mother of Mr. Mason. To this property Mr. Mason's father removed soon after his marriage, and there he died, in 1813. The title of this land was obtained from Uncas, an Indian sachem in that neighborhood, by the great-grandfather of Mr. Mason's mother, and has never been alienated from the family. It is now owned by Mr. Ma. son's nephew, Jeremiah Mason, the son of his eldest brother James. The family has been distinguished for longevity; the average ages of Mr. Mason's six immediate ancestors having exceeded eighty-three years each. Mr. Mason was the sixth of nine children, all of whom are now dead.
Mr. Mason's father was a man of intelligence and activity, of considerable opulence, and highly esteemed by the community. At the commencement of the Revolutionary war, being a zealous Whig, he raised and commanded a company of minute men, as they were called, and marched to the siege of Boston. Here he rendered important service, being stationed at Dorchester Heights, and engaged in fortifying that position. In the autumn of that year, he was promoted to a colonelcy, and joined the army with his regiment, in the neighborhood of New York. At the end of the campaign, he returned home out of health, but retained the command of his regiment, which he rallied and brought out with celerity and spirit when General Arnold assaulted and burned New London. He became attached to
military life, and regretted that he had not at an early day entered the Continental service. Colonel Mason was a good man, affectionate to his family, kind and obliging to his neighbors, and faithful in the observance of all moral and religious duties.
Mr. Mason's mother was distinguished for a good understanding, much discretion, the purity of her heart and affections, and the exemplary kindness and benevolence of her life. It was her great anxiety to give all her children the best education, within the means of the family, which the state of the country would allow; and she was particularly desirous that Jeremiah should be sent to college. “In my recollection of my mother," says Mr. Mason, “ she was the personification of love, kindness, and benevolence."
Destined for an education and for professional life, Mr. Mason was sent to Yale College, at sixteen years of age; his preparatory studies having been pursued under “ Master Tisdale,” who had then been forty years at the head of a school in Lebanon, which had become distinguished, and among the scholars of which were the Wheelocks, afterwards presidents of Dartmouth College. He was graduated in 1784, and performed a part in: the Commencement exercises, which greatly raised the expectation of his friends, and gratified and animated his love for distinction. “In the course of a long and active life," says he, “I recollect no occasion when I have experienced such elevation of feeling.” This was the effect of that spirit of emulation which incited the whole course of his life of usefulness. There is now prevalent among us a morbid and sickly notion, that emulation, even as honorable rivalry, is a debasing passion, and not to be encouraged. It supposes that the mind should be left without such excitement, in a dreamy and undisturbed state, flowing or not flowing, according to its own impulse, without such aids as are furnished by the rivalry of one with another. For one, I do not believe in this. I hold to the doctrine of the old school, as to this part of education. Quinctilian says: “Sunt quidam, nisi institeris, remissi; quidam imperio indignantur; quosdam continet metus, quosdam debilitat: alios continuatio extundit, in aliis plus impetus facit. Mihi ille detur puer, quem laus exci. tet, quem gloria juvet, qui victus fleat; hic erit alendus ambitu, hunc mordebit objurgatio, hunc honor excitabit; in hoc desidi
am nunquam verebor." I think this is sound sense and just feeling
Mr. Mason was destined for the law, and commenced the study of that profession with Mr. Baldwin, a gentleman who has lived to perform important public and private duties, has served his country in Congress, and on the bench of the Supreme Court of Connecticut, and still lives to hear the account of the peaceful death of his distinguished pupil. After a year, he went to Vermont, in whose recently established tribunals he expected to find a new sphere for the gratification of ambition, and the employment of talents. He studied in the office of Stephen Rowe Bradley, afterwards a Senator in Congress; and was admitted to the bar, in Vermont and New Hampshire, in the year 1791.
He began his career in Westmoreland, a few miles below Walpole, at the age of twenty-three; but in 1794, three years afterwards, removed to Walpole, as being a larger village, where there was more society and more business. There was at that time on the Connecticut River a rather unusual number of gentlemen, distinguished for polite accomplishments and correct tastes in literature, and among them some well known to the public as respectable writers and authors. Among these were Mr. Benjamin West, Mr. Dennie, Mr. Royall Tyler, Mr. Jacobs, Mr. Samuel Hunt, Mr. J. W. Blake, Mr. Colman (who established, and for a long time edited, the “ New York Evening Post”), and Mr. Olcott. In the association with these gentlemen and those like them, Mr. Mason found an agreeable position, and cultivated tastes and habits of the highest character.
About this period, he made a journey to Virginia, on some business connected with land titles, where he had much intercourse with Major-General Henry Lee; and, on his return, he saw President Washington, at Philadelphia, and was greatly struck by the urbanity and dignity of his manner. He heard Fisher Ames make his celebrated speech upon the British treaty. All that the world has said with regard to the extraordinary effect produced by that speech, and its wonderful excellence, is fully confirmed by the opinion of Mr. Mason. He speaks of it as one of the highest exhibitions of popular oratory that he had ever witnessed; popular, not in any low sense, but popular as being addressed to a popular body, and high in all the qualities of sound reasoning and enlightened eloquence.
Mr. Mason was inclined to exercise his abilities in a larger sphere. He had at this time made the acquaintance of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The former advised Mr. Mason to remove himself to New York. His own preference was for Boston; but he thought, that, filled as it then was by distinguished professional ability, it was too crowded to allow him a place. That was a mistake. On the contrary, the bar of this city, with the utmost liberality and generosity of feeling and sentiment, have always been ready to receive, with open arms, every honorable acquisition to the dignity and usefulness of the profession, from other States. Mr. Mason, however, removed to Portsmouth in the autumn of 1797; and, as was to be expected, his practice soon became extensive. He was appointed Attorney-General in 1802. About that time, the late learned and lamented Chief Justice Smith retired from his professional duties, to take his place as a judge; and Mr. Mason became the acknowledged head of his profession. He resigned the office of Attorney-General, three or four years afterwards, to the great regret of the court, the bar, and the country. As a prosecuting officer, he was courteous, inflexible, and just; careful that the guilty should not escape, and that the honest should be protected. He was impartial, almost judicial, in the administration of his great office. He had no morbid eagerness for conviction; and never permitted, as sometimes occurs, an unworthy wrangling between the official power prosecuting, and the zeal of the other party defending. His official course produced exactly the ends it was designed to do. The honest felt safe; but there was a trembling and fear in the evil disposed, that the transgressed law would be vindicated.
Very much confined to his profession, he never sought office or political elevation. Yet he held decided opinions upon all political questions, and cultivated acquaintance with all the leading subjects of the day; and no man was more keenly alive than he to whatever occurred, at home or abroad, involving the great interests of the civilized world.
His political principles, opinions, judgments, were framed upon those of the men of the times of Washington. From these, to the last, he never swerved. The copy was well executed. His conversation on subjects of state was as instructive and interesting as upon professional topics. He had the same reach of
thought, and exhibited the same comprehensive mind, and sagacity quick and far seeing, with regard to political things and men, as he did in professional affairs. His influence was, therefore, hardly the less from the fact that he was not actively engaged in political life. There was an additional weight given to his judgment, arising from his being a disinterested beholder only. The looker-on can sometimes form a more independent and impartial opinion of the course and results of the contest, than those who are actually engaged in it.
But at length, in June, 1813, he was persuaded to accept the post of a Senator of the United States, and took his seat that month. He was in Congress during the sessions of 1813 and 1814. Those were very exciting times, party spirit ran very high, and each party put forward its most prominent and gifted
Both houses were filled by the greatest intellects of the country. Mr. Mason found himself by the side of Rufus King, Giles, Goldsborough, Gore, Barbour, Daggett, Hunter, and other distinguished public men. Among men of whatever party, and however much some of them differed from him in opinion or political principle, there was not one of them all but felt pleasure if he spoke, and respected his uncommon ability and probity, and his fair and upright demeanor in his place and station. He took at once his appropriate position. Of his associates and admirers in the other house, there are some eminent persons now living who were occasional listeners to his speeches and much struck with his ability; together with Pickering, Benson, Pitkin, Stockton, Lowndes, Gaston, and Hopkinson, now all deceased, who used to flock to hear him, and always derived deep gratification and instruction from his talents, character,
He resigned his seat in the Senate in 1817. His published speeches are not numerous. The reports of that day were far less complete than now, and comparatively few debates were preserved and revised. It was a remarkable truth, that he always thought far too lightly of himself and all his productions. I know that he was with difficulty persuaded to prepare his speeches in Congress for publication; and in this memorial of himself which I have before me he says, with every appearance and feeling of sincerity, that he “has never acted any important part in life, but has felt a deep interest in the conduct of others."