Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scorpions in a Bottle: John Mason

In Sobel, a wealthy gold prospector named John Mason appears out of nowhere in 1839 to win the Continentalist Party's presidential nomination, loses to Senator Miguel Huddleston of the Liberty Party, then disappears from the narrative. He isn't even listed in Sobel's index.

John Mason needs to get a life, and I'm just the man to give him one.

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John Mason was the owner of a cotton plantation in eastern Jefferson, near the old Spanish town of Nacogdoches. He had inherited the land from his father, another John Mason, who had immigrated from the Southern Confederation in 1801. The elder Mason had purchased the land from the Jeffersonian government and built the plantation, which he named Elsinore. Elsinore was relatively modest by the standards of the Jefferson cotton barons, and John Mason was well off, but not wealthy. His neighbor, James Rutledge, was wealthy, and for some years he had been trying to persuade Mason to sell out to him. The fall in the price of cotton since the Panic of 1836 had not ended Rutledge’s offers for Elsinore, though it had reduced the price he was offering Mason. Mason’s own profits from his plantation had fallen to the point where he was beginning to seriously consider Rutledge’s offer.

Then, in May 1838, had come word of the gold discovery at Santo Tomás, California, and John Mason knew that it was time to leave Jefferson. Mason sold Elsinore to Rutledge for $800 cash, and set out for California with six men in his employ – a mining engineer, a cook, and four armed guards. Traveling via the isthmus of Panama, Mason’s party reached the gold fields in August, one of the first groups to arrive from the Atlantic coast. With great foresight, Mason was able to lay claim to a twenty-mile stretch of the Jackson River that proved to be particularly rich in gold deposits. By the end of the year, Mason and his men had gained the enormous sum of $100,000 from their prospecting. With his new-found wealth, Mason became one of the most influential men in California. His contributions to the state Continentalist Party made him a major political player at a unique moment in the party’s history. [1]

President Jackson’s health had been deteriorating since he suffered a bout with typhoid fever in 1837. Jackson had held the Continentalist Party together for twenty years by sheer force of personality. Now, as Jackson declined, so did his party. Rivalries that he had kept under control now flared up and threatened to tear the party apart. Cabinet meetings degenerated into shouting matches, and at once point a brawl broke out between Secretary of Agriculture Homer Brown and Secretary for Religions Anastasio Bustamante. [2] By the time the Continentalist caucus met in July 1839 to choose Jackson’s successor, the party had fragmented into half a dozen mutually hostile factions. The only man who could have imposed unity was Jackson himself, but by this time he was practically an invalid. Mason’s sudden rise to prominence in the party was now a virtue; since he had had no time to make any enemies, he was an ideal compromise candidate. Senator Hernán Montoya of Chiapas would later write, “In a party as full of old grudges as the Anglo party, only a man with no past could gain the nomination. That man was Mason, and so the nomination was his.” [3]

Unfortunately for Mason, the blank slate that had been a virtue at the caucus meeting became a liability on the campaign trail. The Libertarians, as expected, had nominated Senator Huddleston, who had spent the previous six years building a reputation as a reformer, and as a bridge between Mexico’s Anglo and Hispano populations. Mason now found himself regarded as an unfamiliar face with nothing to offer Mexican voters. Mason attempted to appeal to the growing Mexicano vote by distancing himself from his Jeffersonian roots, calling himself “A Californian, by God, and proud of it!” The attempt failed, and only served to alienate the Jeffersonian planters who were the closest thing Mason had to an electoral base. In desperation, Mason sought to co-opt Huddleston’s reform program, calling for less reliance on French loans and investments, and greater assistance to the impoverished Mexicano peasants of the south. Even a Continentalist candidate with an established reputation would have had a difficult time persuading the voters of his sincerity; for the “man with no past,” it was an exercise in futility.

The result was a complete route for the Continentalists. The Libertarians gained control of five of the six state legislatures, allowing them to replace eight incumbent Continentalist Senators with their own candidates, and giving them control of the Senate for the first time. When the newly-elected Senate met on September 5, the seventeen Libertarian members voted in unison for Huddleston, who was inaugurated the next day as the second President of the U.S.M. [4]

1. Lorenzo Baker. The Man With No Past: The Life of John Mason (San Francisco, 2009), pp. 130-44.

2. Pablo Cruz. The Long Twilight: The Decline of Andrew Jackson (Mexico City, 1974), p 367.

3. Hernán Montoya. Strange Places and Strong Men (Mexico City, 1857), p. 73.

4. Martin York. The Election of 1839 (Mexico City, 1970), pp 488-506. Mason’s poor showing in the elections left him disillusioned with politics, and he embarked on a career in business. A series of bad investments left him virtually penniless by 1846, when he volunteered for the California Brigades. He was killed at the Battle of San Fernando on July 6, 1850. Baker. The Man With No Past.

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