Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 30, 2012

George Weeks: A notable book for a notable governor


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---- — Stevens T. Mason, who led Michigan to statehood as our first governor, achieved young and died young in the 19th century but in the 21st remains a compelling story for those who follow and pursue politics, with all of its highs and lows.

That story about one of Michigan's most extraordinary political figures is told with extraordinary skill by author Don Faber in "The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics," published by University of Michigan Press.

With exhaustive research and engaging writing, Farber, former editor of the Ann Arbor News, crafted a book that this week was among 20 proclaimed by the Library of Michigan among the 2013 Michigan Notable Books, based on evaluation of books published in 2012.

Mason, born into aristocracy in Virginia; at 19 was appointed territorial secretary of Michigan; served periodically as acting governor; at 24 became the state's first elected governor (youngest chief executive in any state's history); at 25 presided over Michigan's admission to statehood.

And then, after leaving office amid controversy and struggling to be a New York lawyer and raise a family, he died at 31 of what was variously reported as pneumonia or scarlet fever.

Mason, whose spirited aggressiveness prompted President Andrew Jackson to call him "Young Hotspur," bristled at being dubbed "the boy governor." He once punched a newspaper editor who called him that.

It's unlikely Mason would today punch editor Faber, who has praise, beyond the territory's push for statehood, of Mason's advocacy for creation of the Soo Locks, location of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and much else of what is Michigan today.

Mason pursued the Toledo War — shots were fired but it wasn't much of a war — over the strip of land that is now part of Ohio but Michigan got the best of the congressional compromise deal for statehood by getting land that is now part of the Upper Peninsula.

Farber pulled no punches in reporting on the lows as well as highs of the Mason years, including the fiasco of Mason's scheme for a canal network across southern Michigan, including one to connect the Clinton River in the east with the Kalamazoo River in the west. Much of Mason's grief was caused by the national banking system's Panic of 1837.

From statehood, Michigan governors have faced cycles of boom/bust/rebound.

It all started with the youngest governor in the nation's history, and, as Faber notes of President Jackson's 1831 appointment of Mason, 19, as Secretary of the Michigan Territory, the youngest presidential appointee in American history.

Pioneering female politicians

Up North women blazed new trails as House members in the U.S. Congress and Michigan Legislature.

Ruth Thompson, R-Whitehall, represented much of the northwestern Lower Peninsula in 1953-56 as the first woman from Michigan in Congress. Cora Anderson, L'Anse, in 1925-26 was the first woman in the state House.

What makes these recollections timely was the death last week of 2009-2010 Rep. Judy Nerat, of Wallace, the first Democratic female House member from the Upper Peninsula.

Other notable female firsts in Michigan politics: Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, elected in 2000 to the U.S. Senate; Jennifer Granholm, D-Northville, elected in 1998 as attorney general (after a 37-year reign by Democrat Frank Kelley) and 2002 as governor; and Candice Miller, R-Macomb County, elected 1994 as secretary of state.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing Bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.