Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Mason, John Y.

Mason, John Y.

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(1799-1859). Secretary of the Navy, 1844-1845 and 1846-1849

John Young Mason was born in Greensville County, Virginia, on 18 April 1799. After graduation from the University of North Carolina, he studied law and practiced that profession in Virginia from 1819. He married the daughter of a prominent land-owner in 1821 and became a planter himself, as well as continuing as a lawyer. Active in Government affairs, Young served in the Virginia legislature from 1823 to 1827 and was a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1829-30. Elected to the United States Congress 1830, he served three terms, was an active supporter of most elements of Andrew Jackson's presidency, but was also a staunch advocate of states' rights. He left Congress in 1837 to become a judge on the General Court of Virginia and became a federal judge in 1841.


Mason was nominated as Secretary of the Navy by President John Tyler in March 1844, serving to near the end of Tyler's term a year later. This period was marked by intense Congressional pressure for economy, requiring the decommissioning of the Navy's ships of the line and making it difficult to maintain a continuous naval presence on foreign stations. The construction of floating drydocks for several Navy Yards, the simplification of the Navy's ordnance system, an expansion of the Navy's scientific endeavors and the formalization of status of the naval engineers also marked Mason's first term as Secretary.


After serving as Attorney General in the new administration of President James K. Polk, Mason returned to the Navy Department in September 1846, thus providing experienced leadership during the Mexican War. His second term was marked by efforts to sustain the Navy's combat forces in the Gulf of Mexico and along the far-distant Pacific coast, the beginning of construction of new steamers and an effort to obtain potential warships thorough the subsidization of civilian mail steamships. The latter was an early, and ultimately unsuccessful, experiment in public-private partnership.


John Y. Mason left office at the end of the Polk Presidency and returned to Virginia, where he remained active in public affairs. He became Ambassador to France in 1854 and served in that post until his death in Paris on 3 October 1859.


USS Mason (DD-191), 1920-1940, was named in honor of Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason.


This page features our only image of John Y. Mason.