William E. Mason: The Senate’s “First Insurgent”

A rather odd and yet compelling figure in the history of Illinois politics was in Republican William Ernest Mason (1850-1921), who sporadically from 1887 to 1921 was a presence in Congress and made his biggest splash in the Senate.

Elected to Congress in the 1886 midterms, Mason was at this time a conservative Republican. He did deliver in 1890 a speech in favor of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, holding that, “trusts have made products cheaper, have reduced prices; but if the price of oil, for instance, were reduced to one cent a barrel, it would not right the wrong done to people of this country by the trusts which have destroyed legitimate competition and driven honest men from legitimate business enterprise” (Congressional Record). Funny enough, due to his mustache and rotund build, he was on one occasion mistaken for two presidents. Mason was mistaken for President Cleveland on one occasion by a crowd who cheered him, and people would also mistake him for William Howard Taft during his presidency (The Lyceum News).

Senator Mason: A Surprise

With the election of William McKinley president, Illinois had voted Republican, and the Senate Republicans voted to elect one of their own in Mason; he had delivered some impressive speeches in the 1896 campaign against Democratic and Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, and he stood independent of the Chicago Lorimer machine. However, it was in the Senate that he would become known as “the first insurgent”.

Mason’s voting record in his first two years in the Senate proved a substantial drop-off in conservatism from his four years in the House, and this was especially apparent on foreign policy. He supported the Cuban revolt against Spain and pushed for US intervention despite the McKinley Administration’s efforts to prevent war. Although Mason under public pressure voted for the Treaty of Paris in 1898 in which the US annexed the Philippines, he supported the people being able to choose their own government, thus US control would be, per Mason’s preference, quite light. This was reflected in his proposing a resolution in 1899 stating, “that the Government of the United States of America will not attempt to govern the people of any other country in the world without the consent of the people themselves, or subject them by force to our dominion against their will” (Prabook). That year, Mason delivered a speech before Congress advocating self-governance for the Philippines. He held, “You cannot govern the Philippine Islands without taxing them. You have not yet their consent to tax them. You propose again to tax them without representation. Look out for tea parties. Those semisocial functions are liable to occur, for Yankee Doodle and the Star-Spangled Banner have been heard in the Archipelago” (Mason). He also voted against the proposed Olney-Pauncefote Treaty on arbitration, negotiated by the Cleveland Administration and supported by President McKinley, which was opposed by many Irish Americans over Britain’s treatment of Ireland, and Mason was sympathetic. After all, Chicago was home to many Irish immigrants. His record on foreign policy would be consistently in opposition to the British; another time in which he clashed with them was in his support on May 29, 1900, of a resolution calling for diplomatic intervention by the US over the Second Boer War. Although Mason favored party doctrine with certain questions such as currency and tariffs, he voted on June 11, 1902, to advance a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators and voted to consider legislation strengthening anti-trust laws on February 28, 1903.

Mason’s butting heads with the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations on foreign policy came at a tremendous cost. By 1901, his odds for reelection were long as he was highly unpopular in the Republican Party given his “insurgent” views on US foreign policy, and he chose not to run for reelection in 1903. In the meantime, Mason practiced law in Chicago and in 1910 published John, the Unafraid, a religious novel expressing his personal convictions (Prabook).

Mason’s Return

Although President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916, one state he lost was Illinois, and did so by almost ten points. Republicans won four seats in the House from the state, including the election of Mason as one of its at-large representatives. He was a critic of Wilson and once again out of his opposition to Britain was one of the fifty representatives to vote against American entry into World War I. Mason’s opposition to American entry plus his opposition to the draft prompted Senator Tom Heflin (D-Ala.), a staunch Wilson supporter and bigoted blowhard, to propose an investigation into him (Prabook). Mason also cast some conservative votes, namely against an income tax bill regarding Washington D.C., in support of bonuses for navy workers for performance, against increasing funds for seed distribution, and raising the tariff on tungsten. Although the Versailles Treaty didn’t get a vote in the House, Mason was outspoken against it. However, he was also against the use of stopwatches for performance and opposed the Esch-Cummins Act, returning the railroads to private control, as he and other critics saw the legislation as overly favorable to business as opposed to labor. He also, consistent with his critical approach to the British, made an appeal for Irish independence. Mason didn’t live long through the Harding Administration, dying on June 16, 1921. His daughter, Winnifred Huck, was elected to serve the remainder of his term as the first woman to ever represent Illinois in the House.


Congressional Record, 51st Congress, 1st session, House, June 20, 1890, p. 4100.

Mason, W.E. (1899, January 10). Speech of Hon. Wm. E. Mason, of Illinois, in the Senate of the United States. Hathi Trust Digital Library.

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Resembles Taft – Senator Wm. E. Mason Often Mistaken for President. (1911, November). The Lyceum News, 1(10), p. 3.

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William Ernest Mason. Prabook.

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