Government | People

Lewis Cass, the titan of Michigan's early years

Scholar, brigadier general, presidential candidate and Cabinet officer, Cass wound up antagonizing both the North and South over the slavery issue.


By Bill Loomis | Special to The Detroit News


There may be no greater figure in Michigan’s history than Lewis Cass. He served for 18 years as governor, longer than any other. He wrote the state motto, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you.”  He designed the state seal.

state seal

Cass designed the state seal. “Tuebor” in the center means “I will defend,” referring to the state’s position on the frontier at the time.

He explored northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula and became a national expert on Native American tribes in the old Northwest (now the northern Midwest).

In 1848 Cass ran as the Democratic candidate for president. (He lost to Zachary Taylor.) After his Michigan service, he was in U.S. political office for 30 years. He was a brigadier general, a U.S. senator, secretary of state, secretary of war, minister to France, and head of Indian affairs. He was a friend of the king of France.

He has two Michigan cities and one county named after him, a lake, a river, a Detroit high school, and numerous townships, streets and parks around the nation. At his peak he could draw crowds of more than 40,000 to hear him speak. In the words of historian Willis Dunbar, “He was a giant in the mid-19th century.”

So, what happened? Why have so few even heard of him? Historians believe there may be several reasons. For one, his writing was more scholarly and had less fire than other better-remembered men of his day.

He was temperate — he didn’t drink liquor — and many complained he was dull company. In addition, Cass was not a striking figure. When a young man he was considered handsome and robust, but as he aged he became known for his jowls, baggy eyes and facial moles. He was average height for the times at 5-8, but he was “full in figure,” so many thought he seemed shorter than he was.

In public he wore a wig, described more than once as “dark red” and “ill fitting,” which in several pictures of Cass it was. In 1814 when on a horseback ride from Detroit to Washington, D.C., Cass caught a fever and was unconscious for two days. When he awoke he was completely bald.

But most importantly Cass was a political moderate in the first half of the 19th century as the United States was becoming more polarized over slavery by the decade, and eventually more violent; men on the U.S. Senate floor were pointing cocked pistols at each other. By the start of the Civil War, Lewis Cass could find no one willing to compromise, and he and others who wanted to save the country from being torn apart found themselves mocked and despised by both North and South.

‘I saw the Constitution born’

Cass was born the eldest of five children in Exeter, New Hampshire, on Oct. 9, 1782. His father, Jonathan, was a major in the Revolutionary War. One of Cass’ deepest held memories was at age 7 shaking the hand of Gen. George Washington, who had just been elected president and came to visit Exeter on a tour.

His home state of New Hampshire had been the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, when Cass was 80 years old and quietly living in Detroit, he told a future presidential aspirant, James Garfield, who came to visit him:

“It was a day of great rejoicing. My mother held me, a little boy of six years, in her arms at a window, and pointed me to the bonfires that were blazing in the streets of Exeter, and told me that the people were celebrating the adoption of the Constitution. So, I saw the Constitution born and I fear I may see it die. … I have loved the Union ever since the light of that bonfire greeted my eyes.”

It was that deep devotion to the United States that drove Cass all of his life.

He came from a generation that grew up as the first Americans. Cass attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy with other students such as Daniel Webster. It instilled in Cass a love of literature and scholarship; for many years the library in his Detroit home was the largest in Michigan. When exploring the wilds of northern Michigan, Cass took a portable library in his voyageur canoe and read the classics to the men at night around the campfire.

The family moved to Ohio in the 1790s and Cass joined them in 1796. In 1802 he was licensed to practice law. That same year he married Elizabeth Spencer, and the couple would have five children.

In 1812, war was declared against Britain by President James Madison. At 30 years old Cass was a prominent lawyer and had become a well-known figure in Ohio. Cass immediately enlisted and was made one of three colonels for the Ohio territory, commanding the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment of 2,200 men. Although he had absolutely no war experience, he sported what his father described as the army’s highest feathered plume in his hat. His father also gave him his sword which he carried when fighting the British; the sword clanged conspicuously as Cass rode his horse with the troops.

William Hull led the Northwest Territory army during the War of 1812. Lewis Cass testified against him at his court-martial.

William Hull led the Northwest Territory army during the War of 1812. Lewis Cass testified against him at his court-martial.

Unfortunately, Cass became part of a failed campaign. Young Colonel Cass reported to Gen. William Hull, a Revolutionary War hero and then the military governor of the Northwest Territory. Even though the Americans vastly outnumbered the British, Hull surrendered the fort at Detroit without firing a shot. After the surrender Hull was put on trial by the Americans for being a coward and traitor.

When Cass heard that Hull had surrendered Detroit it was reported that he broke his father’s sword over a rock rather than give it to the British. He came out of the affair with his honor intact, and was rewarded with a commission as a brigadier general. For his entire career Cass was referred to as “General Cass.”

As a reward for his battlefield performance (although he actually saw very little action) on Oct. 29, 1813 James Madison appointed Cass as governor of the Michigan Territory to replace William Hull.

Governor Cass

“At Detroit my situation is at all times very unpleasant and sometimes very unsafe.” — Lewis Cass, 1814

Cass threw himself into his new office and over 18 years developed a reputation as frontier scholar, fearless Indian fighter and political leader. He was reappointed governor six times by three presidents and left just before Michigan attained statehood in 1837.

The territory for which he was responsible held about 4,000 white people of mostly French descent and 40,000 Native Americans generally hostile to Americans. When he arrived in 1814, life in Detroit was in shambles. Fences and barns were torn down, livestock stolen. War had prevented farmers from planting crops, so starvation had taken over. Some inhabitants were subsisting on boiled hay.

Cass wrote to the U.S. secretary of war for help:  “(Unless people) are assisted from the public stores they must literally perish. Hunger stalks the land.” One visitor described Detroit as “misery and ruin and famine and desolation.”

Indian bands, no longer supported by the British, raided Detroiters and at times pillaged and murdered farm families within sight of the fort; alarms sounded constantly.

But Cass was relentless in pursuit of renegade bands of Indians and in placating those natives friendly to Detroiters. He was persistent in writing to Washington for assistance. In May 1815 President James  Madison convinced Congress to approve $1,500 for food supplies, which Cass used to feed the starving.

By 1815 Lewis Cass bought a 500-acre farm from Alexander Macomb which included a small French-style house on the waterfront, until it was moved back to Larned Street some years later to make room for commercial shipping. At the time a wooden plank walkway ran between the Cass house and the river and it was common for Detroiters to stroll down the walkway on moonlit summer evenings.

One Detroit described the governor: “I have frequently seen Governor Cass on warm summer afternoons wearing a straw hat and dressing gown and other light clothing or taking his constitutional up and down the broad plank walk. … He rarely visited other parts of the city on foot. … He seemed to me to keep himself within himself. He was quite stout; perhaps that was the reason.”

The house was made of cedar logs, clapboard, hand-hewn beams, high French dormer windows and a massive center chimney. It pre-dated the War with Pontiac (1763) and Cass took pride in showing bullet holes in the timbers.

The drive for statehood

Cass developed the first road system in Michigan. He believed in public education. His “Cass Code” became the basis of our state statutory laws.

The overriding desire in Michigan during Cass’s tenure was to achieve statehood. To do this required a minimum of 60,000 white males with residence in the territory.

A bad survey report after the War of 1812 described Michigan as “an interminable swamp.” It was widely circulated and discouraged settlement. Cass made it a personal campaign to correct the injustice. He wrote letters to Congress, editorials for East Coast newspapers, and started what we would call a marketing campaign with notices and newspaper advertisements encouraging people to move to Michigan.

It worked. The perception of Michigan was changed and, aided by steamboats and the new Erie Canal in 1826, settlers began streaming into the territory. But as Michigan neared statehood in 1837, Lewis Cass was stepping onto a larger political stage.

In Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet

“It’s hard for him to say ‘no’ and he finds all men honest.” — Andrew Jackson on Lewis Cass

On Aug. 9, 1831, Cass was appointed to Andrew Jackson’s presidential Cabinet as secretary of war, based on his national reputation for handling Indian affairs. Cass was not Jackson’s first choice for the position and Jackson did not care much for Cass, considering him to be indecisive and vague. However, most historians believe Cass was very good at the job.

In one of his earliest challenges on the then western frontier, Cass had to send soldiers to fight in the Black Hawk War in the small settlement of Chicago. He used a new generation of soldiers who would figure prominently in a later war, such as Lt. Jefferson Davis and a young officer named Abraham Lincoln.

During this time Cass was directly involved with the removal of Indians from eastern states. The biggest removal became known as the “Trail of Tears,” in which members of  the Cherokee Nation were forced from their ancestral homelands in Georgia to relocate on reservations west of the Mississippi. They walked the entire distance and many died.

Cass saw the event as a winless situation. Georgia and other states east of the Mississippi were growing in white settlers. He wrote that in his years of experience in Michigan he knew how close a tribe lived to white settlements by the tribe’s health and condition; Indians living near whites suffered from terrible drunkenness, disease, violence and absolute beggary and destitution. He hoped Indians of the far West would have a chance to regain their lives without the whites to pursue them.

However, Cass, like most men of his day, believed that the expansion of the United States was a manifest destiny, something blessed by God.

Pals with the king of France

Jackson was pleased with Casss execution of his Indian removal policy, and named him minister to France in 1836. Cass and his family lived well in Paris and were quite happy.

King Louis-Philippe of France.

King Louis-Philippe of France.

He developed an enviable friendship with the king of France, Louis Phillipe, called “The Citizen King.” Louis Phillipe had spent time in his youth in America and had a deep fondness for the country. With Cass’s tales of vast Michigan wilderness the two talked for hours. The French King thought so highly of Cass that he hung Cass’s portrait between George Washington and Andrew Jackson at his private gallery.

Cass also wrote a lot. He published a book “France: Its King, Court and Government,”  and his articles had a national following. Edgar Allan Poe was an editor and fan of Casss articles. Poe wrote of Cass: “Lewis Cass, the ex Secretary of War, has distinguished himself as one of the finest belle-lettres scholars of America.”

When he and his family returned to the states from France in spring of 1842 they were greeted by huge crowds in Boston and New York: he was now a presidential contender.

He brought back with him to Detroit a set of French china and a French chef for the house. Guests to the Cass home thought the French food fine but the serving size a bit stingy.


Trouble as the nation grows

In 1844 Cass lost the Democratic Party nomination held in Baltimore to dark horse James K. Polk, who went on to win the presidential election. Not missing a beat, the Michigan Legislature elected Cass to replace outgoing U.S. Sen. Augustus S. Porter, whose term had expired.

It was the age of expansion. Texas had been annexed to the U.S. The Oregon territory was under debate. But another event would change the country: bad relations with Mexico, which refused to accept the annexation of Texas, disputed border lines, and spurned purchase offers for California. War was declared with Mexico on May 11, 1846.

The war ended in the U.S.’s favor. But now every land expansion was being interpreted as either a southern move to extend slavery or northern gambit to contain it. On Aug. 8, 1846, Polk asked that Congress approve an appropriation of $2 million to purchase territory from Mexico, lands that included the entire Southwest and California.

Attached to that appropriation was an amendment submitted by Democrat David Wilmot from Pennsylvania called the Wilmot Proviso that would have fateful consequences for Lewis Cass, the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole: “…Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory.”

Cass came out strongly against the Wilmot Proviso. He said there would be plenty of time after the Mexican War to work out the slavery issue.

His position turned northern attitudes against Cass; they believed he was courting southern voters for a presidential bid in 1848. Something in the country had changed. The Wilmot Proviso had aroused many in the North and would not go away. Not just abolitionists but more moderate northerners began to form “proviso leagues” working to exclude slavery from the Southwest.

Polk declared he would not run for a second term and as the election neared, Cass was considered a front-runner; however, the Democratic Party, which Cass and others considered a national party representing all of the nation, began to split over the Wilmot Proviso and the issue of expanding slavery into new territories.

On Dec. 12, 1847, Cass addressed the issue in a published letter to A.O.P. Nicholson, a former congressman from Tennesee. It became known as the “Nicholson Letter” and it put forth his signature principle: popular sovereignty. The idea was simple: the new territories would vote to decide whether to be slave or free.

Cass said, “My doctrine is simply the doctrine of our revolutionary fathers.”

In 1848 Cass’ popular sovereignty became the platform of the Democrats, who chose Cass as their candidate. He was oppsed by the Whigs’ candidate, the famous general of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor,  a slave holder. A third candidate of the new “Free Soil Party” that had split from the Democrats was former President Martin Van Buren.


Cass for president, 1848

“[He’s a] pot bellied, mutton headed old cucumber” — Horace Greeley

It was called the nastiest campaign of the 19th century. The nomination of Cass split the remaining Democrats. The party divided into two groups: the Barnburners (radical) and Hunkers (conservative). Cass was, of course, a Hunker. He could never understand the moral problem and human suffering of slavery that emotionally fired up thousands in the North.

Like Daniel Webster, Cass was seen as one of the corrupt relics from the past, a “doughface.” The great American poet Walt Whitman, who famously quit the Democrats when they selected candidate Lewis Cass, wrote a poem that shows how moderates were seen as molded like dough to become whatever southerners wanted them to be:

We are all docile dough-faces,
They knead us with the fist,
They, the dashing southern lords,
We labor as they list;
For them we speak – or hold our tongues,
For them we turn and twist.

Cass’s view on slavery can be seen in a speech he gave at the time.  “We may well regret the existence of slavery in the southern States and wish they had been saved from its introduction. But there it is, and not by the act of the present generation: and we must deal with it as a great practical question, involving the most momentous consequences.”

For Cass, the threat of the United States disintegrating into civil war was far more frightening than the immorality of owning slaves. A younger generation that included Abraham Lincoln and William Seward fought for absolute prohibition of slavery in the new territories, while southerners like John Calhoun moved to the extreme position that southerners could take slaves with them anywhere in the territories or even the states.

Cass lost the presidential election but returned to the Senate and served from 1849 to 1857. Cass’s moderate politics were under attack from North and South. His likeness was burned in effigy even in small Michigan towns like Battle Creek, while in the South he was distrusted:

“Lewis Cass is a political weathercock – ALL THINGS UNTO ALL MEN, AN ABOLITIONIST AT HEART AND FALSE TO THE SOUTH!” – The New Orleans Bee, 1848


 Cass and his running mate, William O. Butler, a hero of the Mexican American War,  in an 1848 campaign poster.

Cass and his running mate, William O. Butler, a hero of the Mexican War, in an 1848 campaign poster.

Casss world breaks apart

“We frankly say,” wrote one Southern editor, “We despise the Union and hate the North as we do Hell itself.”

In 1854 the situation worsened for Cass. In Jackson, Mich., former Democrats, Whigs and Free Soilers formed a new party that was Cass’s worst nightmare: the Republican Party, dedicated to fight “…an aristocracy, the most revolting and oppressive with which the earth was ever cursed.”

In the halls of Congress a new low was reached when violence broke out. On May 19 and 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gave a lengthy and lurid speech on the “Crime Against Kansas,” laced with sexual imagery of slave owners and their slave mistresses. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina stalked onto the floor of Congress and beat Sumner with a heavy cane so severely it took five years for Sumner to recover.

Cass was appointed to investigate the attack. He declared it a personal confrontation and dismissed any charges.

“I’m tired of it all,” Cass wrote. “I am tired of this everlasting harping upon slavery and hazarding the freest and happiest government on the face of the globe.”

From 1857 to 1860, Cass served as Secretary of State under President James Buchanan. He resigned on Dec. 13, 1860, because of Buchanan’s failure to protect federal interests in South Carolina and failure to mobilize the federal military, actions that he thought might have averted the threatened secession of Southern states.

That resignation brought Cass acclaim from the North. It was as if the North had forgiven Lewis Cass and welcomed him to their side; he was seen as a good American, and was greeted by jubilant crowds, friends and former enemies.

It was reported that Cass would openly begin to cry when talking about the country breaking apart. Once the Civil War began, Cass was a political and financial supporter of the Union Army, giving patriotic speeches for the Union and donating money to outfit Detroit volunteer regiments.

Retired, he moved in with his widowed daughter and spent his twilight years in Detroit and on Mackinac Island. He lived to hear of the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse. About a year later, on June 16, 1866, Lewis Cass died at age 84.

President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a day of national mourning. Michigan and Detroit bells tolled. Lewis Cass was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. He asked for his favorite hymn to be sung at his funeral: “How Firm a Foundation.”