Lewis Cass

As governor of Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass (1782-1866) contributed importantly to the development of the Old Northwest. Twice a presidential nominee, he served as secretary of war, minister to France, and secretary of state.

Lewis Cass was born on Oct. 2, 1782, in New Hampshire, the eldest child of a Revolutionary War veteran, Maj. Jonathan Cass, and Mary Gilman Cass. He studied at Phillips Exeter Academy. In 1800 the family moved to the Ohio frontier, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1803. In 1806 he married Elizabeth Spencer and was elected to the legislature in Ohio. In 1807 he became U.S. marshal for Ohio.

In the War of 1812 Cass advanced from colonel of militia to brigadier general and fought with distinction at the Battle of the Thames. In 1813 he was appointed governor of Michigan Territory. He made a fortune by buying land in Detroit and later selling it in city lots. He promoted universal education and the establishment of libraries, built roads, and speeded the work of surveying tracts for settlers; as Indian commissioner, he conducted expeditions to the northwestern area of the territory, studied Native American languages, and supported scholarly work on Native American culture. He had sympathy for the Native Americans, but he persuaded them to cede their lands; as President Andrew Jackson's secretary of war (1831-1836), he vigorously supported the forced removal of the Cherokee from their agricultural lands.

Appointed minister to France in 1836, Cass used his influence against British efforts to stop the international slave trade. In 1842 he resigned and sought the Democratic nomination for president but lost to James K. Polk. Elected to the Senate in 1845, Cass urged war against Britain, if necessary, to obtain all of Oregon. He defended Polk's aggression against Mexico and advocated the acquisition of Cuba.

With Southern support Cass was the Democratic nominee for president in 1848, but in a rather close election he lost to the Whig general Zachary Taylor. Cass was again in the Senate (1849-1856) and again, at the age of 70, a candidate for president in 1852; but the Democrats nominated a nonentity, Franklin Pierce.

Cass supported the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, which denied a jury trial to any African American claimed by a slave owner. He supported the "popular sovereignty" doctrine of Stephen Douglas. In 1856 the Republican legislature in Michigan removed him from the Senate.

President James Buchanan made the aged Cass his secretary of state, and in this position Cass remained an expansionist and continued to oppose British policies. But the sectional conflict now dominated the American scene. Cass lost Southern friends by referring, in Michigan, to slavery as "a great social and political evil"; and he finally broke with Buchanan and his Southern advisers and resigned his office in 1860. He supported the Union during the Civil War. He died on June 16, 1866.

Had Cass retired from public life at the age of 60, his place in American history would be higher than it is as a consequence of his support of, and affiliation with, some of the weakest and most disastrous administrations in American history.

Further Reading on Lewis Cass

The standard biography of Cass is Frank B. Woodford, Lewis Cass: The Last Jeffersonian (1950). The subtitle is misleading, the style journalistic, and the interpretation nationalistic, but Woodford provides the basic information. Andrew C. McLaughlin, Lewis Cass (1891), in the "American Statesmen" series, is still useful. The interpretation is generally logical and persuasive, although McLaughlin is sometimes harshly censorious of Cass and others.

Additional Biography Sources

Burns, Virginia, Lewis Cass, frontier soldier, Bath, Mich.: Enterprise Press, 1980.

Klunder, Willard Carl, Lewis Cass and the politics of moderation, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.

McLaughlin, Andrew Cunningham, Lewis Cass, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

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