Lewis Cass

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Lewis Cass (October 2, 1782-June 16, 1866) was a politician, founder, Territorial governor, Senator from Michigan, and U.S. Secretary of War, Ambassador to France, and U.S. Secretary of State.

Early Life

Cass was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, to Major Jonathan Cass and Mary Gilman Cass. He was schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy and moved with his family to Ohio in 1800. Living in Zanesville, Ohio, he studied law and passed the bar in 1803. He married Elizabeth Spencer in 1806.

In 1806, Cass began his political career, being elected to the Ohio Legislature. In 1807, he resigned to take an appointment as the U.S. Marshall for Ohio. He led an Ohio militia unit in the War of 1812. His first command was among those that were surrendered by General William Hull after his defeat at Detroit. Cass was later promoted to Brigadier General and fought in the Battle of the Thames.

Territorial Governor of Michigan

Following the war, Cass was appointed the territorial governor of Michigan and served until 1831. Setting up office in Detroit, Cass began speculating in land and became very wealthy from it. As territorial governor he advocated universal education, libraries, internal improvements (especially military roads). Cass's views towards Native Americans seems rather ambivalent. He learned native languages and as governor subsidized the researches of Henry Schoolcraft. Yet, he also forced the cession of more native land in Michigan and as Secretary of War (1831-1836) for Andrew Jackson enforced the removal of Indians from the southern states, and led the U.S. army during the Black Hawk War and Seminole War.

National Politics

Lewis Cass while Secretary of State. Library of Congress photo

Following his stint as Secretary of War, Jackson appointed Cass to be the U.S. minister to France. While in Europe, he worked maintain the international slave trade despite British efforts to curtail and stop it.

In 1842, Cass resigned as U.S. ambassador and returned to Michigan. He organized a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination but lost that to James K. Polk. Three years later he was selected by the Michigan legislature to its U.S. Senate seat. In the Senate, he was an ardent expansionist. He became a vocal proponent of war with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory (see "Fifty Four Forty or Fight"), endorsed the Mexican-American War, and the annexation of Cuba. He resigned his seat in 1848 to run for president.

Cass sought and received the Democratic nomination during the 1848 presidential election. Cass advocated the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which allowed the people of the territories to determine whether or not to permit slavery. Because of this compromise with the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party, the Free-Soil Democrats (Barnburners), led by Martin Van Buren bolted, splitting the Democracy. Because of the split in the Democratic Party, the Whig Zachary Taylor won the election. Following the election, Cass was again selected to be a Michigan Senator. Cass made one more presidential bid in 1852 but failed gather the nomination.

While the Senate, Cass voted in favor of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law. Because of these votes and his pro-slavery allegiances and because Michigan was then solidly controlled by the Republican Party, Cass was not reappointed to the Senate when his term was up in 1856.

Upon the election of Democratic President James Buchanan, however, Cass was made Secretary of State. As the architect of U.S. foreign policy, he continued to propound U.S. expansionism.

Following the election of 1860 and the beginning of the Secession Crisis, Cass advocated a strengthening of U.S. forces in its military forts throughout the south. He believed secession wrong and wanted forceful action from Buchanan to stop it. Buchanan, however, refused to do anything; Cass resigned in disgust.

Cass returned to Michigan and remained there throughout the American Civil War. He died in 1866.