Bust of Lewis Cass

Second Floor Balcony at the Cass Avenue Entrance, Detroit Public Library
5201 Woodward

If you ask an historian of Michigan, to name a few of the most significant figures in the state’s history in the interval from July 4, 1796 when Colonel Jean François Hamtramck took control from the British until the Civil War, she or he would likely list Lewis Cass along with Judge Woodward, Governor Mason and Father Richard.  Lewis Cass was born on October 5, 1782 in Exeter, New Hampshire.  His father was a craftsman.  Young Lewis attended Exeter Academy, but by age 18, migrated to Wilmington, Delaware where he taught school.

Shortly thereafter, Cass moved to Marietta, Ohio where his father had relocated.  Marietta was then a more prominent urban center than it is now.  The French had established a fort there before the British expelled them from North America.  As American settlers crossed the Alleghenies after the Revolutionary War to settle the west, many of them reached the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers and then sailed down the Ohio River.  Many stopped at Marietta.  Cass read law and apprenticed in that professor in Marietta.  In 1802, he was admitted to the Ohio bar.  In 1806, he was elected the Ohio State Legislature.  He did not serve long, since in 1809, he accepted a federal appointment as United States Marshal for Ohio.  One of his early obligations was to help conduct the third national census in 1810; one that counted 231,000 residents in that seven-year old Buckeye State.

Cass strongly supported the War of 1812 against the British and their Canadian allies.  Moving the British and the Indians out of the Northwest Territories was necessary if they were to be settled by Americans.  Cass enlisted and served under General William Henry Harrison.  By 1813, he had rise to the rank of Brigadier General.  He did not serve long, since in 1813, he was appointed by President James Madison as Michigan’s territorial governor.  He replaced the disgraced previous governor, William Hull.  Hull, who had experience as a Revolutionary War officer, commanded US forces in Detroit with Lewis Cass as one of his deputies.  Hull, without much provocation, surrendered Detroit and his forces to the British.  For that, Hull received a court martial, was tried and eventually ordered executed but that determinant sentence was suspended by President Madison.  Cass served as Michigan’s territorial governor until 1831 when he was replaced by an uninterested George Porter who spent little time in the Wolverine territory.  Porter’s lack of enthusiasm for his job gave young Steven T. Mason the opportunity to help speed the process whereby Michigan became a state.

President Andrew Jackson appointed Lewis Cass as his Secretary of War in 1831.  Cass held that post for five years.  As territorial governor, Cass played an important role in both confining Michigan Indians to small areas, i.e., reservations; and in encouraging them to leave.  Upon his arrival in Michigan, Indians greatly outnumbered white settlers.  The demographic balance was very different when Cass became Secretary of War eighteen years later.   Cass wrote extensively and thought carefully about Indians, but reached judgments that most would criticize today.  He observed that for more than two centuries courageous and dedicated European missionaries and political leaders had provided Indians with the opportunity to adopt the modern, sophisticated Christian culture of Western civilization.  In Cass’ view, Indians rejected modern culture and preferred their own culture which was, in his judgment, extremely inferior and primitive.  Having rejected the opportunity to accept European culture, Cass believed that it was appropriate and necessary to drive Indians from the areas where Europeans settled with their African slaves.  He expressed these ideas clearly in his 1823 book, Inquiries Concerning the History, Traditions and Languages of Indians Living within the United States.  Thus, just as Cass reduced the Indian population of Michigan so that Europeans could live peacefully in the state, his efforts as Secretary of War abetted President Jackson’s policy of driving Indians to then remote and desolate areas west of the Mississippi.  As Secretary of War, Cass conducted two wars of Indian expulsion: the Black Hawk War and Seminole Wars.   In 1836, President Jackson appointed Lewis Cass ambassador to France, an appointment he held until Martin Van Buren became president the next year.

Cass returned to Michigan, and in 1845, was selected by the state legislature to serve as a Senator, a post he held until 1857 when he became President Buchanan’s Secretary of State.  While serving as a senator, he also accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for president in 1848.  He lost that race to a hero of the Mexican War, the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor.  A crucial issue in that campaign was slavery.  Cass advocated a compromise position by holding that every state should decide whether they would accept or prohibit slavery.   Cass, presumably, sought the Democratic Party nomination again in 1852, but that party selected the eventual winner, Franklin Pierce.

Many historians rank James Buchanan as one of the least competent presidents.  Lewis Cass, his Secretary of State, disagreed with President Buchanan’s policy of not preparing for a possible Civil War and left the Buchanan administration in 1860 in protest.  So far as I know, that was the last political office that Cass held.  He lived long enough to see Emancipation and died in Detroit at age 84. 

Each state is represented by two statues of important figures in The National Statuary Hall in the capitol in Washington.  One of Michigan’s two statues is a  Daniel Chester French statue of Lewis Cass.  French was, arguably, the most talented American sculptor of his era.  There is one prominent Daniel Chester French statue on display in Detroit now, the Russell A. Alger Memorial Fountain in Grand Circus Park.   This ranks among the city’s most beautiful fountains.  The other statue representing Michigan in the National Statuary Hall is that of Zachariah Chandler.  He served as mayor of Detroit in the 1850s, was one of the founders of  the modern Republican Party, was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Grant and was twice appointed a U. S. senator by the Michigan legislature.  So far as I know, there is no recent biography of Lewis Cass.  The most recent one was published in 1891.

Date of sculpture: 1845
Sculptor: Thomas D. Jones
Use in 2010:  Public sculpture
Biography of Lewis Cass: Lewis Cass by Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin (1891)
Photograph:  Ren Farley; June 26, 2010
Description prepared: July, 2010

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