Michigan Transportation History

Lewis Cass

Public CZ Article Person Michigan Democratic Administrator Senator 1830s Territorial 1840s 1850sDetroit Governor

Lewis Cass (October 2, 1782-June 16, 1866) was a major political figure from Michigan. He served as general of the Ohio militia; territorial governor and Senator of Michigan; U.S. Secretary of War, Ambassador to France, and U.S. Secretary of State.

Early Life

Cass was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. His parents were Major Jonathan Cass (a Revolutionary War officer) and Mary Gilman Cass. He went to school at the Phillips Exeter Academy. Afterwards he taught school before his family moved, in 1800, to Zanesville, Ohio. Cass then studied law and took the bar in 1803. In 1806, he was wed to Elizabeth Spencer.

Cass began his career in politics as prosecuting attorney for Muskingum County and in 1806 he was elected to the Ohio Legislature (he was actually one year too young to be eligible). Following his participation in the suppression of the Burr Conspiracy, President Jefferson rewarded the young Cass with an appointment to be U.S. Marshall for Ohio. In this capacity, he was a regimental commander of a unit of Ohio militia during the War of 1812War of 1812Veteran that came to Michigan in 1812. Cass served under William Hull's command in the North West Army. Following the surrender of Hull at Detroit, Cass was appointed territorial governor, promoted to Brigadier General, and served as General Harrison's aide-de-camp. His last battle was the Battle of the Thames.

Territorial Governor of Michigan

See also
Territorial Government

Governor Harrison appointed Cass to be territorial governor of Michigan on October 14, 1813. Madison approved of this appointment two weeks later. Cass then served as governor until 1831, being re-appointed six times by three different presidents.

Governor Cass enjoyed the longest tenure in American territorial history by keeping his political fences well mended, through traveling frequently to Washington; negotiating a score of Indian treaties; and aggressively promoting settlement of the Northwest. During his governorship, too, Cass developed a reputation as a moderate politician and an astute businessman. In brief, this period laid the foundation for his personal wealth and national political career."1

He established the territorial government in Detroit, and began there to speculate in land. Cass amassed most of his wealth in land speculationReal EstateSpeculator. Cass as a territorial governor was forward thinking in at least one regard: he wanted to see more transportation improvements for Michigan. As part of a growing passion for internal improvements, Cass advocated the construction of military roads (which Congress often approved) and the incorporation of the old Northwest's first railroads (see Pontiac & Detroit Railway). He also promoted universal education and libraries.

Cass's relationship with the Indians was ambivalent. He did learn some native languages of the peoples living in Michigan. And he did have the territorial government promote Henry Schoolcraft? and his offices and research. But Cass was also aggressive in the cession of more Indian land in Michigan. When Cass became Secretary of War in Andrew Jackson's cabinet (1831-1836), he enforced the policy of Indian removal from the southern states and oversaw U.S. involvement in both the Black Hawk War and Seminole War. When Cass ran for the presidency in 1848, his opponents claimed that because he was the territorial governor of Michigan for so long his pay, if assembled in silver and gold coin on wagons, would have required several horses to move. Cass was also present and gave the keynote speech at the founding of the Michigan capital in Lansing.2

National Politics

Lewis Cass while Secretary of State. Library of Congress photo

The following is a derivative article based on this version of this Citizendium article written by Russell D. Jones. This article is reprinted here under the CZ creative commons CC-by-SA 3.0 license. Text in this style is unchanged from that original article and may be subsequently redistributed according to the terms of the CZ license. Text in black (or blue for links) is a derivative work and may be subsequently redistributed by giving attribution to both The Citizendium and Michigan Transportation History under the terms of the CC-by-SA 3.0 license.

In 1836, Jackson appointed Cass as the U.S. ambassador 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 presidential election of 1848. 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, 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. During his term, Michigan started the Republican Party, and Republicans swept the state's political offices in 1854. The state remained under solid Republican control until the mid-twentieth century. And since the Republican Party was solidly anti-slavery, Cass's positions and voting record was not popular with them. Thus when his re-appointment came up in 1856, the state legislature did not return him to the Senate. Nonetheless, Democratic President James Buchanan, who was elected in 1856, appointed Cass to be U.S. Secretary of State, and Cass continued to promote U.S. expansionism, consistent with his previous positions.

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 that South Carolina's talk of secession to be at least dangerous, but certainly demanding of some sort of Federal response. Once South Carolina organized a secession convention and Buchanan's refusal to take any action regarding the secession talk (mainly because, by then, nothing had happened), Cass resigned from State in disgust on December 13 (six days before South Carolina's secession).

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


1. Willard Carl Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (Kent State University Press, 1996), 17.

2. H. G. Wells, "Biographical Reminiscences," MPHC 2 (1880), 106


Loomis, Bill. "Lewis Cass, the Titan of Michigan's Early Years." The Detroit News, June 29, 2014.

Klunder, Willard Carl. Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.

Klunder, Willard Carl. "The Seeds of Popular Sovereignty: Governor Lewis Cass and Michigan Territory." Michigan Historical Review? 17, No. 1 (1991): 64-81.

Dunbar, Willis F. Lewis Cass. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1970.

McLaughlin, Andrew C. Lewis Cass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1891.

This text went through multiple editions and printings for about a decade, then three reprints in 1919, 1972, and 1980. See this index

Smith, W. L. G. Life and Times of Lewis Cass. New York: 1856.


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R. D. Jones, "Lewis Cass," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on January 01, 2020, at 08:13 PM EST

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