Lewis Cass and seven decades of American history

I have a theory that if we keep Power Line going long enough, everyone will appear in a post. For example, Scott recently mentioned the long-forgotten 19th century politician Lewis Cass in a post about Elizabeth Warren. I then mentioned Cass in a post about surrogate candidates.

Actually Cass doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, and wouldn’t be if American history were taught properly. Cass was an influential Senator and Governor, a Secretary of War and of State, and a Democratic nominee for U.S. President. He also put Minnesota on the map, literally, by leading a major expedition there.

Cass played a role in key in events during seven decades. That’s not bad given that our history as a nation encompasses only 22 full decades. There are probably other figures in American history who were influential for as long as Cass, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. This partial list of Cass’s activities encompasses much of our pre-civil war history in the 19th century.

1806 – Cass is elected to the Ohio legislature at the age of 24. He promptly helps thwart Aaron Burr’s conspiracy against the U.S. Learning of the conspiracy from a friend who is involved in it, Cass drafts, and guides to enactment, legislation granting expanded powers to the Governor to respond.

1808-09 – Cass represents an Ohio Supreme Court Justice who is impeached for striking down a law as inconsistent with the Ohio Constitution. Although he’s a strong Jeffersonian, Cass defends the fledgling principle of judicial review. The Justice is acquitted.

1812 – As a Brigadier General in the Ohio militia, Cass is believed to be the first American to set foot on enemy territory (i.e. Canada) during the War of 1812. The invasion turns into a disaster when Cass’s commanding General orders an unforced retreat and surrender.

1813 – Cass serves as an aide to General William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Thames, a key battle in the War of 1812, in which Tecumseh is defeated and killed. Harrison commends Cass in his dispatches.

1813 – President Madison appoints Cass Governor of the Territory of Michigan

1820 – Cass leads an expedition into Western Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It is considered the most significant expedition since Lewis and Clark’s. Cass and company find the source of the Mississippi River.

Cass brings along a geologist, a naturalist, and a topographer. Cass himself is in charge of observing the Indians the group encounters. He later publishes his observations in the North American Review and becomes recognized as a leading expert on the Indians of the Northwest.

1823 – Cass oversees the first statewide elections in Michigan. He is elected Governor.

1831 – President Jackson appoints Cass as his Secretary of War. He succeeds John Eaton who is replaced as a result of the Petticoat Affair – the squabbling within the Cabinet regarding Eaton’s wife, the vivacious Peggy Eaton.

1832 – Cass countermands an order issued by Eaton to remove Army pension funds from the National Bank, which Jackson wants to kill. Jackson reinstates the order. Cass offers to resign. Jackson convinces him not to.

1832 – After the South Carolina legislature purports to nullify within its borders a tariff imposed by Congress, Cass orders the harbor forts at Charleston reinforced. He then helps resolve the crisis by publishing an anonymous letter in a Richmond newspaper outlining a settlement of the dispute. Compromise is eventually reached along the lines laid out by Cass. President Jackson praises Cass for his role.

1831-35 – As Secretary of War, Cass plays an important role in formulating and implementing President Jackson’s Indian removal policy. Cass personally believes in the resettlement of Indians – as Governor of Michigan he helped resettle Oneida Indians from New York – but believes it should occur only for Indians who want to relocate. However, Cass goes along with Jackson’s wishes. He also defends Jackson’s legal position that there can be no sovereign Indian nations within U.S. borders.

1837 – Cass becomes the U.S. ambassador to France. He speaks fluent French and quickly becomes a favorite in the court of Louis Phillippe, the Citizen King.

1841 – While serving as ambassador, Cass persuades France and the U.S. to reject a British-proposed treaty that would give nations the right to search each others’ vessels for slaves. Cass doesn’t support slavery, but is staunchly anti-British and fears giving the powerful British Navy the right to stop and search American ships.

1842 – Cass resigns as ambassador in protest against the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Cass objects to the Treaty because it is silent on the question of England’s power to stop American ships. Cass’s anti-British stance gains him popularity. And the slavery angle makes him popular in the South. He is prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate for 1844.

1844 – Cass leads Martin Van Buren in the first few ballots at the Democratic convention. However, he can’t get the two-thirds majority required. Van Buren adamantly opposes Cass because Cass supports the annexation of Mexico. On the ninth, a deadlocked convention nominates James K. Polk, America’s first successful “dark horse” candidate. Ironically, Polk supports annexation more strongly than does Cass.

1845 – The Michigan legislature sends Cass to the U.S. Senate. He will become Polk’s point man in the Senate, as he tries to consolidate his position as front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President in 1848.

1846 – Senator David Wilmot proposes his proviso to a bill authorizing funds for the war with Mexico. Under the proviso, slavery would not be permitted in any territory obtained from Mexico. Cass is inclined to oppose the proviso, but in the end he goes along with the White House and opposes it. He argues that it’s premature to resolve the issue in territories that haven’t been obtained yet. The Van Buren “free soil” faction deeply resents Cass’ role in defeating the Wilmot Proviso.

1848 – The Democrats nominate Cass for President. He’s considered the favorite early on, but is whipsawed by the slavery issue. Many Southerners trust Zachary Taylor, a Virginian and a slaveholder, more than they trust Cass. Consequently, Cass doesn’t run as well in the South as expected of a Democrat. Meanwhile, Van Buren runs as a third party candidate on a “free soil” platform. The Van Buren vote helps deprive Cass of victories in Pennsylvania and New York, which he needs to make up for his underperformance in the South.

The final electoral count is Taylor 163, Cass 128. The popular vote goes to Taylor by 1.36 million to 1.22 million. Percentage-wise, it’s Taylor 47.3, Cass 42.5, Van Buren 10.2.

1849 – Cass develops and promulgates the theory of popular sovereignty under which the people in new territories would decide by referendum whether slavery will be permitted.

1850 – Cass works side-by-side with an ailing Henry Clay to enact the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise is based in large part on Cass’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. It is also includes the Fugitive Slave Act. Cass declines to vote on that piece of the Compromise when it comes up for separate vote.

1852 – Cass is the early leader in balloting at the Democratic national convention, but his time has passed. Franklin Pierce is nominated on the 49th ballot.

1854 – Cass reluctantly supports the Nebraska-Kansas Compromise. It is consistent with “popular sovereignty” but effectively repeals the Missouri Compromise, which Cass would prefer not be disturbed.

Unfortunately, this legislation is more appeasement than compromise, and it is hugely unpopular in Michigan. It jump starts the fledgling Republican Party in that state. Soon, Republicans will gain control of the state legislature and replace Cass in Washington.

1857 – President Buchanan appoints Cass to be his Secretary of State. Buchanan is one of the few politicians in either party with whom Cass has never been on good terms. But Buchanan needs Cass to give balance and gravitas to his awful, Southern Democrat dominated cabinet. Buchanan, though, will cut Cass out of any serious role in the administration.

1860 – With the drumbeat of secession becoming almost deafening, Cass pleads with Buchanan to fortify the harbor forts at Charleston, as Cass had done decades earlier during the nullification crisis. He also argues for a mobilization of federal forces. Buchanan is unmoved. Cass resigns in protest.

1861 – The U.S. seizes a British vessel, the RMS Trent, and captures Confederate agents Mason and Slidell. The vessel is released but not the agents. Britain threatens war.

Alarmed members of both political parties ask Cass, with his expertise and long history of involvement with this issue, to intervene with the Lincoln administration. Cass writes to Secretary of State Seward, with whom he’s always been on good terms despite their political differences. He recommends that the two agents be released on narrow legal grounds. Seward informs the British that Mason and Slidell will be released because the Trent was not initially taken to a port for judicial determination, as the U.S. has always demanded in these situations. The British are satisfied. Seward sends Cass a note thanking him for his counsel.

1864 – In his last political act, Cass writes to the Michigan War Democrats to say that he prefers General McClellan to President Lincoln in the presidential election. Cass will have no other involvement in the race. He dies less than two years later at age 83.

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