#MIHistory – Dec. 14: Lewis Cass Calls it Quits

Lewis Cass — a former Michigan Territory governor, U.S. senator and presidential candidate — resigned as U.S. secretary of state on this day in 1860 because he couldn’t support President Buchanan’s decision not to challenge the secession of Southern states. Cass also ran for president twice, becoming the Democratic nominee one time.

Lewis Cass

Cass was born in New Hampshire, where he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy. At the age of 18, his family moved to Marietta, Ohio, where he married his wife, Elizabeth, and became an active Freemason — an association he would keep throughout his life. He was a founder of the Grand Lodge of Ohio and elected its Grand Master from 1810-12. He would later co-found the Grand Lodge of Michigan, serving as its Grand Master in 1826 and 1844.

Cass served as the U.S. Marshall for Ohio starting in 1807. When the War of 1812 began, he commanded Ohio’s 3rd Volunteer Regiment. He was then promoted to brigadier general in 1813, and took part in the Battle of the Thames.

As a reward for military service, Cass was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory by President James Madison in 1813, a title he held until 1831. While territorial governor, he lead an expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. However, the source they identified, named Cass Lake in his honor, was in error — the actual source is Lake Itasca.

On Aug. 1, 1831, Cass resigned as governor of the Michigan Territory to become President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war. He later became the American minister to France in 1842.

Cass ran for president himself in 1844, but lost in the primary to James K. Polk, who went on to win the national election. Instead of the White House, Cass went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, representing Michigan from 1845-1848, when he resigned to again run for president. He won the nomination for the Democratic Party, but his campaign caused a rift in the party, leading many anti-slavery Democrats to join the Free Soil Party. He lost the election to President Zachary Taylor, and returned to serve in the Senate from 1849-1857.

President James Buchanan tapped Cass to be his secretary of state from 1857-1860. But he gave up the position on Dec. 14, 1860, because Buchanan failed to take steps — such as mobilizing the military — in order to keep the South from seceding. He left political life after resigning. South Carolina became the first state to secede a few days later on Dec. 20, 1860.

Cass died in 1866.


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