The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor


Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation.

By Willard Carl Klunder. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996. Photographs. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. x+ 416 pages. $39.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Ronald J. Quinn, Lecturer in the Department of History, San Diego State University.

Professor Klunder’s comprehensive biography of one of the most significant Democratic politicians of the pre-Civil War United States is a primer in the study of the workings of the United States’ political system from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln. According to the author, Lewis Cass’ political ideology (or lack of such, critics would argue) was formed by two experiences of his youth; the Federalist politics of his New England father, and his own experience as a lawyer, soldier, and politician in the Northwest Territory. But the most meaningful experience of Cass’ early adult career was the profound humiliation he felt as a member of United States surrendering army at Detroit during the War of 1812. The defeat left Cass with a lifelong hatred of the British, and a corresponding commitment to the protection of American settlers during Westward Expansion. Cass’ national political star began to shine in August, 1831 when the United States Senate confirmed him as Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. Shortly after his confirmation the Secretary became totally embroiled in the Black Hawk War. Jackson relied upon Cass to enforce the administration’s policy of Indian removal. Cass’ aggressive policies towards the Indians endeared him to frontiersmen, and provided him a promising basis of support in future elections.

In the fall of 1836, Anglophobic Lewis Cass accepted his appointment as United States minister to France. The ambassador shared the suspicions of King Louis Philippe about British expansion in the Western Hemisphere. Cass’ anti-British attitudes and actions made him a favorite of some in the Democratic Party, who favored national expansion.

After resigning as Minister to France in 1843, Cass became an active candidate for the 1844 Democratic nomination for the Presidency. But his protracted absences from the national political scene clearly marred his chances. Voters were ignorant of his stances on the issues, and national media coverage on these stances were quite limited. Cass proved no real threat to Tennessee’s James K. Polk, the eventual Democratic nominee.

Undaunted by his defeat for the Presidential nomination in 1844, Cass successfully ran for election to the United States’ Senate from Michigan on February 4, 1845. The Michigan senator became an enthusiastic supporter of the expansionist policies of Polk’s administration. In fact, the junior senator from Michigan was more expansionist than the President himself, a stance which heartened some his constituents. But his fervent opposition to the Wilmot Proviso, prohibiting slavery in the newly acquired territories, alienated him from many Michigan voters.

Lewis Cass championed popular sovereignty as the solution to the dangerous political dilemma of slave expansion. This loosely defined doctrine removed the issue from the halls of Congress and placed it in the hands of local voters. The wily Cass hoped popular sovereignty would gain him the 1848 Democratic presidential nomination, and it did.

But the presidential prize eluded Cass. He was defeated by General Zachary Taylor in a close election. More important than Taylor’s victory, the election demonstrated the erosion of Democratic voters in the northern states. In fact, the defeated presidential candidate was fortunate to hold on to his Senate seat. But Cass regained some of his political popularity by the energetic role he played in the Compromise of 1850, holding the nation together for another decade. Cass’ final political success came in the passage of the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Act.

The emergence of the Republican Party in the 1850s was the realization of all of Cass’ political fears. The senator believed that the nation could not survive the antislavery expansionist policies of a Republican administration. By the time of the Civil War, Cass had become a political enigma, representing viewpoints now rejected by both northern and southern voters. Although he survived the War by a year, Cass was clearly a man of an earlier era.

Klunder’s political biography is comprehensive and totally rooted in primary sources. While the author sketched of Cass’ political life, there is no attempt to link the public with the private man. The most accommodating of politicians, Cass was unable to accommodate himself to the political realities of the 1850s. Lewis Cass died on June 17, 1866 without ever having come to understand the moral rage against slavery that was held in check most of his political career by the Missouri Compromise.