Monday, February 17, 2014

Celebrating America’s Presidential Near Misses

By Frank Boles

Document signed by Lewis Cass, Governor of Territory of Michigan.
Found in Clarke Historical Library, Richard Collection

President’s Day celebrates the individuals who have served as America’s chief executive, and offers an excuse to also think about some of the near misses. One of those “could-have-beens” was Michigan’s Lewis Cass, one of many candidates documented through the Clarke Historical Library’s Presidential Campaign Biography collection.

Lewis Cass was born in New Hampshire in 1782, and in 1801, he moved to what would eventually become Ohio. During the War of 1812, he became a brigadier general. In 1813, the rising young star was appointed first military, and subsequently civilian, governor of the Michigan Territory. Cass would remain territorial governor until 1831 and would make his home in Detroit for the rest of his life. However, much of that life was spent far away from Michigan. In 1831, he joined Andrew Jackson’s cabinet as Secretary of War. He served as ambassador to France from 1836 until 1842. Cass “stood” for the presidential nomination within the Democratic Party in 1844, but lost to dark horse James K. Polk. His political aspirations were undiminished and in 1845, Cass was elected to the United States Senate from Michigan. He finally was named the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency in 1848.

By 1848, slavery increasingly divided the nation. Cass tried to avoid the issue by walking a very narrow political line. The means he promoted to do this was “Popular Sovereignty.” The idea, which Cass was a chief proponent of, would allow each state, whether currently existing or newly formed from a federal territory, to decide by vote whether to be slave or free. In essence, he hoped through an appeal to local democracy to remove slavery from the federal arena and make it the exclusive concern of the states.

Cass soon discovered that his seemingly clever solution to an intractable political and moral issue pleased no one. Anti-slavery northerners were incensed that formerly free federal territories might enter the Union as slave states. Southern slave owners were incensed that they could be denied their “property” by a popular vote. The idea split the Democratic Party and placed Cass into an unwinnable presidential campaign, which was summarized by some with the phrase, “alas, poor Cass.”

Cass lost the 1848 presidential election to Zachary Taylor. Despite this national defeat, Cass remained popular in Michigan and continued to be an important figure in the Democratic Party. He was returned to the U.S. Senate in 1849, and was a serious contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1852. In 1857, Cass left the Senate when President James Buchanan appointed him Secretary of State.

Deeply disapproving of Buchanan’s weak policies toward the increasingly restive South, Cass found in national unity a moral compass he failed to possess about slavery. Unwilling to compromise about the Union itself, he resigned as Secretary of State on December 13, 1860, protesting Buchanan's failure to protect federal interests in the South or to mobilize the federal military to meet the increasing possibility of Southern secession. After resigning, Cass returned to Detroit, where he lived to see the victory of the Union Army in the Civil War. He died in 1866.

The presidential campaign of 1848 is but one documented in the Clarke Historical Library’s Presidential Campaign Biography collection. The books found in the collection look across American history through the issues of each presidential election. Presidential campaigns have often raised issues of great moral significance as well as sometimes descending into trivia. Regardless of the issues in a given election, how candidates addressed those issues and the decision of the voters have collectively shaped America as a nation, and are told through the Presidential Campaign Biography collection.