Lewis Cass: Michigan's Hero of the War of 1812. (Address at Perry Victory Centennial. 9 September 1913.)
Again and again my father, when I was a boy, walked many miles in order to hear an address by a great lawyer, judge, statesman or preacher. I accompanied him whenever I could gain his consent. Through his unconscious training, I became a hero worshipper. My library abounds in biographies of the great men and women. As a teacher, I have used these biographies to awaken young men and young women to a realization of their own responsibilities. The life of Lewis Cass is an inspiration to every American who is familiar with the story of the Northwest.
The lineage of our hero was clean and vigorous; in other words, he was well born. He first saw the light at Exeter, N.H., October 9, 1782. "His boyhood fell into that neasy, anxious times of the Confederation. It is clear that in the early years he was fond of study, and evinced a capacity which encouraged his father to give him an education beyond the means, one would think, of the mechanic and soldier, who must have some difficulty in making both ends meet." He attended Phillips Exeter Academy seven years, acquiring what would now approximate a modern high school education. He tried school teaching, but this occupation was not to his liking at a time "when he was energetic to the point of wastefulness, and burned with an ardor for trial, activity, combat."
In October, 1800, his father, Major Cass, brought his family to Marietta, Ohio. Lewis Cass studied law and in the autumn of 1802 received the first certificate of admission to the bar under the new Ohio constitution. In 1804 he was elected prosecuting attorney of Muskegum county. At the age of twenty-two, his reputation as a lawyer was widely known. In 1806 he was elected to the Ohio Legislature and in 1807, Cass was tendered a commission as United States marshal. This commission he accepted and retained until after the outbreak of the War of 1812. "His whole career was changed by the outbreak of the war of 1812; a great portion of his life was devoted to counteracting the effect of British influence over the Indians. On February 6, 1812, Congress authorized the President to accept and organize certain voluntary military corps, and on April 10 he was authorized to require the executives of the several States and Territories to take effectual measures to organize and equip their respective portions of (100,000) militia. Ohio's quota of men were divided into three regiments: Colonel Arthur in command of the First, Colonel Findlay in command of the Second, and Colonel Cass of the Third.
Cass here made his first address to his troops: "Fellow citizens- the standard of our country is displayed. You have rallied around it to defend her rights and to avenge her injuries. May it wave protection to our friends and defiance to our enemies! And should we ever meet them in the hostile field, I doubt not but that the eagle of America will be found more than a match for the British lion!"
On July 5 the army reached Detroit. Detroit was a French-American village, in reality a piece of old France. The population of the whole of Michigan was at that time about 5,000 and of Detroit proper, not far from 1,000. This is not the time and occasion for speaking of the hesitancy, indifference and humiliating weakness of General Hull. If McLaughlin's account of this campaign is trustworthy, Hull was an utter failure. On the 9th of July a council of war was called. Cass argued enthusiastically for immediate action. It is my opinion that if Cass had been in command the pages of history would read quite differently today. Cass believed that incisive action would insure the fall of Malden and the conquest of Upper Canada, but Hull's delay, his hesitancy, his indecision, prevented the taking of any aggressive step. Finally, Cass, because of his much asking, was allowed to take two hundred eighty men and push his way as near as possible to the enemy's stronghold for the purpose of ascertaining its condition. Cass fought the first battle of the war. This first victory was accepted throughout the country as prophetic of success. Cass was hailed as the "Hero of Tarontee." Had the idea of Cass been followed, the British would never have captured Detroit. They would have been driven to defeat. On the surrender of Detroit, Cass was exasperated beyond endurance. He snapped his sword in twain rather than disgrace himself by its surrender. For forty years to come, the Detroit citizens could not remember the occurrence without flushing with mortification.
December 1812, Cass was appointed Major General of an Ohio Militia, but he was not yet exchanged and was prevented by his parole from entering into active service.
Only a few months ago we celebrated the anniversary of the Massacre at the River Raisin. It is true, that only a few of Cass's troops were engaged in this battle. Cass's record in the War of 1812 stands out in bold relief. His courage, foresight and loyalty must ever command the admiration of American citizens.
It would take more than my allotted time to go into a detailed account of Cass's services as Governor of Michigan Territory. He gave the Territory for eighteen years the best fruits of his energy, of his young manhood and vigorous middle age. The story of the Northwest would be incomplete without the story of this man's services. His knowledge of the Indian's characteristics, his love for the Constitution, his indomitable courage, led him to make extraordinary sacrifices in order that he might know personally condition of the people of the Northwest. His long journeys in this territory encountering grave dangers are never to be forgotten acts of heroism. The English had long courted the Indians by the generous giving of presents. Britain had used every possible effort to alienate the Indians from the people of the Northwest. Cass with his tactfulness convinced the Indians that the Americans were their real friends and protectors. My only object in mentioning the service of Lewis Cass as Governor of Michigan Territory is to show that his elements of power in the War of 1812 were abiding elements. We cannot call Lewis Cass a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Grant, but his sterling qualities magnificently represent the real "makers of the United States."
Lewis Cass was eminently democratic and the doctrines he proclaimed would be considered generally progressive today. He believed in the rule of the people. He believed in putting the responsibility upon the citizens themselves. His work as Governor of Michigan Territory illustrated this most forcibly.
He had a broad vision of educational needs. His efforts to provide for education for all of the people of the territory have borne fruit. The educational system of Michigan today bears evidence of his handiwork.
My listeners are all familiar with the further honors that he received at the hands of his country. His services as Secretary of War, Minister to France, his democratic leadership, his election to the United States Senate, his candidacy for the Presidency and his services as Secretary of State are all familiar to you.
It has been impossible for me in a few minutes to give any large number of concrete illustrations whereby the actual life of Cass is revealed. The elements of his character that commend my admiration are the same elements that have constituted the greatness of every American hero. He was the very embodiment of good horse sense. He was not visionary. He was not drunken with optimism. He was not a hopeless pessimist. He looked at things in their true relations. His honesty and integrity have never been questioned. Without honesty and integrity human character is not abiding, in fact, it must speedily disintegrate. Cass valued his word as he valued his life. He never dissimulated. He never allowed himself to indulge in pretenses under any circumstances. Even in his dealings with the Indians, he was frank, firm, fearless, determined and always absolutely honest. In his dealing with political questions he adopted the same sterling frankness. He possessed human kindness. Revenge was not traceable in his nature. Justice and kindness were always uppermost in his consideration of human needs and human wants. Even the Indians who for scores and scores of years had been made the tools of Britain came to love Cass as a good father. Without the element of human kindness no character can be really great or worthy of admiration. The distinctly human element was a tremendous element of power in the man, Cass.
To my mind, loyalty is a princely characteristic of human nature. Cass was loyal to his family, loyal to his friends, loyal to his Territory, loyal to his country. This characteristic has always been the crowning feature of American heroism and it will always remain the crowning feature in all real heroism. His loyalty is an inspiration to me at this hour. If my services to the great State of Michigan, I can, in a measure, exercise the loyalty that Cass exercised, I shall command at least some gratitude from the citizens of my State.
It is with difficulty that we comprehend the obstacles that Cass had to overcome. In this age of steam and electricity, space is practically annihilated. Cass as Territorial governor of Michigan made many of his long journeys in a birch canoe enduring hardships that we of today never encounter. Newspapers in no large sense, were at his command. There was a lack of solidarity among the people with whom he had to deal. There was always a lack of funds for carrying on great industrial enterprises, a lack of funds for furthering the highest ends of statecraft. In attempting to measure the greatness of a man the conditions under which he labored, must be considered. Thus measured his work for the Northwest must continue to grow in importance to the American citizen who wishes to do honor to whom honor is due. True, Lewis Cass had to do with patriotic, though widely scattered people, men and women of sturdy constitutions, men and women who worshipped at the shrine of service and freedom. He was the right man in the right place, sustained and aided by a grateful people. His whole life is a tribute to the loftiest American manhood. The young men of today who would learn lessons in statecraft cannot do better than study the aims, and the achievements of this remarkable man. He was not a genius, though he was a man who knew men, who knew their ambitions and their needs, who knew how to conserve their own resources in order to further the progress of his country.
Yes, Cass can be called Michigan's "Hero of the War of 1812," a hero who never had the opportunity for emblazoning this heroism, as have some of our American heroes since 1812. The American problems that Cass helped to solve were as difficult as any that present themselves to the American people today. Cass did his work well and in the Northwest his name will ever be revered and ever be an inspiration to youth and a source of pride to Michigan as well as to the citizens of other states who have come to know of his services.