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Lewis Cass. (Address at Lewis Cass Day, Mackinac Island. 28 August 1915.)

Mr. Chairman, and fellow-citizens: I can add nothing to the magnificent oration you have heard; it must needs cover my subject, "Lewis Cass, Governor of Michigan Territory."

Human greatness, which has always commanded the admiration of the world, is in origin more or less shrouded in mystery. Washington in his youth gave no special promise of greatness; but his achievements in mature manhood, under gigantic difficulties, placed him in the front rank of the world's greatest statesmen. Lincoln's closest boyhood friends never so much as dreamed of his possible future; his mature life was fraught with responsibilities which would have crushed any but the greatest of humanity. The more I study the life of Lewis Cass, the more I am reminded of Washington and Lincoln. During his service for eighteen years as Governor of Michigan Territory, he was confronted with problems of government that would have taxed the diplomacy and statesmanship of a Washington or a Lincoln.

In 1813, Lewis Cass found Michigan Territory devastated, poverty stricken and honeycombed with anarchy. The total number of white inhabitants was approximately six thousand. The estimated number of Indians was forty thousand. The whites lived in constant terror of the Indians, who were aided and abetted by the British.

In the fall of 1814, General Cass organized "a little company," and led a successful attack on the Indians. This encouraged the white people to assert their rights, and compelled the savages to exercise a wholesome fear in relation to the Governor. His unremitting vigilance and energetic conduct saved our people from many of the horrors of war. General Cass possessed the courage that conquers. He had an accurate knowledge of Indian traits and of Indian character. During his governorship he made many important treaties with the Indians; he was scrupulously honest in all of his dealings with them. Furthermore, he attempted to advise and encourage them in all matters relating to their own highest welfare. The injustice and perversity of England not only made the solution of the Indian problem very difficult, but hindered him in his efforts to Americanize Michigan Territory.

By an act of congress passed at the beginning of the war, two million acres of land were to be selected in Michigan to be given as bounty lands to volunteers. Cass desired that these surveys should be quickly made, in order that at least a few settlers might make their homes in the Territory and introduce a larger American element on which, and with which, to work. This resulted disastrously. The President, assured by the commissioner of the land office that scarcely one acre in a thousand was fit for cultivation, advised congress in February, 1816, that the quota of bounty lands might better by located in other parts of the Northwest; in other words, the lands of Michigan in the southern peninsula were declared to be a barren waste. This adverse report was a serious handicap to the development of Michigan for many years.

General Cass was an undaunted pioneer and explorer. He traveled thousands of miles in a birch bark canoe and on horseback visiting Indian tribes, and at the same time discovered for himself the vast riches of this great undeveloped Territory. Before 1830 the alleged barren waste, Michigan, was actually exporting flour to the East, and there was an air of comfort on her borders and an appearance of thrift along her inland roads which spoke of the success of Governor Cass's efforts to attract eastern knowledge and energy. By the third census of the century, Michigan was shown to have over thirty thousand people, and to have just claims for speedy admittance as a state.

General Cass was thoroughly democratic, both in theory and practice. He was a Jeffersonian. He did not allocate to himself the functions of an autocrat, nor of a monarch. As rapidly as possible, he organized the Territory for self-government; like Lincoln, he wished the people to govern. He was an enthusiastic advocate of good roads. He encouraged education through the agency of schools and the newspaper. On November 16, 1826, Lewis Cass said in a speech at Detroit: "Whenever education is diffused among the people generally, they will appreciate the value of free institutions, and as they have the power, so must they have the will to maintain them. It appears to me that a plan may be devised that will not press too heavily upon the means of the country and which will ensure a competent portion of education to all the youth in the Territory; and I recommend the subject to your serious consideration.

Lewis Cass had extraordinary opportunities for studying the conduct of the civilized and the uncivilized. He was a lawyer and sociologist, and with his practical knowledge of human nature, exhibited what bordered on a prophetic vision of how coming civilization would treat crime. The following statement made by him in his message to the territorial council January 5, 1831, is profoundly significant:

In fact, the opinion gains ground through the civilized world, that human life has been too often sacrificed to unjust laws, which seek the death of the offender rather than his reformation. Governments have found it easy to put an end to transgression of offenders by putting an end to their lives; while the difficult problem, whose solution is equally required by policy and humanity, of uniting reformation, example and security, has been neglected as unimportant or unattainable. The period is probably not far distant when it will be universally acknowledged that all the just objects of human laws may be fully answered without the infliction of capital punishment.

Lewis Cass was a natural born leader of men. He never asked any man to do what he was afraid or unwilling to do himself. He co-operated with the federal government in all movements for progress and self-defense. He was a profound statesman and diplomat. In this age of steam, electricity, and iron we find it difficult to appreciate the heroic and constructive work of Lewis Cass.

The life of Lewis Cass is worthy of careful study. We gain inspiration and enthusiasm from knowing what great Americans have accomplished under the most adverse circumstances. Public men and citizens will find in the experience of this sturdy pioneer many of the concrete examples of the regenerating power of democracy. This so-called progressive age has not overshadowed Lewis Cass. I commend to economists, lawyers, teachers and political students the careful examination of this remarkable man's achievements. I feel so deeply the importance of this suggestion that my highest aspiration is to be guided by the ideals of this great man.

In behalf of this great commonwealth, I, Woodbridge N. Ferris, Governor of Michigan, accept this memorial tablet as a historical mark of love and esteem for one of our greatest constructive government builders. It is fitting that this tablet be placed upon Mackinac Island, one of Nature's choicest creations, an island whose historic associations are sacred, an island visited annually by people from every state in the union and by tourists from all parts of the world. May those who in the years to come pause to read the inscription on this tablet, be inspired with the patriotism that has lead American to recognize and maintain the inalienable rights of all men "to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."


At intervals during the reading, Governor Ferris commented informally on thoughts suggested by the paper. Speaking of Cass' democracy, he said:

The trouble in Europe is, they have not a sufficient amount of democracy; and the trouble in this country, so far as we have trouble, is along the same line. There is no getting around it.

I believe that America should be for Americans; that we should have the kind of courage that Cass had; and also, the kind of charity that Lincoln had. I so abhor and hate war, that I cannot feel like doing anything that might possibly encourage a disaster of such magnitude as we now have in Europe. When I think of the awful devastation of Europe, and of the awful slaughter of human lives, I shed no tear for the two millions of brave men who lie in eternal sleep; but my heart aches, as I pray for that charity and for that democracy, which can extend sympathy and love to the mothers of Europe whose hearts are crushed and bleeding.

I want to say to you that I love ever Finlander I have ever taught, every Russian I have ever taught, every German I have ever taught. We are such a mixture of all these nations, that we have no right to be either pro-German or pro-Ally. I love enthusiasm; but, with General Sherman, I hate war, whereby unborn generations, for thousands and thousands of years, must carry a needless burden. Better to chloroform the monarchs of Europe, and save the lives of these millions of men, and the heart-breakings of these millions of innocent women and children. The Stars and Stripes stand for something more than partisanship. God hasten the day when the influence of the Stars and Stripes shall be recognized throughout the world as the flag of humanity and brotherly love."

Source: "Speech at Lewis Cass Day." Fuller, George, ed. Michigan Historical Commission. Bulletins 1-11 (1913-1916), p. 38.