Michigan Governors, Michigan Also-Rans, and the Constitution: Cass and Chandler

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was signed in Philadelphia. Lewis Cass was five years old.

Cass, of course, would become one of the most influential politicians in Michigan history: Governor of the Northwest Territory from 1813 to 1831, Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, U.S. Senator and unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States. (He lost to Zachary Taylor — namesake of Taylor, Michigan — in the election of 1848.)

His expansive career began during the War of 1812. He resigned his last political post in 1860 and lived to see the end of the Civil War. And it makes sense to think about Cass today, on the anniversary of the Constitution, since the good General dedicated much of his life to protecting the Constitution — and the Union it created.

It’s also a good day to talk about Michigan Also-Ran Zachariah Chandler. He was never Governor — he lost his only bid for the seat to Robert McClelland in 1852. But Chandler was in some ways the heir to Michigan’s national influence, which General Cass established. Born in New England in 1813 — the year President Madison appointed General Cass governor of the Territory — Chandler successfully established a few business enterprises and grew a small personal fortune before stepping into the political sphere to run for Mayor of Detroit in 1851.

Cass and Chandler were so different for so many reasons. In Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May sum it up like so:

Where Cass was a well-read, almost intellectual man, who made long, carefully thought-out, if often dull, statements of his views on issues, Chandler was a poorly-educated man, given to off-the-cuff, often crudely phrased statements. Rather than being a rational debater of the merits of an issue, his reactions were more those of a street fighter, and he sometimes resorted to physical tactics to clarify his points.

Zachariah Chandler was a self-described radical and an uncompromising anti-slavery activist who personally contributed to the Underground Railroad in Detroit. Lewis Cass was a moderate who believed in making every necessary compromise, even on the slavery question, to protect the integrity of the Union. Writes Willard Carl Klunder, author of the biography Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation:

Cass … in truth, was an accommodating constitutionalist, who evolved into a northern apologist for the peculiar institution. Slavery was a political question to him, not a moral one; disunion was a greater evil than the continuation of black bondage.

Chandler, too, was a stalwart defender of the Constitution. But the injustice of slavery, and the threat that injustice posed to the Constitution’s viability, preceded the importance of holding the Union together. In a speech in Kalamazoo in 1856, he said:

The Republicans of Michigan stand by the constitution, and when their defamers proclaim that they are a disunion party, as they do so often, they publish what they know to be a falsehood. We are determined to stand by the constitution in all its parts, and more than that, to make our adversaries stand by it in all and every part.

Our opponents have ignored this constitution with but a single exception. And what is that exception? It is the key to their character and their principles. In this whole instrument, they acknowledge but one clause, and that is the right to reclaim fugitive slaves from their hard-earned freedom.

We intend to make our opponents stand by this clause: The citizens of each State shall be entitled to the privileges of all the States. But how is this at present on the Missouri? The citizens of Massachusetts, of New Jersey, of Pennsylvania or of Michigan, if they but presume to enter Kansas, are sent back with a guard or murdered in cold blood, while the citizens of the South are aided on their way to plant in that beautiful territory the accursed blight of slavery. We will make them stand by the constitution in all its parts, or by the Eternal, we will have a different state of things here.

“I saw the Constitution born, and I fear I may see it die,” Cass wrote on the eve of the Civil War. Chandler saw things differently.

“Without a little blood-letting,” Chandler famously wrote in a letter to Abraham Lincoln Michigan Governor Austin Blair, “this Union will not, in my estimation, be worth a rush.”

Let’s just say I’m a newcomer to the biographies of these remarkable men, both of whom command volumes. But I’ve thought about them a lot this week as Constitution Day approached. They were at odds intellectually, generationally, and in their perspective on the country, partisan politics, and the moral universe. How could two men so committed to protecting the Constitution so wildly disagree? And isn’t that what makes the Constitution so grand? Its vitality as a document, as law, and as our democratic legacy?

Again from Willard Klunder’s biography:

The attack on Fort Sumter galvanized the old warrior, and Cass enthusiastically addressed several recruitment rallies. On April 17, he and Zachariah Chandler appeared arm in arm at the Board of Trade in Detroit. They were “greeted by cheer after cheer,” demonstrating republican sentiment in Michigan transcended political partisanship. Cass fervently proclaimed: “I come to do honor to that beautiful flag … My only hope is that I may die under it, with its stars and stripes still unsullied.”

I think it’s something wonderful that the two sculptures representing Michigan in the U.S. Capitol Building are of General Lewis Cass and Zachariah Chandler. I hear they’re taking Chandler down soon and replacing him with Gerald Ford. The poetry totally dies with that decision, but I guess it’s Gerald Ford. What can you do about Gerald Ford?

Chandler and Cass are both buried in Elmwood. Pictures, you ask? Oh, okay:

The General.

Detail from the Cass monument — the state crest. Love those deer.

Doesn’t look like much, does it? Wait — look up.


No, seriously. OMG.

More Michigan Governors coming soon!

#elmwood#general lewis cass#michigan governors#zachariah chandler