General Lewis Cass: History & Biography

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Lewis Cass was an American general in the War of 1812 and a Democratic politician who ran for president and lost in 1848. He was also a Senator from Michigan, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.


Throughout American history, numerous military leaders have gone on to pursue a career in politics. Several of these men have gone on to become presidents. One military leader who tried to become president but failed was General Lewis Cass.

War of 1812

Born in 1782, Lewis Cass was a native of New Hampshire. In 1801, he moved with his family to Ohio. In Ohio, Cass became a Mason, and quickly took numerous important leadership roles in the organization. He had a privileged education in New Hampshire, which served him well early in his career. In 1812, when the War of 1812 began, Cass became a colonel of volunteer soldiers. Early in the war, Cass led a regiment of Ohio militia under the command of General William Hull. Cass was present at Detroit when Hull's American force was forced to surrender to the British and Native American army laying siege to their position. Cass and his men were ultimately paroled and continued on in the war. Cass was present at the Battle of the Thames in modern day Ontario, when United States forces under the command of William Henry Harrison defeated British troops and Indian warriors. Because of his contributions during the War of 1812, Cass rose to the rank of Major General of Ohio Militia and Brigadier General in the regular army.

Michigan Territory

Also, as thanks for his service and contributions, Cass was made the Governor of the Michigan Territory in 1813. He held this post for numerous years, despite having several absences during which a temporary placeholder was needed. As the governor of the Michigan Territory, Cass had his first political post. He negotiated numerous treaties with Native Americans. Cass remained in this position until he became the Secretary of War for President Andrew Jackson. Because of his history in dealing with Native Americans as both a general in the War of 1812 and a territorial governor in Michigan, Cass was a central player in Jackson's Indian Removal policies, forcing Native Americans to leave their lands in the east, specifically in Georgia, and move west to new territories. Cass was a loyal Jackson Democrat, and was rewarded with an appointment as the Minister to France in 1836.

Lewis Cass

Presidential Nominee

After several years in France, Cass had gained international political experience. When he returned to the United States in 1842, he became a leading figure in the Democratic Party, almost garnering the party's presidential nomination in 1844. Instead, the nod went to James Polk, who became president and expanded U.S. territory and started the Mexican War. Polk only wanted to serve one term, and thus in 1848 a new nominee was needed for the Democrats.

After his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in 1844, Cass became a U.S. Senator from Michigan. In 1848, however, he left his Senate seat and won the Democratic nomination for president. Cass's positions in 1848 were popular throughout the South. He was very favorable on the institution of slavery, something particularly noteworthy considering his northern roots.

The 1848 campaign was one featuring two generals: Cass was a War of 1812 general, and his opponent, Zachary Taylor, was a prominent war hero from the recent Mexican War. Taylor's prominence in the recent war was too much for Cass to overcome. The American victory in Mexico was fresh on the nation's mind, and Cass and the Democrats struggled to overcome Taylor's popularity, even though Taylor was very vague on his political positions. Cass's years of political experience were no match, and Taylor won the election that year.

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