Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation

By Willard Carl Klunder | Go to book overview
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Chapter One
Youth and Soldier (1782-1813): "I Saw the Constitution Born"

LEWIS CASS was nearly eighty years old in 1861, retired from politics and living quietly in Detroit, when he was visited by James Garfield, a young man destined to attain the presidential prize that so long eluded Cass. The Union was sundered, and the old Democrat looked back upon a happier time. Cass noted that his native New Hampshire had been the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, thereby giving the nation a new government. "It was a day of great rejoicing," he recounted. "My mother held me, a little boy of six years, in her arms at a window, and pointed me to the bonfires that were blazing in the streets of Exeter, and told me that the people were celebrating the adoption of the Constitution. So, ...I saw the Constitution born, and I fear I may see it die." Cass earnestly concluded he had "loved the Union ever since the light of that bonfire greeted my eyes. I have given fifty-five years of my life, and my best efforts, to its preservation."1

The constitutional Union to which Lewis Cass devoted his life did not exist when he was born in Exeter on October 9, 1782, the first of six children of Jonathan and Mary Gilman Cass. Both parents traced their New England ancestry back more than a century. John Cass arrived in America around 1640 and married Martha Philbrick; together they raised nine children on a two-hundred-acre New Hampshire farm formerly owned by the Reverend John Wheelwright. John served frequently as a selectman, initiating a family tradition of political service. Another such

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