Why does Michigan honor a slave-holding senator, while forgetting a senator who fought slavery?

U.S. Senator Lewis Cass, slaveholder celebrated today with statues and schools named after him.

During the mid-19th century, two Michigan U.S. Senators were prominent in America's struggle with slavery. One was a slave owner and the leading spokesman for the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which held that the people of American territories should be entitled to decide whether to permit slavery, including in the Northwest Territory where slavery was prohibited.  

The other senator worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln in drafting and passing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and in drafting the 14th Amendment, that is today's constitutional foundation for protecting African Americans against racial discrimination by state and local governments.

John Mogk is a law professor at Wayne State University.

Unjustly and ironically in Detroit, a city predominantly African-American, the slave owning senator who also endorsed slavery in the territories enjoys a place of honor in the city and in Michigan history, while the senator who fought slavery is long dead, buried in Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery, and forgotten, even by Michigan historians.

In her New York Times article last September, “The South Doesn't Own Slavery,” Professor Tiya Miles of the University of Michigan shined a light on the slave ownership of Lewis Cass (1782-1866) and the sale of his slave named Sally to a member of the Macomb family, as reported by his biographer, Willard Carl Klunder.  

Cass is remembered today in many ways. His statue stands with President Gerald Ford as one of only two in the U.S Capitol from Michigan. Detroit's leading technical high school and football powerhouse (Cass Tech) bears his name as does one of the city's prominent streets. Detroit's island park in the center of the Detroit River is named after his daughter, Belle.

Prominent government positions held by Cass are numerable. He was the appointed governor of the Michigan Territory, served in the cabinets of two presidents and was a candidate for the U.S. presidency, in addition to serving in the U.S. Senate. As secretary of war in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson, he help implement Jackson's policy of "Indian removal" along a "trail of tears," with many of the 125,000 Native Americans removed not surviving the march west from their southeastern tribal lands.

In contrast, Jacob Howard (1805-1871) who owned no slaves and devoted his political career to opposing slavery is buried in Elmwood Cemetery and long forgotten.  

Ironically, Howard too had an impressive political career. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, as Michigan attorney general and helped draw up the platform for the first Republican Convention held in Jackson, Michigan. As senator, in addition to his civil rights advocacy for slaves and all Americans, he was the chief sponsor of the False Claims Act, the "Lincoln Law" which permitted whistleblowers to file lawsuits against government contractors for the widespread fraud that existed at the time, with the incentive of receiving  monetary rewards based on the recovery made by the federal government.

The nation is reassessing the honors bestowed upon early Americans who sought to suppress human rights with their names and statues being removed from public places. Lewis Cass deserves to be re-examined in this light.

Should he be one of two Michigan figures representing the best of the state's leadership in our nation's capitol, or honored on the city's public buildings? More importantly, however, let's give special recognition to leaders who helped secure America's inalienable rights, such as Michigan U.S. Senator Jacob Howard.

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Thu, 02/01/2018 - 9:17am

This shows the selective memory and the irony of the Democratic Party.

Robert C. Byrd - was the longest-serving senator and the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress - adorns at least 55 buildings and public works projects. That includes two federal courthouses. Moreover, the West Virginia Capitol features a statue of Byrd.

Byrd was an unrepentant organizer of the Ku Klux Klan, which lives on as a deadly racist hate group. Byrd recruited 150 members into a new chapter he ran as the “Exalted Cyclops” in the 1940s.

Twenty years later, Byrd filibustered the Civil Rights Act. Almost 40 years after that, Byrd told Fox News Sunday our country’s race problems are “largely behind us,” we “talk too much about race,” and then he repeatedly used the N-word on national TV.

So, while we're on the topic:


David Waymire
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:35am

Yep. Byrd was a conservative. And as you know, as the Democratic party saw the light on racial issues under President Johnson, the conservatives left the party and became Republicans. Now it's the Republican party that represents conservatives who seek to ignore racial injustice...as when President Trump accepted the endorsement of David Duke without a qualm. Thanks for reminding us of the legacy of conservatism on this matter, and bringing us up to date.

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:39pm

To claim Byrd was a conservative (utterly laughable) and that some great enlightenment happened within the Democratic party is revisionist history and dangerous spin. Al Gore Sr., a profound member of the Democratic Party, stood side-by-side with Bryd attempting to filibuster the passage of the Civil Rights Act of '68!
And to claim today's conservatives are somehow yesterday's Democrat's is fanciful conjecture, laden with ridiculous hyperbole.
It's commentary, like yours, that have driven the average American AWAY from today's Democratic party.
With more than 1000 state seats lost over the last decade, and with Republicans controlling 34 governorships, the Democrats are in dire straits - not to mention their dangerous financial state of the national party (http://docquery.fec.gov/cgi-bin/forms/C00010603/1202494/).
So please, keep denying the obvious that the former party of the everyday working man has become an anti-American, international open-borders, socialist/marxist political movement.

Brian D Gray
Thu, 08/16/2018 - 12:14pm

and yet the democratic candidate in 2016 got almost 3,000,000 more votes then her opponent only the electoral college saved Donald Trump. It was no wave election either since Democrats picked up 2 senate seats and 7-8 house seats. Oh let's not forget special senate election in Alabama just a while back...

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 9:56am

This is a wonderful article. It not only points out the problems with the focus on Lewis Cass but makes a good suggestion of someone to replace him in the US Capitol.

John Sanford
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:11am

Prof. Mogk, this is the second time you have had a profound impact on my life. The first being in 1972 when I had the pleasure of seeing your class being educated on the laws of the property. The second being the reading of this article, which has significant meaning, as I sat in what is call "The Garden Level" Of the Lewis Cass Building in Lansing Michigan. The information that you have provided concerning who is Lewis Cass is outstanding. Thank you for this information. At the present time, I am the Director Of the Office of Recipient Rights for the department of Health and Human Services. Lewis Cass Building has been our home for over 30 years. Your article today has truly provided meaningful contacts to our office location. Thank you Prof. Mogk for your great insight.

Mary Pollock
Sat, 02/03/2018 - 2:26pm

We need to rename the Lewis Cass Building, don't you think?

Carolyn Martin
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:22am

I am so disappointed with this article. I am deeply saddened by the need of today’s society to judge by todays laws and standards, those who lived in a different time, under a different set of laws, and under different moral codes. Lewis Cass is not honored here in Michigan because he was a slave owner. He is honored for all he achieved for the state of Michigan and his service to these United States of America. My take on this story is that it was written for the sole purpose of discrediting one of our honored forefather’s character. It is a shameful and unfair attempt at character assassination. I have come to expect so much more from the Bridge.

Stan Winstead
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 12:49pm

It's a guest column: "Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan."

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:46pm

Just because the Bridge promotes and welcomes guest columns "from a diverse range of people" doesn't mean the editorial board or publisher does not silently agree with the content of the article.

As Carolyn eloquently pointed out, "the need of today’s society to judge by todays laws and standards, those who lived in a different time, under a different set of laws, and under different moral codes."

Her analysis is both spot on and brilliantly stated.

Catherine Daligga
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 12:42am

Cass and Howard were near-contemporaries. Abolitionists were very active during the later years of Cass’s life. He made the choices he did at a time when others chose otherwise. There’s no serious misrepresentation of the historical context of his actions here.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 11:31am

I don't know that right and wrong have changed all that much over the years.

Cindy M.
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 4:05pm

Being honorable should not be relative to time and place. Please refer to your notes on Abraham Lincoln.

Mr Conservative
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 11:13am

This is a good article but it appears to me the writer is doing the same thing they did back then. Obviously, back then, they favored THE DEMOCRAT Cass, by putting up statues and honoring him all over the place. HOWEVER, the writer in this article NEVER MENTIONS that this guy was a DEMOCRAT. I mean it was nice that the writer mentioned the GOOD GUY in this was a Republican so why not state the bad guy is a DEMOCRAT? People should know the BAD GUYS of yester-year are still the BAD GUYS today.

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:47pm


Cindy M.
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 4:08pm

Politicians are the least among us who should be honored. I would rather we honor a beloved educator, a scientist, or an inventor. Women have been purged as inventors and leaders since forever. Their names are never heard or seen. Perhaps we should change over to those more deserving.

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 12:29pm

Well, he may be worthy of recognition, however, by bringing this to light, you just may be responsible for indicting more civil unrest within our state. We'll have you to thank when riots begin and people are tearing down statues in our state. Good thinking about our future and about all of us putting things behind us and trying to get along. Just add more negativity to the mix. Just what we all need.

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 4:09pm

Good one, McDreamy! Really. Let's get positive, people. Don't go looking for the bad.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 3:00pm

An interesting side-note to the piece above.

As mentioned above, Sen. Howard was instrumental in the passage of the 14th Amendment, which sadly and unfortunately was "creatively interpreted" to allow anchor babies (or "jackpot" babies...take your pick), here in the US causing a substantial drain on state and federal budgets.

What is rarely mentioned in history is what Sen. Howard thought of that very possibility when this was being debated.

Here is what Sen. Howard had to say about that:

"This will not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the Government of the United States, but will include every other class of persons.”


What I was taught was that if there was any question on what something actually meant, the best course of action was to go to the source material itself.

John Saari
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 7:19am

We must continue to stream line our government. This comes from a transparent, responsive(democratic), participatory government.

Cindy M.
Sun, 02/04/2018 - 4:03pm

Lewis Cass named should be deleted everywhere, including Cass County and Cassopolis.