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Michigan Democrats want Cass statue replaced in U.S. Capitol

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Democrats in Congress want to see the statue of Lewis Cass in the U.S. Capitol replaced, saying the statues on display “should represent the best of our state.”

Cass, the second territorial governor of Michigan, oversaw the forced removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their lands as secretary of war under President Andrew Jackson. As a U.S. senator, he promoted the doctrine of popular sovereignty, suggesting white settlers in new territories should vote on whether to expand slavery.

The marble statue of his likeness has a prominent place in National Statuary Hall in the Capitol. The state of Michigan gave the statue to the collection in 1889.

“As Michiganders, we respect our state’s history while acknowledging that our past has many painful chapters. We owe it to ourselves, and future generations, to constantly pursue a more inclusive society, where all Michiganders feel welcome and respected,” the nine Democratic lawmakers said in a joint statement.

“Our state Legislature should act to replace the statue of Lewis Cass.”

The marble statue of Lewis Cass on display in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall was donated by the state of Michigan in 1889.

The proposal by Michigan's two U.S. senators and seven Democratic U.S. House members to remove Cass' statue comes amid renewed calls from activists to take down monuments to white supremacists in multiple cities. The nation is confronting its racist history in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, last month said she wants to remove 11 Confederate statues from the halls of Congress.

Cass, who lived from 1782 to 1866, was not part of the Confederacy but is thought to have owned at least one slave. Experts point to a printed bill of sale for a runaway slave in his papers at the University of Michigan's Clements Library.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday ordered the removal of Cass’ name from the state building in Lansing named for him, with her office noting he "defended a system that would permit the expansion of slavery" and carried out the removal of native communities from their lands.

Whitmer would approve swapping out the Cass statue in the U.S. Capitol with “a fitting replacement if the Legislature is willing to act," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

The change must be initiated by a resolution passed by the state Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, with the replacement statue funded by the state.

Representatives for state GOP leaders — Senate Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering — did not respond to the idea when contacted by The Detroit News in recent days.

Who would replace Cass?

Two statues are allotted to each state in the collection in Statuary Hall, which is the original House chamber. The other representing Michigan in the Capitol is President Gerald Ford, dedicated in 2011. 

It's unclear who would potentially replace Cass, but the names of former U.S. Rep. John DingellSupreme Court Justice Frank Murphy and abolitionist Sojourner Truth have been floated. 

A statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, dedicated in 2013, also sits in Statuary Hall but does not represent Michigan, though she served as an aide to former Detroit U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, for years. 

In non-pandemic times, the hall is a popular spot for school groups and Capitol tours, which are currently suspended due to the coronavirus. 

"Even just having Cass in the same room as Rosa Parks kinda takes your breath away," said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

"My son when he walks into these rooms, he'll point and ask, 'Who was that?' And it's really hard to explain why is there a statue of someone who was hurting people." 

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown, would like to see Cass replaced by a statue of federal appeals court Judge Damon Keith, Parks or John Dingell — the late Dearborn Democrat who is the longest-serving member of Congress. 

"He was such a giant in Michigan politics — someone who fought for civil rights and was a hero to many people, especially working people," said Camilleri, who started his political career interning for Dingell. 

"We just should have a really serious conversation about who we want to represent our values." 

But Camilleri said he is not hopeful that state Republican lawmakers will move to replace Cass because President Donald Trump has made federal monuments and statues a political "wedge" issue.

Trump condemned the removal and vandalism of Confederate statues amid recent protests. The president also said removing statues of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson is "not going to happen" on his watch. 

"We will try, though, because I think this is something that should transcend party," Camilleri saidabout the Cass statue. "It's the right thing to do."

Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, whose district includes Cass City, said the choice is up to state lawmakers and the governor if they want to replace the Cass statue, but he would "absolutely" support them if they decide to install someone "more fitting of the principles of our state."

"Based on what I’ve read, what Lewis Cass advocated for offends me," said Mitchell, one of two GOP lawmakers who voted in committee Wednesday to rename military bases named for Confederate leaders.

"Unfortunately, he’s not the only statue at the Capitol that, if you look at the history, would offend you or me or other Americans. Because some of our history isn’t pretty."

Given the fiscal and other challenges the state is facing amid the pandemic, Mitchell doubted negotiations over a statue would rise to the top of the list.

Lewis Cass was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory by President James Madison in 1813 and served until 1831. He wanted to "Americanize" the French settlement in Detroit, fearing that Michigan would remain on the fringe of the U.S., separated like Quebec was from English-speaking Canada.

A look at the Cass legacy

Born in New Hampshire, Cass served in the state Legislature in Ohio, fought in the War of 1812 and was appointed governor of the Michigan territory at age 31 by President James Madison. 

He later served in Jackson's cabinet, then as minister to France, was the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1848, then became secretary of state under President James Buchanan.

Michigan native Erica Flock, who grew up near Cass Lake in Waterford, said she didn't give much thought to all the things named for Cass in Michigan until reading the 1991 book "Rites of Conquest" by anthropologist Charles Cleland.

"I learned what a villain Lewis Cass was and how he manipulated treaty negotiations with bribes, intimidation, threats of violence to get indigenous people off the land they'd occupied for thousands of years," said Flock, who now lives in Washington. 

"It’s wrong that Michigan chooses to represent itself in the Capitol with a man who stole land from indigenous people and championed slavery." 

Flock said she'd like to see a woman of color replace Cass in Statuary Hall.

"There’s an opportunity to celebrate people that we want to reflect who we are now and who we want to be in the future. I don’t think we should be represented by this person," she said.

"People in Congress have to come up for a vote every two years. How long has Cass been ‘serving’ in Congress, even though he is a statue? People have regular opportunity to voice who they want to represent them, and he’s been collecting dust there for a long, long time." 

Allison Harnish, a cultural anthropologist at Albion College, began researching Cass after moving to Michigan and wondering about all the signs and institutions named for him, from Cass County to the Cass Corridor in Detroit.

She was troubled by what she found. As part of an "aggressive" policy of forced migration of tribes to west of the Mississippi River, Cass "weaponized" the smallpox vaccine, selectively offering vaccine protection on a limited basis to tribes the government wanted to relocate, Harnish said. 

Tribes that were less cooperative with relocation such as the Mandan were not given access to the vaccine, resulting in the loss of 90% of the Mandan tribe, she said. 

As secretary of state, Cass refused to grant a passport to black abolitionist John S. Rock to travel to Europe based on the Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott that Black people were not U.S. citizens, Harnish said. 

For his role in presenting the doctrine of popular sovereignty, a generous reading of his record would suggest Cass was trying to find a middle ground between the North and the South, and that popular sovereignty was part of a "failed compromise strategy," she said. 

"At its core, however, that strategy was racist. It was empowering one group of people with the decision of whether or not they should be allowed to own and exploit another group of people," Harnish said.

"If we want to be nice to Cass, we could say he was a product of his time. But that expression can feel a little lazy," she added. 

"We are all products of our time. And that phrasing seems to imply everyone at that particular time was of a similar opinion and, of course, we know that wasn’t the case."