LETTER TO THE EDITOR: When we know better, we do better

Published 12:30 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2020

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I believe it was in Mrs. Marie Gillette’s fourth-grade class at Justus Gage I first heard of Lewis Cass. Until just recently, I mistakenly recalled that he was Michigan’s first governor. Now I know that distinction belongs to Stephens Mason. I don’t recall learning any other details about Cass, especially nothing derogatory. When we know better, we do better.

Willard Carl Klunder, Cass’ biographer, reported that in 1818, Cass negotiated the sale of his slave, named Sally, to a member of the Macomb family. As a senator in the 1850s, he was also a proponent of popular sovereignty, which allowed residents of territories to decide if they would allow slavery or not. While Cass may have hoped that this position would help avoid a civil war, it does not sound like an anti-slavery position to me. In fact, it ended the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and was a major boost for the expansion of slavery.

Cass became Jackson’s Secretary of War in 1831 and oversaw the Indian Removal policy, force marching approximately 60,000 indigenous people west of the Mississippi River and resulting in the death of about one-third of those persons on the Trail of Tears.

Many places in Michigan, and no doubt other states as well, are named for people who were well known when those territories were admitted to the Union. We continue to do the same when we name college buildings and city streets after well-known locals. We now have the advantage of hindsight.

Do we begin to grapple with a fuller and deeper reading of our history and perhaps begin to recognize some different important historical figures? Our past does not change, but we need to learn from it and re-evalutate those individuals we choose to honor.

When we know better, we do better.