When the United States celebrates Washington’s Birthday each February, there’s a special significance for Mackinac Island. After all, it was during George Washington’s presidency that the British agreed to relinquish control of Fort Mackinac – more than a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War!
Although the federal holiday is still officially recognized only as “Washington’s Birthday,” over the years, the third Monday in February has become known popularly as Presidents’ Day. It’s recognized in between the birthdays of Washington and Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the country’s two most esteemed presidents. Turns out that Lincoln has an interesting connection to Mackinac Island, too.
It was in 1848 that Lincoln, then a congressman from Illinois, passed by Mackinac Island on his way home from the East Coast. Ironically, Lincoln had just come from a time of campaigning against Michigan’s own Lewis Cass, who later was memorialized with a monument on Mackinac Island!
Cass had been the Michigan Territory’s first governor and served as the government’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He negotiated many treaties with Native Americans that opened the door to settlement throughout Michigan. He even traveled to Mackinac Island in 1820 on an expedition to the Upper Peninsula. In 1848, Cass became the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.
For several days, Lincoln traveled around the northeast, making stump speeches in support of the Whig Party’s nominee, Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, and taking shots at Cass. Then he went across New York and boarded the Michigan-made S.S. Globe steamship in Buffalo.
Although there’s no evidence that Lincoln stopped on Mackinac Island – which at the time had not yet blossomed into the world-renowned tourist attraction that it is today — the ship went right through the Straits of Mackinac en route to Chicago.
Taylor and his running mate, Millard Fillmore, ended up winning the election that fall despite getting only 47 percent of the popular vote. They dominated the northeast part of the country where Lincoln had campaigned for them. Cass suffered from divisions within the Democratic Party over slavery. Many anti-slavery members of the party voted for former President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat who ran as a third-party candidate and effectively sabotaged the Cass campaign.
Lincoln, of course, later became president and led the country through the Civil War. As a result, he’s now honored each year on Presidents’ Day. Cass, on the other hand, never realized his presidential ambitions, although he did go on to serve in the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State. He remains the only candidate from Michigan other than President Gerald R. Ford to win electoral votes in a presidential election.
In 1915, a memorial to Cass was established on Mackinac Island, about 50 years after his death. The monument is on “Cass Cliff,” at the west end of Mackinac Island’s East Bluff near Fort Mackinac. It honors Cass as a teacher, lawyer, explorer, soldier, diplomat, and statesman who negotiated “just treaties” with Native Americans and secured Michigan’s “peaceful settlement and continued prosperity.”