MICHIGAN TRAILS
GENEALOGY and HISTORY
 

Robert McClelland
Governor (1852 - 1853)

Hon. Robert McClelland of Detroit, Michigan, was born at Greencastle, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, August 2, 1807. Among his ancestors were several officers of rank in the Revolutionary War, and some of his family connections distinguished themselves in the War of 1812, and in that with Mexico. HIs father was an eminent physician and surgeon, who studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush, of Philadelphia, and practiced his profession successfully until six months before his death, at the age of eighty-four years. Although the family of Mr. McClelland had been in good circumstances, when he was seventeen years old he was thrown upon his own resources. After taking the usual preliminary studies, and teaching school to obtain the means, he entered Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated, among the first in his class, in 1829.  He then resumed teaching, and, having completed the course of study for the legal profession, was admitted to the bar at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1831. Soon afterwards, he removed to the city of Pittsburg, where he practiced for almost a year. In 1833 he removed to Monroe, in the Territory of Michigan; where, after a severe examination, he became a member of the bar of Michigan, and engaged in practice, with bright prospects of success. In 1835 a convention was called to frame a constitution for the proposed State of Michigan, of which Mr. McClelland was elected a member. He took a prominent part in its deliberations, and ranked among its ablest debaters. He was appointed the first Bank Commissioner of the State, by Governor Mason, and received an offer of Attorney-Generalship, but declined both of these offices, in order to attend to his professional duties. In 1838 he was elected to the State Legislature, in which he soon became distinguished as the head of several important committees; Speaker, pro temporc; and as an active, zealous, and efficient member.

In 1840 General Harrison, as candidate for the Presidency, swept the country by an overwhelming majority, and, at the same time, the State of Michigan was carried by the Whigs, under the popular cry of "Woodbridge and reform," against the Democratic party. At this time, Mr. McClelland stood among the acknowledged leaders of the latter organization; was elected a member of the State House of Representatives; and, with others, adopted a plan to regain a lost authority and prestige. This party soon came again into power in the State; and, having been returned to the State Legislature, Mr. McClelland's leadership was acknowledged by his election as Speaker of the House of Representatives, in 1843. Down to this time, Michigan had constituted on Congressional District. The late Hon. Jacob M. Howard had been elected to Congress, against Hon. Alpheus Felch, by a strong majority of about two thousand five hundred. Mr. McClelland soon took a prominent position in Congress among the veterans of that body. During his first term, he was placed on the Committee on Commerce, and originated and carried through what was known as the "harbor bills." The continued confidence of his constituency was manifested in this election to the Twenty-ninth Congress. At the opening of the session, he had acquired a national reputation; and so favorably was he known as a parliamentarian, that his name was mentioned for Speaker of the House of Representatives. He declined the office in favor of Hon. John W. Davis, of Indiana, who was elected. During this term, he became Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, in which position his reports and advocacy of important measures at once attracted public attention.

The members of this committee, as an evidence of the esteem in which they held his services, and of personal regard for him, presented him with a beautiful cane, which he retains as a souvenir of the donors, and of his labors in Congress. In 1847 he was re-elected, and, at the opening of the Thirtieth Congress, became a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations. While acting in this capacity, what was known as the "French Spoliation Bill" came under his special charge, and his management of the same was such as to command universal approbation. While in Congress, Mr. McClelland was an advocate of the right of petition, as maintained by John Quincy Adams, when the petition was couched in decorous language and presented in a proper manner. This he regarded as the citizen's constitutional right, which should not be impaired by any doctrines of temporary expediency. He also voted for the reception of Mr. Giddings' bill for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Mr. McClelland was one of the few Democratic associates, about eighteen in number, of David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, in brining forward the celebrated "Wilmot Proviso," with a view to prevent the further extension of slavery in new territory which might be acquired by the United States. He and Mr. Wilmot were together at the time in Washington, and on intimate and confidential terms. Mr. McClelland was in several national conventions, and in the Baltimore Convention which nominated General Cass for the Presidency in 1848, doing valiant service that year for the election of that distinguished statesman. On leaving Congress in 849, Mr. McClelland returned to the practice of his profession in Monroe. In 1850 a convention of the State of Michigan was called to revise the State Constitution. He was elected a member, and was regarded therein as among the ablest and most experienced leaders. His clear judgment and wise moderation were conspicuous, both in the committee-room and on the floor in debate.

In 1850 he was President of the Democratic State Convention, which adopted resolutions in support of Henry Clay's famous compromise measures, of which Mr. McClelland was a strong advocate. He was a member of the Democratic National Convention in 1852; and, in that year, in company with General Cass and Governor Felch, he made a thorough canvass of the State. He continued earnestly to advocate the Clay compromise measures, and took an active part in the canvass which resulted in the election of General Pierce to the Presidency. In 1851 the new State Constitution took effect; and it was necessary that a Governor should be elected for one year, in order to prevent an interregnum, and to bring the State government into operation under the new constitution. Mr. McClelland was elected Governor; and, in the fall of 1852, was re-elected for a term of two years from January 1, 1853. His administration was regarded as wise, prudent, and conciliatory; and was as popular as could be expected at a time when party spirit ran high. There was really no opposition; and, when he resigned in March, 1853, the State Treasury was well filled, and the State otherwise prosperous. So widely and favorably had Mr. McClelland become known as a statesman, that, on the organization of the Cabinet by President Pierce, in March, 1853, he was made Secretary of the Interior, in which capacity he served most creditably during fours years of the Pierce administration. He thoroughly reorganized his department, and reduced the expenditures. He adopted a course with the Indians which relieved them from the impositions and annoyances of the traders, and produced harmony and civilization among them. During his administration, there was neither complaint from the tribes, nor corruption among agents; and he left the department in perfect order and system. In 1867 Michigan again called a convention to revise the State Constitution.

Mr. McClelland was a member, and here again his long experience made him conspicuous as a prudent advisor and a sagacious parliamentary leader. As a lawyer, he was terse and pointed in argument; clear, candid, and impressive in his addresses to juries. His sincerity and earnestness, in which was occasionally mingled a pleasant humor, made him an able and effective advocate. In speaking before the people on political subjects, he was especially forcible and happy. In 1870 he made the tour of Europe; which, through his extensive personal acquaintance with European diplomatists, he was able to enjoy much more than most travelers. He warred, in 1837, Miss Sarah E. Sabin, of Williamstown, Massachusetts. They have had six children, -- two of whom now survive.

American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men with Portrait Illustrations on Steel, Vol. i-ii 1878

Hon. Robert McClelland, who was for many years one of the foremost figures in Michigan and national politics, and an acknowledged Democratic leader of the conservative type, died at his late residence in this city, 414 Jefferson avenue, at ten minutes after 10 o'clock last night.

With Gov. McClelland passed away almost the last of the Democratic statesmen of Michigan who rose to eminence in the height of their careers; and the small handful of his contemporaries yet remaining, like him, long since retired from active participation in public affairs. Since the Constitutional Convention of 1867 he has not undertaken any official burden, but passed his declining years in his office, and at home, very retired, very methodical, and with the ever-present consciousness that his end of life was fast approaching. He had lived long, received high honors, enjoyed the unreserved confidence and the warm esteem of his fellow citizens, and was content to "drift adown the vale" until the eternal horizon rose to view. HIs death was caused by apoplexy, the third stroke of which within a few years he suffered shortly after noon on Saturday. He lay unconscious during the remaining hours of his life, and passed away so calmly and with such absence of the struggle that usually accompanies dissolution as to leave his attendants some minutes in ignorance that his Supreme hour had passed.

Robert McClelland was born at Greencastle, Franklin Co., Pa., August 1, 1807, and was therefore a little more than 73 years old. He was graduated from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., in 1829, and was admitted to the bar at Chambersburg, Pa., in 1831. He practiced his profession in Pittsburgh about a year, and some time in 1833 he removed to Monroe, Mich., and settled down to the earnest business of life. He very soon took prominent place in the public councils, and in  1835 the people elected him a member of hte Constitutional Convention, in which he took front rank as a debater and a sagacious man of affairs. Gov. Mason also selected him to serve as Bank Commissioner and subsequently as Attorney-General, but he did not accept the offices, chiefly because he preferred to address himself to his profession. In 1838, however, he consented to serve in the State Legislature. Of that period of his career a published biography no extant has the following:

"In 1840, Gen. Harrison, as  candidate for the Presidency, swept the country by an overwhelming majority, and at the same time the State of Michigan was carried by the Whigs under the popular cry of 'Woodbridge and Reform.'  At this time Mr. McClelland stood among the acknowledged leaders of the Democratic party; was elected a member of the State House of Representatives; and with others adopted a plan to regain a lost authority and prestige. The Democratic party soon came into power again in the State, and having been returned to the Legislature, Mr. McClelland's leadership was acknowledged by his election as Speaker of the House in 1843, in which year he was also elected to the National Congress by a majority of about 2,500."

His career in the latter body is a part of the history of the country with which all are familiar. He rendered very important services as a member of the Committee on Commerce, and was the father of the beneficent harbor bills. He was re-elected to the Twenty-ninth Congress, at the opening of which he had achieved a national reputation, and was asked to take the position of Speaker of the House, which intended honor he declined. His advocacy of the Wilmot proviso, his firm stand on the right-of-petition question, and his unequivocal attitude towards the "French Spoliation bill" are conspicuous milestones in his public career. He was a member of several National Democratic Conventions, and was very marked in that of 1848, which nominated Gen. Cass for the Presidency. He retired from Congress in 1849, and in 1850 was again chosen to the convention called to revise the Constitution of Michigan. That same year he presided over the Democratic State Convention at which were adopted the famous resolutions supporting the compromise measures of the fiery Harry of the West. He was elected Governor of Michigan for the interregnum caused by the adoption of the new Constitution in 1851, and in the autumn of 1852 he was re-elected, this time for two years. In March, 1853, he resigned the Executive office and President Piece called him into his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior.  HIs administration was notably free from corruptions and he left the department in perfect order and system. In 1867 he again took part in a Michigan Constitutional Convention, and three years later he made a tour or Europe, on his return from which he ensconced himself in a quiet corner of life and watched the tide go by, not without keen interest, but in the serene spirit of one who felt that he had finished his stint.

His widow and two married daughters -- Mrs. George N. Brady and Mrs. Benjamin D. Greene -- survive him.

published in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 31 Aug 1880

 

 

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