Cass was born October 9, 1782 in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. His parents were Major Jonathan Cass and Molly Gilman. On May 26, 1806, he married the former Elizabeth Spencer.
During the War of 1812, Cass served as a brigadier general and participated in the Battle of the Thames. As a reward for his service, he was appointed Governor of the Michigan Territory by President James Madison.
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