In praise of Michiganders

Mar 18, 2014

You may have wondered, especially if you didn’t grow up in this state, why some of us call ourselves Michiganians and some  Michiganders. Yesterday I heard from one gentleman who has strong feelings on the topic. He hates the term Michigander.

He wrote to me, “Michigan Radio disserves the listeners every single time it utilizes the term Michigander. Regardless of the result of a recent popular opinion poll, the usage is just plain wrong.”

He added that “Michigander is a derogatory term imposed on us,” by a freshman congressman from Illinois way-back-when.

Well, it is always good to think about words and what they mean. But in this case, I have to profoundly disagree.

I am a Michigander, I have always been a Michigander, and intend to always be one. And that’s because this is a word that is not only unique, but which has a rich history.

Yes, it was indeed coined by a new congressman – but one named Abraham Lincoln. Nor was he disrespecting us as a state. He was poking gentle fun back in 1848 at a political opponent, Lewis Cass, who was pretty much the political godfather of Michigan.

Cass was the Democratic nominee for president that year; Lincoln was a Whig. They disagreed on the Mexican War; Cass supported it, Lincoln did not. Though we today think of Lincoln as a marble statue, in his own time, he was famous for a sharp and sometimes biting sense of humor, and in a debate over the war, Lincoln said of Cass, “and there he sits, the great Michigander.”

By the way, it wasn’t lost on anybody that Cass, who became quite corpulent in his later years, sort of looked and walked like a goose. But Lincoln, like most great humorists, could also be self-deprecating. In the same speech where he poked fun at Cass, the future president went on to make fun of his own military record. 

While Cass had served as a general in the War of 1812, all Lincoln could claim was a few months stomping about as a volunteer in a now mostly forgotten struggle known as the Black Hawk War. He told Congress: “If (Cass) ever saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitos. It is certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion.”

Michigander, then, is a term coined by one of history’s greatest leaders about Michigan’s greatest early statesman. People in this state at the time don’t appear to have resented it.

Michigan voted for Lincoln both times he ran for president. Cass lost his presidential election, but went on to distinction as senator and Secretary of State.

Later, when the Civil War broke out the two men found themselves on the same side. Cass was a strong supporter of the union, and encouraged men to enlist in the Civil War.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But Michigander has about as rich a history as any word. And I feel that if it’s good enough for Abraham Lincoln, it’s good enough for me.