Robert McClelland, Governor of Michigan from Jan 1, 1852 to March 8, 1853, was born at Greencastle, Franklin Co., Penn., Aug 1, 1807. Among his ancestors were several officers of rank in the Revolutionary War, and some of his family connections were distinguished in the war of 1812, and that with Mexico. His father was an eminent physician and surgeon who studied under Dr. Benj. Rush, of Philadelphia, and practiced his profession successfully until six months before his death, at the age of 84 years. Although Mr. McClelland’s family had been in good circumstances, when he was 17 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, at Carlisle, Penn, from which he was 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, Penn., in 1831. Soon afterward he removed to the city of Pittsburgh, where he practiced for almost a year.
In 1833, Mr. McClelland 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 prospect of success. In 1835, a convention was called to frame a constitution for the proposed State of Michigan, or 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 Gov. Mason, and received an offer of the Attorney Generalship, but declined both of these offices in order to attend to his professional duties.
In 1838, Mr. McClelland was elected to the State Legislature, in which he soon became distinguished as the head of several important committees, Speaker pro tempore, and as an active, zealous, and efficient member. In 1840, Gen. Harrison, as a candidate for the Presidency, swept the country with 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 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 one congressional district. The late Hon Jacob M. Howard had been elected against Hon. Alpheus Felch by a strong majority; but, in 1843, so thoroughly had the Democratic party recovered from its defeat of 1840 that Mr. McClelland, as a candidate for Congress, carried Detroit district by a majority of about 2,500. Mr. McClelland soon took a prominent position in Congress among the veterans of that body. During his first term he was placed on Committee on Commerce, and organized and carried through what were known as the “Harbor bill.” The continued confidence of his constituency was manifested in his election to the 29th Congress. At the opening of this 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 offer in favor of J. W. Davis of Indiana, who was elected. During this term he became Chairman of 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 their personal regard for him, presented him with a cane which he retains as a souvenir of the donors, and of his labors in Congress.
In 1847, Mr. MeClelland was re-elected to Congress, and at the opening of the 30th 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 Q. Adams, when the petition, was clothed n decorous language and presented in the proper manner. This he regarded as the citizens constitutional right which should not be impaired by any doctrines of temporary expediency. He also voted for the adoption of Mr. Giddings’s bill for the abolishing of slavery in the District of Columbus. Mr. McClelland was one of the few Democrats associated with David Wilmot, of Pennsylvania, in bringing forward the celebrated “Wilmot Proviso,” with a view to prevent 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 Gen. Cass for President, in 1848, doing valiant service that year for the election of that distinguished statesman. On leaving Congress, in 1848, 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 their in as among the ablest and most experienced leaders. His clear judgement 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 Gen. 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 Gen. 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 Jan. 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 Marcy 1853, he was made Secretary of the Interior, in which capacity he served most creditably during four years of the Pierce administration. He thoroughly re-organized 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 their 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 adviser, a sagacious parliamentary leader. As a lawyer he was terse and pointed in argument, clear, candid and impressive in his address to the jury. His sincerity and earnestness,with 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 a tour of Europe, which, through his extensive personal acquaintance with European diplomats, he was enabled to enjoy much more than most travelers.
Mr. McClelland married, in 1837 Miss Sarah E. Sabin of Williamson, Mass. The have had six children, two of whom now survive.
Source: Chapman Brothers. Portrait and biographical record of Genesee, Lapeer and Tuscola counties, Michigan. Chicago: Chapman brothers, 1892.