Thursday, November 19, 2009

U.S. Presidents and the Mormons

Here are some interesting quotations from several U.S. Presidents on the Mormons that are often forgotten or never mentioned. I realize that this post isn't specifically on the American founding (usually we deal with things from the 17th and 18th centuries) but sometimes we forget just how important the 1800s were to the American founding; and the Mormon Church does have a uniquely American history. Enjoy:

Martin Van Buren: Personal Correspondence with Joseph Smith. "I can do nothing for you. If I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri." (Letter to Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Dec. 5, 1839, from History of the Church, vol. 4, pg. 40). This was regarding Smith's petition for federal protection against the anti-Mormon mobs in Missouri. Van Buren knew that giving aid to the Mormons would virtually equate into political suicide so he chose not to.

James Buchanan: First State of the Union Address, 1857. "The people of Utah almost exclusively belong to this [the Mormon] church, and believing with a fanatical spirit that he [Brigham Young] is governor of the Territory by divine appointment, they obey his commands as if these were direct revelations from Heaven. If, therefore, he chooses that his government shall come into collision with the Government of the United States, the members of the Mormon Church will yield implicit obedience to his will. Unfortunately, existing facts leave but little doubt that such is his determination. Without entering upon a minute history of occurrences, it is sufficient to say that all the officers of the United States, judicial and executive, with the single exception of two Indian agents, have found it necessary for their own personal safety to withdraw from the Territory, and there no longer remains any government in Utah but the despotism of Brigham Young. This being the condition of affairs in the Territory, I could not mistake the path of duty. As Chief Executive Magistrate I was bound to restore the supremacy of the Constitution and laws within its limits. In order to effect this purpose, I appointed a new governor and other Federal officers for Utah and sent with them a military force for their protection and to aid as a posse comitatus in case of need in the execution of the laws."

Rutherford B. Hayes: State of the Union Address, 1880. "The power of Congress to enact suitable laws to protect the Territories is ample. It is not a case for halfway measures. The political power of the Mormon sect is increasing. It controls now one of our wealthiest and most populous Territories. It is extending steadily into other Territories. Wherever it goes it establishes polygamy and sectarian political power. The sanctity of marriage and the family relation are the corner stone of our American society and civilization. Religious liberty and the separation of church and state are among the elementary ideas of free institutions. To reestablish the interests and principles which polygamy and Mormonism have imperiled, and to fully reopen to intelligent and virtuous immigrants of all creeds that part of our domain which has been in a great degree closed to general immigration by intolerant and immoral institutions, it is recommended that the government of the Territory of Utah be reorganized. "

James Garfield: Inaugural Address of 1881. "The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them. It is therefore a reproach to the Government that in the most populous of the Territories the constitutional guaranty is not enjoyed by the people and the authority of Congress is set at naught. The Mormon Church not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning polygamy, but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalities of law."

Chester A. Arthur: State of the Union Address, 1881. "The fact that adherents of the Mormon Church, which rests upon polygamy as its corner stone, have recently been peopling in large numbers Idaho, Arizona, and other of our Western Territories is well calculated to excite the liveliest interest and apprehension. It imposes upon Congress and the Executive the duty of arraying against this barbarous system all the power which under the Constitution and the law they can wield for its destruction. Reference has been already made to the obstacles which the United States officers have encountered in their efforts to punish violations of law. Prominent among these obstacles is the difficulty of procuring legal evidence sufficient to warrant a conviction even in the case of the most notorious offenders."

Benjamin Harrison: State of the Union Address, 1890. "The increasing numbers and influence of the non-Mormon population of Utah are observed with satisfaction. The recent letter of Wilford Woodruff, president of the Mormon Church, in which he advised his people 'to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the laws of the land,' has attracted wide attention, and it is hoped that its influence will be highly beneficial in restraining infractions of the laws of the United States. But the fact should not be overlooked that the doctrine or belief of the church that polygamous marriages are rightful and supported by divine revelation remains unchanged. President Woodruff does not renounce the doctrine, but refrains from teaching it, and advises against the practice of it because the law is against it. Now, it is quite true that the law should not attempt to deal with the faith or belief of anyone; but it is quite another thing, and the only safe thing, so to deal with the Territory of Utah as that those who believe polygamy to be rightful shall not have the power to make it lawful."

Grover Cleveland: State of the Union Address, 1885. In the Territory of Utah the law of the United States passed for the Suppression of polygamy has been energetically and faithfully executed during the past year, with measurably good results. A number of convictions have been secured for unlawful cohabitation, and in some cases pleas of guilty have been entered and a slight punishment imposed, upon a promise by the accused that they would not again offend against the law, nor advise, counsel, aid, or abet in any way its violation by others.
The Utah commissioners express the opinion, based upon such information as they are able to obtain, that but few polygamous marriages have taken place in the Territory during the last year. They further report that while there can not be found upon the registration lists of voters the name of a man actually guilty of polygamy, and while none of that class are holding office, yet at the last election in the Territory all the officers elected, except in one county, were men who, though not actually living in the practice of polygamy, subscribe to the doctrine of polygamous marriages as a divine revelation and a law unto all higher and more binding upon the conscience than any human law, local or national. Thus is the strange spectacle presented of a community protected by a republican form of government, to which they owe allegiance, sustaining by their suffrages a principle and a belief which set at naught that obligation of absolute obedience to the law of the land which lies at the foundation of republican institutions…

John F. Kennedy: Address at Mormon Tabernacle, Sept. 26, 1963. Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see the right prevail. I know that many of you in this State and other States sometimes wonder where we are going and why the United States should be so involved in so many affairs, in so many countries all around the globe. If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country. As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back.

Interesting to note how these presidential speeches were not random addresses but were, in fact, parts of major speeches (inaugural and state of the union addresses). The conflict over Mormon dominance in the Utah territory was very real to the U.S. government. Events like the Mountain Meadows Massacre only made things more intense during the early years of Mormon settlement in Utah. Compounded with the polygamy issue, it's no wonder why several U.S. presidents chose to lock horns with Mormon leadership.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Polygamy could be an interesting device to examine contemporary issues at arm's length, since the issue itself isn't very controversial, and the using the device in thought experiments could yield more light than heat.

It has a certain Christian connotation, dating chiefly back to St. Augustine, then Christian practice, then the Justinian Code.

In the Christian tradition, a "one man one woman" model for the Christian marriage was advocated by Saint Augustine (354-439 AD) with his published letter The Good of Marriage. To discourage polygamy, he wrote it "was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful." (chapter 15, paragraph 17) Sermons from St. Augustine's letters were popular and influential. In 534 AD Roman Emperor Justinian criminalized all but monogamous man/woman sex within the confines of marriage. The Justinian Code was the basis of European law for 1,000 years.

..if we can take Wiki's word for it.

However, regardless of its religious implications, there's no question it became part of the Western culture, an example, if you will, of a cultural Christianity, a cultural prejudice in favor of one mode of marriage over another.

Yet it would be difficult [but possible, I suppose] to make a natural law case for monogamy, or any other kind of case to the exclusion of other modes/conventions.

Still, as noted, that monogamy is the law of the land isn't very controversial even today. How it was dealt with by the republic in the early days of Mormonism provides good fodder for thought.

Brad Hart said...

I agree. Polygamy is an interesting "lab study" of sorts that could be applied (but I'm not willing to go there) to a lot of current issues.

Thanks for the Augustine link. Very interesting.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, I'm not willing to go there either---we've seen what happens. There will be blood.

But when contemporary issues are injected, polygamy would make for a good "control" in the thought experiment.