Wednesday, June 6, 2007

In 1844, the democrats were split...


Bjorn recently left a comment on one of my old posts about Mitt Romney reminding us that "Romney wasn't the only Mormon candidate for president" and including an excerpt on Joseph Smith's political platform. (You can read Joseph Smith's platform unabridged, here. It is titled "Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the U.S.) Indeed Bjorn is right. Most recently, Utah's Senator Orrin Hatch (taking some time off from his bizarre music career, apparently) made an embarrassingly short-lived bid for president in 2000. Before that, Romney's own father put himself in the race for the republican nomination in 1968. A strong supporter of civil rights, Romney was a moderate republican, and as such was a bit of a dying breed. The general consensus is that his strong anti-war stance cost him the nomination. A Romney nomination (in 1964, that is) would have raised interesting constitutional questions because Romney was a U.S. citizen by birth, having been born to U.S. citizens living in Colonia Dublan, Chihuahua, Mexico. The fact that he was born outside of the U.S., some argued, made him a U.S. citizen, but not a "natural born citizen" as the constitution requires.

The excerpt Bjorn included comes from 1902 book written by William Linn called "The Story of the Mormons, From the Date of their Origin to the Year 1902. Though I have seen Linn's name mentioned in other Mormon history texts, I am unfamiliar with him and his work. Just cursorily skimming his preface I saw what seemed like a fairly unabashed anti-Mormon agenda with a moderate dose of sarcasm. But having not read the book, I am probably unqualified to make a an informed judgment. (You can read it, among other places, here.) My knowledge of Joseph Smith's candidacy comes mostly from Richard Bushman's and Donna Hill's work. Linn's final assessment of Joseph Smith's candidacy (in the part that Bjorn excerpted anyway) is that "there was nothing modest about Mormon political ambition."

It is this final comment that interests me. In some ways, he's absolutely right. Joseph Smith did have a vast amount of political clout in local politics and was a considerable force in state politics as well. While he always preserved the forms and the procedures of democracy, his concurrent positions in political and ecclesiastical leadership blurred the line for many people. The Nauvoo charter gave the city government considerable (though not unheard-of) independence from state government. Nauvoo itself was bigger than Chicago in its heyday. Fears of a Mormon bloc vote and the substantial political power of the Mormon community (along with dislike of the fact that most Mormons opposed slavery) were in large part what fueled anti-Mormon sentiment and politics years before in Missouri.

But on the other hand, Linn's comment makes it seem like Joseph Smith was not just a political force to be reckoned with, but that he was delusionally ambitious as well, which I'm not sure is accurate. It is true that when Joseph declared his candidacy, the whole church got involved. Missionaries became campaign canvassers, church papers took up the call, and amid the frenzy of hyperbole that characterized 19th-century politics, many Mormons probably believed that their prophet would actually win. Joseph himself postured and strutted in earnest like any candidate worth his salt. But did he actually think he had a chance of winning?

I don't think he did. That would have been so quixotic as to make Ralph Nader a paragon of pragmatism by comparison. Bare political ambition is too simplistic a motive. Early in the election, Joseph wrote each of the candidates then running asking what would be his policy toward the saints. The candidates essentially dismissed the question. Most notably, John Calhoun and Martin Van Buren cited concerns of federalism and state sovereignty to say that the "Mormon question" did not fall under federal jurisdiction. Joseph thought it was unreasonable that the President could call out the militia to suppress an insurrection at any time, but not to protect the lives and property of the citizens of a state unless requested by the governor. Unsatisfied, Joseph ran for president not because he expected to win, but to deprive unworthy candidates of the Mormon vote.

That's my take on it anyway. What do you think? Why did Joseph Smith run for president in 1844?

4 comments:

Bjorn said...

Daniel Hendrix wrote to a news paper in 1897, "...Joe had a jovial, easy, don't-care way about him that made him a lot of warm friends. He was a good talker, and would have made a fine stump speaker if he had had the training."

Maybe it was a part of his personality?

Linn's book is anti-Mormon, in that the author has a bias against religion based on superstition, as viewed by the non-believer. From the first few pages, it's easy to get an understanding of his bias, that he finds it fascinating that in the nineteenth century, which was such an enlightened age, people are just as supersticious as ever. He mentions the display of a relic at a church in New York as an example, among others, like the Quaker's desire to refuse to acknowledge the unchristian Janus and Woden by refusing to call January January, and Wednesday Wednesday. It's from this skepticism that the author forms his book, unwilling to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, and disregarding the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon as a Gospel, and providing quotes, and references which support his view.

I haven't read the book for long, only up the the publishing of the Book of Mormon, but in that short history, Linn considers the story of the origin of the Book of Mormon dubious, relying on testimony about Joseph Smith's character, stories of money digging, and the mystery surrounding the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.

Bjorn said...

And, consider that Linn is writing in the 1900's, many years after Joseph Smith Jr., and in a time after which people had seen the effect of the Mormons on territorial government, including statements made by Young regarding the government wishing to outlaw the practice of the plurality of wives.

It's through this lens which Linn looks back. Whether Joseph Smith only thought fleetingly about his candidacy, and didn't consider himself a serious contender, or whether he felt he should be President, we can't easily tell. But, if offered the presidency, I doubt Joseph Smith would have declined the offer.

Linn finishes his introduction with this paragraph:

"The "real miracle" in Mormonism, then, -- the wonderful feature of its success, -- is to be sought, not in the fact that it has been able to attract believers in a new prophet, and to find them at this date and in this country, but in its success in establishing and keeping together in a republic like ours a membership who acknowledge its supreme authority in politics as well as in religion, and who form a distinct organization which does not conceal its purpose to rule over the whole nation. Had Mormonism confined itself to its religious teachings, and been preached only to those who sought its instruction, instead of beating up the world for recruits and conveying them to its home, the Mormon church would probably to-day be attracting as little attention as do the Harmonists of Pennsylvania."

The statement quoted about the modesty of Mormon political ambition is colored by Linn's view that Mormons seek to rule over the whole nation, which would include a Mormon president, I suppose.

Bjorn said...

"It's through this lens which Linn looks back."

HA! I almost made a seer stone reference!

JKC said...

sorry for the loooong delay in responding on my own post.

Joseph Smith was no doubt charismatic and charming and was a good stump speaker, though his speeches were more often religious than political in nature. I did a rhetorical analyses of several of his stump speeches while getting my bachelor's in English. He hold his own.

Not to stray off the topic too far, but Linn's book, from what I've gathered, is not anti-Mormon in the sense of the latest most virulent anti-Mormonism that considers Mormonism cultish and satanic. Instead, Linn seems to consider Mormonism ridiculous, quaint, and humorous.

And it is true that Linn's location in time and space affects his view of the Mormons. Because the Mormons, sick of the Missouri and Illinois treatment, had expatriated themselves and become a virtually independant state, there was a large degree of uncertainty as to their future. Many Mormons, with those memories fresh, could not fathom being a part of the nation that they felt had betrayed them by doing nothing to protect them from frontier lawlessness. Some even felt that the civil war was just punishment for the treatment they had been given.

It is also true that Mormons do believe, as do most Christians, that Christ will return to the earth and, in Isaiah's words, "the government will be upon his shoulder." In other words, that the Kingdom of God that is now only spiritual will someday become an actual ruling kingdom.

However, it is not true that Mormon doctrine dictates that a Mormon must rule the world (unless, of course, you consider Christ Mormon). Some Mormons have made this logical jump, and around the turn of the century, it was probably a fairly common belief. Linn seems to make this inference, and given his time of writing, it may not have been entirely unfounded to assume that Mormons believe that.

But to say that Mormons believe something, and to say Mormonism teaches or dictates something are two different things. Mormonism does not dictate that it must become a political force to rule the United States.

The point is, I think you're right, Bjorn, that Linn's assessment flows from his view that Mormonism seeks to rule over the United States, but also that that view, while it may have been more credible when it was written, is not accurate.