I just finished the book by Sarah Baringer Gordon, The Mormon Question. It was a very different book from the previous book I read, More Wives than One, by Kathryn Daynes. Gordon has degrees in both Law and Religion. She looked at Constitutional theory and the arguments before the Supreme Court and Congress as the government made many attempts to shut down polygamy.
I was already familiar that the Republican Party was founded in 1856 to rid the country of the “twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.” After the Civil War and slavery was abolished, the Republicans set their eyes on the other twin: polygamy. Gordon says this seems to be the forgotten twin by American historians. Gordon printed many editorial cartoons about Mormons in the 1800’s–none of them flattering. In one cartoon, the blot of Mormonism is all over the Statue of Libery, and Uncle Sam tells a man that he needs to dip into the bucket of “Extreme Measures” to fix the blot.
It did take some extreme measures. I’ve mentioned some of these in my previous post on the Anti-Polygamy Raids. Mormons weren’t allowed to vote, or serve on juries (in order to secure polygamy convictions.) The were rounded up and prosecuted, the church was disincorporated, and property was confiscated. Leading the charge was the Republican Party. The did everything they could to make comparisons to slavery, even referring to polygamist wives as white slaves.
Southern Democrats, while not particularly fond of polygamy, saw the parallels with slavery and made efforts to defeat anti-polygamy legislation. The attorney who argued the case for Utah in the Supreme Court was a prominent Democrat. While it was hard for the church to find supporters, there was more help from Democrats. It’s funny to me that Republicans today are against “big government”, yet the Patriot Act and anti-polygamy legislation are big government intrusions into personal freedoms.
Separation of church and state was a very interesting constitutional concept. The original framers of the Constitution wanted a relatively weak federal government. While the Bill of Rights established that there could be no religion enforced by the federal government, states were free to establish religion. Massachusetts didn’t abolish it’s state religion until 1820! Many colonies were set up as religious colonies. These colonies didn’t want the federal government to meddle in their affairs, but they didn’t have a problem with state governments cozying up with a religious denomination. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was wary of religion, and helped set up Virginia as a secular state. Virginia became a model for other states.
Gordon mentions that many anti-polygamy rhetoric did not accurately depict polygamy practices, but there were very effective in rallying anti-polygamists to their cause. They often did this by writing novels about what they thought polygamy must be like. Even the first Sherlock Holmes novel dealt with polygamy.
I remember an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, where he says, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” It seems like that is exactly what the Mormons have done. The Republican charge to end polygamy won in 1890, and the majority of Utah Mormons have now joined their one-time adversary. I see many similarities between the heavy-handed tactics of the late 1800’s and the current Patriot Act and Republican use of government. I suspect few Mormon Republicans are aware of this dubious relationship from history. I wonder how Mormon Republicans view this news that the Republicans were the first vocal anti-polygamist (anti-Mormons). No wonder there is still distrust of Mitt Romney among Republicans. I wonder if Jon Huntsman will get the same treatment if he runs?