A CONFLICT OF PERCEPTIONS:
ULYSSES S. GRANT AND THE MORMONS
by Thomas G. Alexander
Almost from its inception, conflict followed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After the Mormons fled to Utah to escape persecution, controversy with federal officials culminated in the sending of an army under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston in 1857-58. When Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, it appeared that the conflict would be renewed and that Lincoln would keep his party’s pledge to eradicate “the twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy. The first relic, however, proved too difficult, and Lincoln was forced to concentrate on the Civil War. He is reported to have told Mormon Elder Thomas B. H. Stenhouse that he would “let them alone if they will let me alone.”1 Andrew Johnson was as reluctant to move against the Mormons as against the South, but when Ulysses S. Grant became President, a new era of conflict with the Mormons opened.
In their own words, the Mormons were “a peculiar people.” Perhaps the most obvious deviation from nineteenth century American society was their practice of polygamy, plural or celestial marriage as they preferred to call it. Though shared only with a select few at the time Joseph Smith committed
[pg. 30] the revelation to paper in 1843, it was openly preached in 1852 and vigorously defended thereafter. At the October, 1869, conference of the Church, seven months after Grant’s inauguration, Apostle Orson Pratt, high in Mormon councils, preached a sermon in which he argued the scriptural soundness of the doctrine and averred that the Mormons intended “to live according to the law of God as we have received it, Congress or no Congress.”2
Beyond this, nineteenth century Mormon political theory left little room for separation of church and state. Anticipating the Millennium when Christ would rule personally on the earth, Mormons began in 1844 to prepare a political organization through which He would govern. Though only a shadow government during Grant’s administration, its temporal manifestations were very real. The militia or Nauvoo Legion, theoretically answerable to the territorial governor, was actually under the command of Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Wells, Mayor of Salt Lake City and counselor to President Brigham Young, the Church’s Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.3
By virtue of their twenty-to-one majority in the territory, the Mormons were firmly in control of city and county government. Apostles served as speaker of the house of representatives and president of the council, and through control of the local juriciary, Mormons were in a position to thwart any attempts to punish polygamy. The territorial legislature had granted jurisdiction, concurrent with the federal district courts, in civil and criminal matters to the county probate courts, whose judges were elected by joint vote of both houses of the legislature.
[pg. 31] Jury lists for both the probate and federal courts were drawn by local authorities from rolls of property holders. In addition, the legislature had created the offices of territorial attorney and marshal, also elected by the legislature, to act in the federal courts in all cases arising under territorial law.4
Outside the political realm, the Mormons emphasized exclusiveness, and this emphasis was heightened In 1868 when the cooperative movement was inaugurated. Mormons were encouraged to boycott all Gentiles, as non-Mormons were called, and to purchase from local cooperative stores. In 1874, this tendency was further strengthened by the inauguration of the United Order, an ambitious share-the-wealth-movement.
At the same time a numerically small Gentile community lived principally in the larger cities and the mining districts. The non-Mormons were mainly engaged in commerce, transportation, mining, and the professions. While the Saints controlled the locally elected offices, the Gentiles, by virtue of federal appointments, monopolized the executive and judicial departments of the territorial government. In fact, only a month after he took office, Grant removed the only Mormon In either branch, the collector of internal revenue.5
Mormons were firmly convinced that they were loyal to the letter and spirit of the Constitution of the United States and to the revealed will of God. The First Amendment, after all, prohibited Congress from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” They believed that the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act of 1862, which prohibited the practice of polygamy In the territories,
[pg. 32] was unconstitutional.6
The Mormons considered their institutions both divine and progressive. Polygamy, ecclesiastical control of government, and woman suffrage were all defended on the ground of their progressive nature.7 Communitarianism, small unit land-holding, and public control of resources such as timber and water, were designed to allow everyone the right to earn his own way and to help those unable to care for themselves. Any believing Mormon would have rejected as absurd an offer of spiritual without temporal salvation. Based upon a broad consensus of its members, Church members expected their society to grow until it filled the whole earth.
Needless to say, Gentile perception of Momon society was much different. About a month before Grant’s inauguration, the New York Times called Mormonism an “extraordinary politico-religious vagary.” Utah, it said, was a union of church and state ruled by Brigham Young. Later, the Times suggested that the question of polygamy in Utah would be settled by the inevitable progress caused by the railroad and the Influx of Gentiles.8
In interviews, novels, congressional testimony, and newspapers, the image of Mormonism in nineteenth century America was one of licentious despotism. Opposition to the Church and to Utah’s possible admission to statehood was opposition not only to polygamy, but to Mormon political domination and to alleged harrassment and murder of Gentiles. The people of the United States seem to have generally believed that the Mormon people were ignorant and gullible immigrants who followed the dictates of a rapacious leadership and who would not hesitate to commit murder or ensnare an unsuspecting maiden at the command of Brigham Young.9 That Utah’s
[pg. 33] literacy rate ranked with those of Massachusetts and Illinois, and that the celebrated murders had more to do with frontier conditions like claim-jumping or the Utah War than with Mormonism, seems to have escaped most contemporary observers.10
Robert N. Baskin, for part of Grant’s Presidency assistant U. S. district attorney for Utah, testified that it was virtually impossible to enforce laws against polygamy. Utah had no civil registration of marriages, and the prosecution found it difficult to prove that a plural marriage had taken place. He did say, however, that the question of religion did not appear in ordinary cases and that the Mormons were impartial jurors in such cases.11
Misconceptions were buttressed by published reports of discussions between Mormon leaders and prominent citizens. In July, 1869, Brigham Young is reported to have told Senator Lyman Trumbull that “he might hear of some persons being put out of the Territory, and, if done, he might be sure it would be for just and good reasons.”12 In a speech to citizens of Salt Lake City from the portico of the Townsend House in the fall of 1869, Vice President Schuyler Colfax enjoined the Mormons to obey the law and told them that it was fallacious to view the question of polygamy as exclusively religious. When Apostle John Taylor, who was then in Boston, heard of Colfax’s speech, he wrote an open letter insisting that his religion was no concern of the state and that polygamy was “a matter between God and myself alone.”13
The absurd degree to which some Gentiles thought Brigham Young controlled Utah was indicated in August, 1870, when the Reverend John P.
[pg. 34] Newman, Methodist clergyman and friend of President Grant, appeared in Salt Lake City. He came in response to an editorial in the Salt Lake Telegraph which suggested instead of preaching against polygamy in the East, he ought to come to Utah where some Mormon elder could debate him on the subject. On August 6, Newman sent Brigham Young a note saying that he was there to accept Young’s challenge to debate the subject of whether the Bible sanctioned polygamy. After Young responded with surprise, Newman said that he had assumed Young’s control in Utah meant that anything printed in the papers was done at his behest. The New York Times commented that Newman’s quest made him look like “Don Quixote in Utah,” and after a debate with Orson Pratt, the Times thought the whole venture ludicrous. The question of the biblical sanction of polygamy or of revelation to the Mormons was irrelevant because no
civilized community of the present day, except that which he attacks, accepts polygamy as an institution, for many reasons, religious and moral; but the argument for rejecting it is more based upon the irrefragable demonstrations of social science than upon specific Divine command.14
The activities and reports of Grant’s appointees make it clear that they not only accepted the generally held image of Utah, but hoped to change conditions there. Grant first appointed John Wilson Shaffer of Illinois as governor. A former adjutant to Benjamin F. Butler and an Illinois businessman, Shaffer emphasized the need for vigorous enforcement of federal authority. He requested the removal of Territorial Secretary Samuel A. Mann, a Nevada lawyer, who was somewhat favorably inclined to the Mormons. He expected Utah Chief Justice James B. McKean, a New York lawyer and former army officer, to deal with problems such as conflicts
[pg. 35] of jurisdiction between federal and territorial officials.15
Little by little, these appointees began to wrest part of the control of Utah affairs from Mormon hands and place it in the hands of the federal government. Shaffer and Acting Governor, George A. Black, a Utah Gentile, with the help of United States troops, succeeded in gaining some control of the territorial militia.
By ignoring the territorial law on empaneling juries and having jurors selected by the U. S. marshal, McKean secured indictments against Brigham Young and a number of Mormon leaders for lewd and lascivious cohabitation and for murders allegedly committed during the Utah War. Shaffer’s successor, George L. Woods, formerly governor of Oregon, feared that the indictments might cause a general uprising and Grant alerted the War Department for possible military assistance.16 The indictments were
invalidated, however, when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in April, 1872, that U. S. courts in the territories were obliged to follow rules set up by territorial legislatures.17 Nevertheless, difficulty with the courts continued because the judges refused to recognize the territorial marshal and attorney, who had been appointed by the legislature, and the local authorities refused to pay the cost of cases prosecuted in the court by U. S. officers.
Behind all of this stood Ulysses S. Grant whose appointment power could make or break the efforts to assert federal authority in Utah. The Mormons believed that outsiders knew very little of what was really happening in the territory; on occasion they asked for an investigation of conditions.18 It is clear from existing correspondence that, though
[pg. 36] Grant tried to learn what was happening in Utah, his sources of information were generally either schismatics or federal officials. He was not as interested in Utah affairs as in foreign affairs, reconstruction, or federal monetary policy, but his scrapbooks, which his wife Julia probably kept for him, contain some clippings on Utah.19
In 1870, during the agitation over the passage of a bill unfavorable to the Mormons, Grant talked with William S. Godbe, leader of a group of businessmen and literary people of Salt Lake City who opposed Church control of secular affairs. Godbe raised the question of sending more troops to Utah, which he deplored. Grant is reported to have said that if “more troops were sent to Utah they would be merely designed as a moral force.” He wanted Godbe to know, however, that though he was, “as solicitous as you can possibly be to preserve the Mormon people,” he intended Mormon leaders, “to understand that the Nation intended to enforce her laws in Utah.”20 In November, 1871, while Mormon leaders stood under indictment, Grant wrote the Reverend Mr. Newman that the “civil authorities in Utah need not fear but they will have ample support from here in executing all the laws.”21
Grant’s annual messages and a special message to Congress in 1873 make it clear that his views coincided with those of his appointees. In his third annual message in December, 1871, he indicated that while the Mormons would be “protected in the worship of God according to the dictates of their consciences,” the law would be enforced to secure the eradication of “a remnant of barbarism repugnant to civilization, decency and the laws of the United States.”22
[pg. 37] After his reelection, in his annual message of December, 1872, Grant called upon Congress to end the impasse which had befallen the courts; to revise “the present laws of the territory”; and to enact laws to ensure “the equality of all citizens before the law, and the ultimate extinguishment of polygamy.”23 His special message of February 14, 1873, on Utah, made it clear that he expected a law which would grant more power to the federal officials, though he Insisted that impartial juries were necessary. The New York Times called the message “timely,” because conditions in Utah had “become a public scandal,” but the Salt Lake Herald, a pro-Mormon paper, insisted that Grant’s porposals were unnecessary because polygamy was a religious, not a legal matter. The Deseret News, organ of the Church, insisted that if a collision took place it would not be the choice of the people of Utah.24
Already, numerous bills had poured into congressional hoppers, but it was not until after the impasse in the courts and Grant’s messages that any passed the Senate. In June, 1872, Congress passed the Poland Act which provided for the cooperative selection of juries by federal and local authorities, abolished the offices of territorial marshal and attorney, and ended civil and criminal jurisdiction of the probate courts. Principal opposition to the bill came in the Senate from conservatives like Aaron A. Sargent of California who feared a religious war would result from passage of the bill. He succeeded in having stricken from the bill provisions making it unnecessary to have documentary proof of a marriage in polygamy prosecutions, allowing alimony pending the outcome of litigation on divorce proceedings for polygamous wives, and allowing
[pg. 38] challenges of jurors on the ground that they believed in polygamy.25
Shortly after the passage of the act, an indictment was brought against George Reynolds, Brigham Young’s secretary, for polygamy. Daniel H. Wells testified that he had performed the marriage, and Reynolds was convicted. After some preliminary manueuvering, the case eventually reached the U. S. Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act on the ground that though the First Amendment permitted citizens to believe anything they wanted in the name of religion, Congress had the power to restrict anti-social activities.26
That Grant was sincere in desiring to have the law enforced fairly seems evident from his actions in 1875, following Judge McKean’s attempt to award alimony to Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s plural wives. When Brigham Young refused to pay the alimony, because his attorney had filed notice of appeal, McKean ordered him to spend a day in the penitentiary. Apparently Grant removed McKean, partly owing to political pressure from Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field and Senator Timothy O. Howe of Wisconsin, and partly because he disapproved of McKean’s ruling.27
In addition, Grant sent Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Benjamin R. Cowen, to Utah to investigate the situation. After the investigation, Grant concluded that there was no immediate need for other removals. The case of Young v. Young was finally decided in April, 1877, when Chief Justice Michael Schaeffer ruled that Ann Eliza was merely a menial servant, never legally married to Young, and hence, entitled to no more than servant’s wages.28
In October, 1875, Grant came to Utah, making a detour on a trip to Denver, apparently to confer with his new appointee, Governor George W.
[pg. 39] Emery of Tennessee. He was the first President to visit the territory. Federal officials and Church leaders competed to serve as hosts for the chief executive. After a rather clumsy meeting in Ogden, both President Young and Governor Emery rode from Ogden to Salt Lake City in Grant’s private car, where they conversed with both Grant and his wife, Julia. Julia told Young that she admired the accomplishments of the Mormons, though she objected to the practice of polygamy. The route from the railroad station to Grant’s hotel In Salt Lake City was lined with children who were singing and throwing flowers before the President’s carriage. The party visited the Tabernacle, where Julia offered a prayer for the Mormons.29
It was reported that as Grant rode from the railroad station, he asked Emery who the children were. When he learned they were Mormon children, he said that he had been deceived. Just what he meant by the statement, if he ever said it at all, is not certain. He reportedly urged Emery to identify himself with the Gentile community and not to try to curry favor with the Mormons as his predecessor, Samuel B. Axtell, had done. In addition, about two months after the visit, In his seventh annual message, he again called the attention of Congress “to the anomalous, not to say scandalous, condition of affairs existing in the Territory of Utah,” where the government seemed unable “to punish so flagrant a crime against decency and morality.”30 Later, as he sat at death’s door writing his memoirs, he wrote that, “there are now people who believe Mormonism and Polygamy to be ordained by the Most High. We forgive them for entertaining such notions, but forbid their practice.”31 It is possible, that after his experience in Utah, he became convinced that the Mormons were not
[pg. 40] disloyal, though he continued to press for vigorous enforcement of the laws.
At any rate, Emery was unlike Grant’s previous appointees. He neither went out of his way to antagonize the Mormons, nor took the Mormons’ side in disputes with the Gentiles. His administration was characterized by a successful and productive relationship with the legislature, which passed a great number of new laws, including an election law, a civil practice act, and a penal code.
Despite the rather moderate ending, the eight years of Grant’s administration had been trying for both the Mormons and the federal government. Not since the Utah War of 1857-58 had conditions been so tense; and not until 1885, when the final push to eradicate polygamy and Church control began, were they to become so again.
The motivation for Grant’s Utah policy was firmly rooted in contemporary American cultural attitudes.32 Grant and his contemporaries were Victorians who regarded monogamy as morally imperative. Moreover, Grant firmly believed in separation of church and state. His opposition to public aid to religious schools was well known, and was reiterated in a speech which he gave in Des Moines, on his trip to Utah.
On the other hand, the Mormons were neither disloyal nor were they dupes. Their actions sprang from deep religious convictions. They believed the Constitution to be divinely inspired, and that the First Amendment guaranteed both their right to practice polygamy and to vote together If they wanted to.
The obvious point which ought to be made in regard to the Mormons and their conflict with Victorian society is that they were “a peculiar
[pg. 41] people” not only to themselves, but to other Americans of that age. Both societies operated from different premises, the one from a sense of Victorian propriety, the other from a deeply felt religious conviction. Under such conditions, conflict was probably inevitable.
The methods used by the Grant administration to handle this conflict and to implement the policy of eradicating polygamy passed through two phases. During the period down to March, 1875, and the removal of Judge McKean, Grant was generally influenced by the Gentile element to favor vigorous enforcement of the law–through the use of troops if necessary. Thereafter, though unwilling to accept the Mormons’ desire to be left alone, he seems to have opposed confrontations. The appointment of the moderate Emery as governor, and Grant’s own visit to Utah were indicative of the new tone. His stated desire for impartial enforcement of the law was not always reflected in the acts of his appointees, but he removed, however belatedly, some appointees who seemed to lack that impartiality. Whether Grant’s policy was wise or not would, today as then, elicit a conflict of opinions, owing undoubtedly to a difference of perceptions.
1. Brigham H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1930), V, 70.
2. New York Times (hereafter Times), Oct. 23, 1869.
3. Everett L. Cooley, “Carpetbag Rule: Territorial Government in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 26 (1958), 116-117.
4. Leonard J. Arrington, ed. “Crusade Against Theocracy: the Reminiscences of Judge Jacob Smith Boreman of Utah, 1872-1877,” Huntington Library Quarterly, XXIV (1960), 11, 15.
5. Times, July 14, 1869. The Mormon was Robert T. Burton.
6. House Miscellaneous Document (hereafter HMD), 44th Cong., 1st Sess., no. 42, 1-2; Times, Jan. 15, 17, 21, 1876.
[pg. 42] 7. Thomas G. Alexander, “An Experiment in Progressive Legislation: The Granting of Woman Suffrage in Utah in 1870,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 38 (1970), 22-23; Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Western Humanities Review, X (1956), 235-237.
8. Times, Feb. 8, March 17, 1869, Feb. 18, 1870, June 5, 1871.
9. Ibid., April 14, 1872, July 11, 16, 1874; House Report (hereafter HR), 41st Cong., 2nd Sess., no. 21, part 2, 1-3; Leonard J. Arrington and Jon Haupt, “Intolerable Zion: The Image of Mormonism in Nineteenth Century American Literature,” Western Humanities Review, XXII (1968), 243-260.
10. Roberts, Comprehensive History, V, 202-203; Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadow Massacre (New ed., Norman, 1962), 219; U.S. Census Office, Statistics of the Population of the United States at the Tenth Census (June 1, 1880) (Washington, 1883), I, 919.
11. HR, 41st Cong., 2nd Sess., no. 21, part 2, 11-13, 15-18.
12. Times, July 14, 1869.
13. Edward W. Tullidge, History of Salt Lake City and its Founders (Salt Lake City, [ca. 1886]), 399, 403-407; Times, Oct. 17, 1869.
14. Ibid., Aug. 8, 23, 1870.
15. J. Wilson Shaffer to Benjamin F. Butler, May 10, 1870, Butler Papers, Library of Congress (hereafter DLC); Shaffer to Ulysses S. Grant, July 7, 1870, ibid.
16. Times, July 1, 6, 1871; Horace Porter to Charles Hale, July 3, 1872, Grant Papers, ibid.; George L. Woods to Grant, Oct. 2, 1870, Sheridan Papers
17. Clinton v. Englebrecht, 80 U.S., 434 (1872).
18. HMD, 43rd Cong., 1st Sess., no. 139.
19. Scrapbooks in Grant Papers, Series 7, DLC.
20. Tullidge, Salt Lake City, 469.
21. Grant to John P. Newman, Nov. 6, 1871, J. H. Benton Sale, American Art Association, March 12, 1920, no. 352.
22. Third Annual Message, MS, Grant Papers, DLC.
23. Fourth Annual Message, MS, ibid.
24. Senate Executive Document, 43rd Cong., 3rd Sess., no. 44; Times, Feb. 16, 1873.
25. Congressional Record, 43rd Cong., 1st Sess., 1874, 5417; 18 Statutes at Large, 253.
26. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S., 145 (1878).
27. Arrington, ed., Huntington Library Quarterly, XXIV, 34.
28. Times, April 10, 1875, April 28, 1877.
29. Deseret Evening News, Oct. 6, 1875; Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 5, 1875; Ogden Junction, Oct. 4, 1875; Julia Dent Grant unpublished memoirs [ca. 1891], U. S. Grant 3rd Collection, U. S. Grant Association, 336-339.
30. James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1902 ([Washington, D. C.], 1907), VII, 355.
31. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), I, 217-218.
32. See, however, Roberts, Comprehensive History, V, 322, 391-392, 433.