The following contribution is by Brent M. Rogers, author of Unpopuar Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (Nebraska 2017). Rogers is a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also an instructor of history and religious education at Brigham Young University, Salt Lake Center.
Rhetoric and debate about the fitness of a person or group for self-government has and continues to haunt American political discourse. While researching and writing Unpopular Sovereignty, I was consistently struck at the potency of keywords in the political discourse surrounding early Utah Territory. Sovereignty, territory, government, and republican (as in form of government, though less occasionally used in reference to the then new political party) were among the most heavily used keywords by pundits and legislators. Yet other terms, such as “unfit” or “threat,” were powerful and stinging in their usage. For example, U.S. Senator and powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Territories Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had championed popular sovereignty as the nation’s panacea for slavery expansion, but walked back his rhetoric on that doctrine when he advocated the repeal of the Utah Territory’s Organic Act on the grounds that the territorial inhabitants, the Mormons, were “alien enemies and outlaws, unfit to exercise the right of self-government.”
Labelling a group or person “unfit” for governance most recently occurred in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Each candidate called the other unfit or incapable of governing the country. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, declaring “the Republican nominee … unfit to serve as president.”
“Unfit” was and is an influential word that elicits notions of repugnance; it is a word that disqualifies and invalidates. It is a construct that excludes, while also projecting those who use it as the protectors of something. Popular sovereignty of the 1850s included two unspoken, but agreed upon adjectives: white and Protestant. Those falling outside of the two categories were generally deemed “unfit” for republican governance and the rights of American citizenship. In the case of the Mormons during the 1850s, Douglas wanted to protect the increasingly important western territories from a minority group that he believed was starting its own despotic sovereign order in the very place that was the future of the United States. Mormons were widely viewed as unfit to exercise sovereignty in the U.S. federal system and Douglas, as well as others, were protecting the nation from these miscreants. Likewise, for each of the recent presidential candidates, the word “unfit” starkly portrayed the other candidate as either corrupt or a reprehensible and tyrannical individual.
“Threat” is another keyword found prominently in the sources underlying Unpopular Sovereignty. Some nineteenth-century Americans spoke of the threat of a Mormon and Native American alliance against the United States and its plans to expand westward. Others perceived a threat to the values of American society from the alternative familial model championed by Mormons in Utah Territory. In the 1850s, Utah Mormons practiced plural marriage, which was—and still is—considered extremely offensive to traditional American family structure and values. Newspaper writers and politicians viewed Mormon Utah as a threat to the growth and expansion of American republican values and governance because, to them, plural marriage smacked of licentiousness and tyranny. They deemed plural marriage too aberrant and abhorrent to be permitted in the United States. When U.S. Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont began crusading against polygamy in early 1857 he noted that if left unchecked the Mormon system of plural marriage would become a threat to and significantly weaken American society. He wanted to protect the nation and accordingly called on Congress to take action “whereby our common country may be rescued from the great reproach of a barbaric age.”
The role and history of the federal government in defining marriage took a giant leap when Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill’s anti-bigamy act in 1862—the first federal law addressing marriage in the United States. The law ran contrary to the will of Mormon Utahns, much like the more recent 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges did. That decision validates and ensures the fundamental right of individuals to same-sex marriage, and the reaction to it on the part of Utah Mormons highlights an ironic historical parallel. Perceiving same-sex marriage as a threat to “traditional marriage,” Utah Mormons put on Morrill’s shoes in their rhetoric and positioned themselves as the protectors of the fundamental unit of American society.
At the base of these keywords, and at the heart of Unpopular Sovereignty, is the question of federalism and how shared sovereignty works in practice. What are the limits of self-government and who gets to decide? A more recent controversy demonstrates that the long battle over who should govern and manage western lands – a local population or the federal government – continues today. Just over a month ago President Obama created a national monument out of lands in southeastern Utah called “Bears Ears.” This has been viewed as a victory for the protection of Native American cultural resources and a boon for Native sovereignty. It is a positive reversal of earlier normative relationships between Native peoples and local and federal governments. However, one Utah senator, Orrin Hatch, called the creation of the national monument, which he said was contrary to the will of the local population, an “astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power” and “an affront of epic proportions and an attack on an entire way of life.” The senator’s language decrying this action as a threat to shared sovereignty is another example of perceptions of federal overreach in a long history of federal power in Utah dating back to James Buchanan’s 1857 decision to station 1/5th of the U.S. Army in Utah Territory.
Sharing authority and determining who has authority—and in what circumstances and contexts—is rarely easy to understand or accept. It wasn’t easy for the territorial inhabitants of Utah in the 1850s and it remains difficult for Utahns and other Westerners today. As I wrote in Unpopular Sovereignty, “Such questions about the exercise of federal authority over local activities did not vanish in the nineteenth century; they remain and resonate with Americans, who continue to debate and puzzle over the limits of federal power as had their forbearers.”