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Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory

by Brent M. Rogers
Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory

by Brent M. Rogers


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Charles Redd Center Phi Alpha Theta Book Award for the Best Book on the American West
2018 Francis Armstrong Madsen Best Book Award from the Utah State Historical Society
2018 Best First Book Award from the Mormon History Association

Newly created territories in antebellum America were designed to be extensions of national sovereignty and jurisdiction. Utah Territory, however, was a deeply contested space in which a cohesive settler group—the Mormons—sought to establish their own “popular sovereignty,” raising the question of who possessed and could exercise governing, legal, social, and even cultural power in a newly acquired territory.
In Unpopular Sovereignty, Brent M. Rogers invokes the case of popular sovereignty in Utah as an important contrast to the better-known slavery question in Kansas. Rogers examines the complex relationship between sovereignty and territory along three main lines of inquiry: the implementation of a republican form of government, the administration of Indian policy and Native American affairs, and gender and familial relations—all of which played an important role in the national perception of the Mormons’ ability to self-govern. Utah’s status as a federal territory drew it into larger conversations about popular sovereignty and the expansion of federal power in the West. Ultimately, Rogers argues, managing sovereignty in Utah proved to have explosive and far-reaching consequences for the nation as a whole as it teetered on the brink of disunion and civil war.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803296442
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 02/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 400
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Brent M. 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. 

Read an Excerpt

Unpopular Sovereignty

Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory

By Brent M. Rogers


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9644-2


Imperium in Imperio

Sovereignty and the American Territorial System

From the passage of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance onward, territories were the official unit of American expansion and, as such, were designed to pass through a process of political tutelage under the federal government's regulatory supervision. The Lockean idea of consent of the governed, coupled with the idea that governments should offer a balance of authority and liberty, provided American revolutionists with rhetorical fodder to rebel against the British system of colonial control. The colonists in America, propagandists insisted, had come of age and had reached a level of political maturity sufficient to be self-governing and independent from England. Following their attaining independence, Americans began to implement their own system of expansion that they hoped would be unlike the British colonial model. The difference between England and the model of the new United States was the antipatriarchal ideology of the republican territorial system, which was to provide governmental education to a territory's inhabitants and establish a path to political maturity and self-government for them. The system of federal management over the territories required the participation of the local population in practicing republican government as federally appointed officials transmitted approved political ideas and practices from east to west. According to the U.S. Constitution, the transference of national sovereignty to state sovereignty could not occur without the assurance that the people of a territory could and would operate a republican form of government. In other words, the Constitution would not allow the admittance of new states formed from federal territory if the people residing within those geopolitical boundaries were deemed incapable of republican self-governance. The establishment of Utah Territory in 1850 formally brought Great Basin Mormons and American Indians under the direct supervision of the federal government and created a scenario wherein competing visions of sovereignty and government emerged and informed an increasing tension between the federal government and the settler community over self-governing capacity.

Territories in the American federalist system were viewed as eventual candidates for statehood and self-government through a preparatory process that included electing a legislature, establishing laws, and operating a republican government as the foundations for admittance to the Union. For the founding generation and Americans that followed, republicanism meant a promise that a collection of self-governing communities would exercise their sovereignty to inhibit consolidated power and the threat of control by the few. Territorial governments on the path to statehood required governors, prosecutors, judges, Indian agents, surveyors, and other officials to enforce and execute the laws of the United States in the territory. The president appointed these officials — subject to Senate confirmation — and gave orders for any U.S. troops stationed in the territories. The president and Congress also had discretionary power to deprive a territory of representative government and change local government when necessary, thereby making the territorial system a colonial arm of the state. Looked at another way, the federal government had the responsibility to raise and educate the territories to be good, loyal states in the Union in the same way that parents have the societal responsibility to raise their children to be good, loyal citizens of the nation. Once a territory's inhabitants proved they could responsibly and loyally operate a republican government, federal authority would give way to state sovereignty.

As the nation expanded, the Northwest Ordinance enabled the national government to exercise its authority and protect its interests in new territories while promising settlers in those lands the opportunity to attain their full rights of self-government when new states were created and admitted to the Union. That ordinance represents foundational American thinking about the nature of a colonial system for a republican empire as the federal government assumed and maintained the ultimate authority in the territories but provided the route toward sovereign equality in the Union. The Northwest Ordinance established the governor as the executive authority in a territory, who served through federal appointment and was restricted to a term limit; however, federal authority could remove the governor at any time. What is more, the Northwest Ordinance first codified federal control over territorial boundaries while it set the terms for territorial governance and power, all of which was later solidified by the Constitution.

The Constitution established a dual or divided sovereignty between the states and the federal government, each of which was sovereign in its assigned sphere, thereby providing a new definition of imperium in imperio, or sovereignty within sovereignty, that was coordinate and not subversive. Though the vision to create a self-governing republic was indeed noble, some entity had to decide what measure of self-government to provide to what people and when to preserve union among many interests, peoples, and states. The Constitution made clear, when it gave Congress power "to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States," that the federal government controlled new territories legislatively as part of a process of integrating new parts into the national whole. The Constitution was the instrument the federal government used to create a particular system of expansion to cast a republican superstructure across the North American continent. These two foundational documents, the Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance, provided a blueprint for continental expansion through the territorial system. For the founding generation, the territorial system signaled that the United States would become a flourishing and expanding republican nation.

As the nation added new lands and peoples through the territorial process, the idea of local self-government was increasingly debated. Self-government could occur in new lands only after the parent institution properly instructed the peoples therein to be loyal, self-governing sovereign citizens of the Union. In antebellum-era politics, Americans grappled with reconciling liberty and regulation in the territories, particularly concerning vital issues of the day, and no issue was more important than slavery. Some citizens considered the colonial relationship of the territorial system inconsistent with the principles of republican government because the federal government could withhold the right of elective franchise and prevent the people from having a say in the choosing of their government officers. Still, the ultimate sovereignty for the territories remained in the hands of the federal government and would remain therewith through antebellum discussions of popular sovereignty.

The contest over sovereignty in Utah had its origins in the fifteen years that preceded the Mormons' arrival in the intermountain West. The Latter-day Saints' struggle to find a place within the American system of divided sovereignty in those years informed their actions, their responses, and the realities of the 1850s Utah territorial experience.

The Mormon faith was born during the Second Great Awakening, a time of religious division and conflict over biblical interpretation. During that chaotic time, however, the culture of evangelical Protestantism swept over the United States, making it "the most thoroughly Christian nation in the world." Amid the religious fervor of western New York, Joseph Smith claimed to have found, with angelic assistance, an ancient record written on a set of gold plates that he then translated "by the gift and power of God." In Palmyra, New York, in 1830, Smith published the translation as the Book of Mormon, which he proclaimed was a new book of scripture to add to the Holy Bible. That same year, he established a church founded on this new record and himself as a latter-day prophet. The church and its new scripture gave to believers a sense of divine authority in that it claimed to faithfully restore the church established by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. This unique faith evolved from those beginnings adding, among other things, religious rituals, a priesthood with apostles and keys of divine power, and continuing revelations in the first-person voice of Jesus Christ through Smith.

The Mormons, as the followers of Smith and adherents to the new religious scripture came to be called, believed the Constitution to be an inspired document and continental America to literally be God's country. However much that was the case, the Book of Mormon presented a combination of theocracy and monarchy as the ideal form of government. In an American culture saturated with republican ideas, the political principles embodied in the Book of Mormon were not republican and featured governments run by prophet-kings. Outsiders as well as early church members accused Joseph Smith of being an autocratic despot who sought "after monarchal power and authority." Furthermore, and hardly inconsequential for the Mormons' first thirty years of existence, the Book of Mormon proclaimed that the American continent was the chosen land for American Indians and encouraged the religious group to cultivate relationships and to bring Native peoples into the new religious fold. From 1830 onward, Protestant Christian denominations viewed the new faith as aberrant in its theology. Most observers understood the Mormons to be a culturally, economically, and politically cohesive group. The scripture and the ideology that it fostered among Mormons put members of the sect on the wrong side of justice and liberty in Missouri in the 1830s and in Illinois in the 1840s.

The first fifteen years of Mormon history can perhaps best be summarized by periodic disputes and physical confrontations between Mormons and their neighbors. In the early 1830s, a large body of Mormons settled in Jackson County, Missouri, a location that a Joseph Smith revelation claimed to be the central gathering place for their faith. After a significant increase in the Mormon population had the potential to change the political landscape there, non-Mormon residents felt threatened by the amount of land Mormons had acquired, as well as the religionists' stance against slavery and their unusual relationships with Native Americans. Tensions soon boiled over, and mob actions against the Mormons resulted in their eviction from Jackson County in the fall of 1833. The Latter-day Saints moved north into Clay County, Missouri, but in their violent ejection had lost their land and property without compensation from their attackers. Starting in early 1834, the Mormons fastidiously sought redress for the violence committed against them and for the restoration of their stolen property. They fought through the Missouri state justice system and took their case to all levels of Missouri government but to no avail. They were denied by the state several times. They never received compensation for their losses.

Over the decade that followed, Mormons also petitioned federal authorities to receive redress but heard from those authorities that the federal government could do nothing to aid them in their plight. They told the Mormon petitioners to take their case back to Missouri authorities. Church leaders had also petitioned U.S. president Andrew Jackson in April 1834 with a recitation of the Missouri violence in hopes that he would "send a force of men" to protect the Mormons in their rights and allow them to return to their lands. The church leaders also hoped that federal troops would establish and maintain peace between Mormons and other Jackson County residents. The Mormons' appeal for federal action arose in the aftermath of Jackson's deployment of uncompromising presidential power in a state during the South Carolina Nullification Crisis and at roughly the same time that he sent federal troops to quell a labor riot in Maryland. While Jackson demonstrated the potential power the president held, shows of federal strength were few and far between in antebellum America. The Mormon plea for federal assistance reached the desk of Secretary of War Lewis Cass. In his response Cass stated that the president did not have the constitutional right or authority to send federal troops into Missouri to aid in the enforcement of state laws. Despite Jackson's earlier displays of power, the secretary of war was technically correct. The constitutional foundation of the Mormon petition in fact required that a state authority, whether the legislature or the chief executive, request federal intervention. Therefore, Cass noted that Mormon complaints revealed violations of state law, to be taken up by state courts, and not of federal law. In no uncertain terms, Cass stated that the religionists' petition fell outside of the president's and the national government's jurisdiction.

Law enforcers in the state of Missouri did not protect the rights of the religious group. Another five years of difficulties for the Mormons in Missouri reached a head in the fall of 1838. Following the forcible removal from Jackson County, tensions forced Mormons to vacate their temporary Clay County residences even before the Missouri state legislature created Caldwell County as a "Mormon county" in December 1836. Less than two years later the clash in Missouri grew extreme when the state governor, Lilburn W. Boggs, issued an extermination order that called for the removal of all Mormons from the state or death for members of that faith who remained. The Mormons were to either leave the state or be killed. In other words, the state sanctioned and sponsored the wholesale expulsion or extermination of American citizens. At a time when local mob activity and rioting were on the rise in the United States, particularly to enforce the local majority's power and interests, Missourians, too, used violence effectively to rid their geopolitical boundaries of the hated minority sect. The cohesive religious group ultimately left the state in accordance with the extermination order. They traveled east, finding refuge in Quincy, Illinois, before heading north, where they established a community named Nauvoo on the east shore of the Mississippi River.

That church members received no redress or justice from these events at any level of government left them dismayed at the American system of divided authority and republican governance in practice. While they maintained their stance that the Constitution was inspired by God, Latter-day Saint leaders largely believed that the men running the government were corrupt and not living up to the Constitution's principles. In a supposed land of liberty, Mormons stated, minority rights were not protected and the prevalent idea of states' rights left the federal government impotent in its ability to ensure the constitutional rights of all citizens.

In antebellum America, most Democrats believed in a strict system of states' rights in which the federal government did not interfere in the affairs of an individual state. Particularly following Jackson's threats to use the military to ensure that states adhered to federal law, politicians proceeded with caution when it came to the use of federal power. Fearing that use or abuse of power would upset the precarious balance in the Union, especially as it related to the slavery issue, political figures leaned more and more toward majority rule and local or states' rights as the ultimate source of authority in a democratic society. Democrats even refused to support national internal improvement projects for fear that they might establish a precedent for the federal exercise of interstate commerce powers over the interstate slave trade.

Among the proponents of this localist philosophy was Martin Van Buren. While serving as president of the United States in the winter of 1839–1840, Van Buren told Mormon petitioners, including Joseph Smith, that the federal government could provide no redress for their expulsion from the state of Missouri because the persecution incidents were a matter to be handled at the state level. Van Buren waxed political when he told Smith that his cause was just but that he could do nothing for fear that he would "come in contact with the whole State of Missouri." Van Buren's sentiment rankled Joseph Smith. The Mormon leader felt betrayed that the president would yield to the power, and votes, of a state when American citizens' First Amendment rights to religious liberty were being violated. The president and the federal government, Smith thought, had the power to protect citizens, but in the Mormons' case chose not to act. The church's many appeals to Congress met with almost identical replies, and the Mormons found themselves in a difficult position. They had approached the federal government only after their appeals to municipal and state governments were ignored or denied. Federal authorities consistently displayed an unwillingness to assist the Mormons. The federal government's denial of the Latter-day Saints' appeals on the basis of the states' rights philosophy signaled to members and leaders of the sect that no level of government would ensure their constitutional rights. Though states had certain powers, the federal government was responsible for maintaining the "inalienable rights" of all Americans. That was the position of Latter-day Saint leaders. The Mormons believed that American federalism in action was failing them.


Excerpted from Unpopular Sovereignty by Brent M. Rogers. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Imperium in Imperio: Sovereignty and the American Territorial System,
2. Intimate Contact: Gender, Plural Marriage, and the U.S. Army in Utah Territory, 1854–1856,
3. Missionaries to the Indians: Mormon and Federal Indian Policies,
4. Confronting the "Twin Relics of Barbarism": The Mormon Question, the Buchanan Administration, and the Limits of Popular Sovereignty,
5. The Utah War and the Westward March of Federal Sovereignty, 1857–1858,
6. The U.S. Army and the Symbolic Conquering of Mormon Sovereignty,
7. To 1862: The Codification of Federal Authority and the End of Popular Sovereignty in the Western Territories,

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