Fighting for the Principle Part II

The Reynolds case was seen as a very critical one by both sides.  For the anti-polygamists the case was a chance to attack the base of the Mormon lifestyle.  The prosecution was headed by George Devens, Attorney General of the United States,  who represented the Republican desire to attack the other half of their feared twin relics of barbarism, polygamy, the other being slavery.[1]  Devens leaned heavily on the concept that if Mormon plural marriage was allowed it would also mean that violent religious actions, such as the massacre at Mountain Meadows, would be justifiable under the law.[2]

            The Defense was led by George Biddle, a well known Democrat, sought to defend Reynolds, not on first amendment rights but rather through the use of Dredd Scott case, a ruling which found that states rights had precedence over federal legislation. The argument was that his client was subject to the local laws and not federal ones such as the Morrill Act in matters of marriage.  Using Dredd Scott had one obvious drawback, the case was considered to be bad juris prudence by the late 1870s. So the use of it, especially a ruling about fugitive slaves, would end up being a mistake on the part of the defense.[3]

            The Supreme Court looked at the ruling as nothing more or less than a first amendment case.  They ruled almost exclusively along those lines.  They saw the case as strictly one about actions and not belief.  They also determined polygamy was step back to barbarism. This opinion, though racially charged, was common among those in academia and other positions studying race through the lens of what would become Social Darwinism.  Chief Justice Morrison Waite describing polygamy said, “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.”[4]  Once again by constructing Mormons as outsiders it made it easier to isolate their deviancy. 

            In the end the court ruled in favour of the prosecution, deciding that religious actions were not protected under the first amendment, so the Mormon polygamists could believe in the principle all they wanted but they had to obey the law.  When the court ruled on this case in 1879 it seemed the Mormons would have to back down if they wanted to obey the laws of the land.  Instead the church leadership and most of its adherents decided to continue openly disobeying the Morrill Act.[5]

            The Reynolds case was a significant one for setting legal precedent and because of that many historians study the case as an example of rulings on freedom of religion.  Most agree that it was a bad ruling, because it became tied to the moral ideals of the 19th century conservative courts rather than on case law.[6]

            The flaw in the Morrill law from the anti-polygamist point of view was that it focused on conviction for polygamy.  It was incredibly difficult to prove someone was a polygamist because the church claimed it held no records of marriage and none of the participants would testify that they were living as plural wives.  This left the prosecution with little to go on.  Aside from Reynolds, during the period between 1879 and 1882 no other Mormon polygamists were convicted.  Almost immediately after the Reynolds ruling the emboldened anti-polygamists sought further legislation.[7]

            Heading the cause for the anti-polygamists in Senate was Charles Edmunds from Vermont.  A staunch supporter for the reconstruction in Utah, Edmunds was an important player in the 1874 Poland Act which restricted the power of Utah probate judges, which were usual Mormon controlled in favour of the federal courts. These probate courts would rule in favour of the polygamist defendant because they were generally run by Mormons.[8] He fought hard to get legislation in place that would no longer have to prove polygamy, now they would be able to determine polygamists by the much easier term of cohabitation.  This much more loaded term put the power back in the federal courts to attack Mormons living in plural marriage.[9] 

            In the 1980s historians focused on the lives of those living polygamy.  Richard Van Wagoner and Jessie Embry both wrote books discussing more than just the politics of polygamy.  Embry, using Kimball Young’s data wrote about the lives of those who lived in the time period.  She and Van Wagoner discussed the varieties of ways polygamy was lived by the Mormon population. They noted that for both men and women, living the principle even before the hostile laws of the 1880s were a mixed bag.[10]

After the beginning of the enforcement of the Tucker Act, Mormons living in Utah, like Mary Louise Walker Morris, daily activities were broken up, as soon as 1883, with stories of Mormon brushes with the legal system.  Morris writes on May 18, 1883, “Sister Bell Harris was put in the Penitentiary today for not telling whos Wife she was.”[11]  The battles with the legal system led some of the wives to choose between perjury and imprisonment for their husbands.  Legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon argued, it was a terrible price to pay while keeping their homes.[12]

Men convicted under these new laws they were just as willing to flout the law.  Rudger Clawson for example, when brought in front the court, explained that when it came between following the laws of the land or laws of God there was no contest.  It would earn him four years in prison and an eight hundred dollar fine for his conviction.[13]  Clawson who would later become a part of the leadership of the church would become very frustrated with his treatment as a prisoner.  In a letter to President Grover Cleveland he pointed out that murderers had been pardoned, while he was left to serve his full sentence, he was required to give up his support of plural marriage and obey the law, while the murderers gave no such assurance.[14]

The question remains, why were Mormons so emboldened to go against the laws of the land at the peril of their economic, physical, and domestic well being. Historians Marvin Hill and Dan Erickson may have the best answer.  Erickson argues that many Mormons believed strongly that the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur in 1891, because Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed a prophecy in which God told him, “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.”[15]   The Mormons, under massive persecution and threatened from every corner viewed those troubles in the 1880s as a sign of the times, meaning the end of the world.  Holding this belief it helped them to suffer through trials they faced.[16]

As the focus in history changed from studying big picture history to micro history, including cultural and gender studies, academics began to focus on different aspects of the period surrounding the polygamist raids, as they were called by the Mormons, or crusade, by the non-Mormons. Often women in this confrontation was only mildly covered.  However, Joan Smyth Iverson in 1990 published one of the first works focusing on the role Mormon women played in the 19th century suffrage movement.  These married women played a large part in fighting the political battles for their husbands as well as themselves.  Historians studying this issue often note, while there were anti-polygamists in the suffragettes, there was also a healthy respect among some of the leaders for the Mormon women.  Caught between supporting suffrage and upholding monogamy, many suffragettes paradoxically ended up fighting to remove the right to vote for Utah women.[17]

One of the more notable of the Mormon women fighting for the rights of their husbands was Emmeline B. Wells. She was a powerful writer, and an able organizer, who often was called to leadership roles within the church.  However, her independence was tempered somewhat by her loneliness, as with some who were wives in plural marriage, at times, she had a hard and difficult life.  Wells had been previously married twice, in the first the man ran off, in the other he died.  In the mid 1870s she often longed for her first son, who had died after child birth, and wishing her third husband, Daniel Wells, would spend more time with her.  Even with these problems however Wells led the response to those who wanted to end the Principle.  Her vigorous work with the Woman’s Exponent and suffrage movement was incredibly important for the public face of the church.[18]

Wells launched into a famous defense of her polygamist sisters in the Exponent:

How mistaken the world are, when they represent Mormon women in bondage to men. There is no greater freedom than the Gospel gives to woman. And it is this that makes Mormon women conscious of their power. They have suffered and become strong; experience has matured them, and given them a higher order of attainment than a mere mental education. Have not the enemies of this people caused suffering enough to women and children? Have not the hardships already endured in times past, the recital of which has often brought tears from the eyes of strangers, given you sufficient evidence that you cannot eradicate from this people the principles for which they have endured so much? Let them alone; if they are wrong, time will eventually show them the error; if they are right how vain are your efforts.[19]

            On the side of the anti-polygamists was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who as an abolitionist wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and now took up the pen once more to respond to polygamy.  Her writings mobilized the Utah anti-polygamists into action. According to Professor Joan Smyth Iverson, these women appealed to the First Lady Lucy Hayes who helped to set up a group to reclaim the women in Utah from Polygamy.  The Utah anti-polygamists also worked on leaders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association headed by Susan B. Anthony to try and stem the burgeoning alliance between the organization and the Mormon women.  The Utah anti-polygamists declared themselves supporters of suffrage everywhere but Utah.  By 1887 they won the battle as the Edmund Tucker Act ended the woman’s right to vote in the Utah territory, which for some suffragettes was seen as a victory.[20] 

George Edmunds was a Republican who understood what the Mormons were trying to do in establishing statehood.  In Harper’s Magazine in January of 1882 he explained in full detail his objections to Utah receiving statehood and why he felt they needed to be limited.  He attacked Mormons, not on theology, but on political grounds attacking their control of all levels of the territorial government.  His stance, that without gaining control of Utah, the Federal government could not force the Mormons to bend to the common will outside the state.  He felt, “If we really mean to exterminate polygamy in Utah, it can easily be done by lawful and just means, and without doing an injury even (but rather a good) to all morally innocent persons involved in the practice, and their children.”[21]


[1] Gordon, 126-127.[2] “Is Polygamy a Crime?” New York Times, November 15, 1878

[3] Gordon, 124-126.

[4] Reynolds v. U.S. 98 U.S. 145 (1878), 164.

[5] Melvin L. Bashore, “Behind Adobe Walls and Iron Bars: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary Library,”
Libraries & Culture, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Summer 2003):  236-237

[6] Edwin B. Firmage, “Free Exercise of Religion in Nineteenth Century America: The Mormon Cases,” Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 7, No. 2. (1989): 288-290.

[7] Gordon, 154.

[8] John Kincaid, “Extinguishing the Twin Relics of Barbaric Multiculturalism – Slavery and Polygamy – From American Federalism,” The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 33, No. 1, (Winter, 2003): 84-85.

[9] Katherine M. Daynes, More Wives Than One:Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 2001, 47-50 .

[10] Karen J. Blair, “Review of Never Married Women by Barbara Levy Simon and Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle by Jessie L. Embry,” The Oral History Review, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Autumn, 1988), 135-138.

[11] Mary Lois Walker Morris, Before the Manifesto: The Life Writings of Mary Lois Walker Morris, Edited by Melissa Lambert Milewski, (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press), 2007, 368.

[12] Gordon, 161-164

[13] Rudger Clawson, Prisoner For Polygamy: The Memoirs and Letters of Rudger Clawson at the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, 1884-87, Edited by Stan Larson, (Urbana: Unversity of Illinois Press), 1993, 41-42.

[14] Clawson, 144.

[15] Doctrine and Covenants, 130: 15.

[16] Dan Erickson, “Joseph Smith’s 1891 Millennial Prophesy,” The Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Fall 1996), 5-7.

[17] Joan Smyth Iverson, “The Mormon-Suffrage Relationship: Personal and Political Quandaries,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2/3, (1990), 10-12.

[18] Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of The Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company), 1982, 296-299.

[19] Emmeline B. Wells, “Reveries of a Woman,” Woman’s Exponent, Vol. 5, No. 23, May 1, 1877, 180.

[20] Smyth Iverson, 9-12

[21] George F. Edmunds, “Political Aspects of Mormonism,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, (Jan. 1882), 285-288.

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