So, I came across an interview of Richard Bushman at the Pew Research Forum, about both early and modern Mormon politics. I’ve also been reading a book called The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power by D Michael Quinn on the early leadership of the church. I want to combine the 2 sources, and talk about Joseph Smith’s presidential plans of 1844. First, let me quote Bushman.
“Smith was forced into politics by the abuse that the Mormons received. As soon as they were driven out of their first city site in Independence, Mo., he turned to the government for redress. He never obtained it. No level of government, from local justices of the peace to governors to the president of the United States – to whom he constantly appealed – ever came to the defense of the Saints. But Joseph Smith became a great devotee of constitutional rights because they seemed like his only hope. He said some very extravagant things about the Constitution being God-given because of those rights and became quite conversant in constitutional matters. He even visited the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, in the White House in 1839.
Gradually, then, Joseph Smith backed into American politics. In the fall of 1843, as the 1844 campaign began to take shape, the authorities of the church wrote to all of the known political candidates asking them about their views of the Mormons, and none returned a satisfactory answer from the Mormon point of view. The Mormons wanted a pledge that these candidates would protect them if they were attacked again, and they couldn’t get it.
Joseph Smith was nominated as a protest candidate in February of 1844. Like other protest candidates, he began to warm to his work and got quite excited about it. He may have dreamed for a moment that through some strange concatenation of events, he would get elected. Every candidate has to dream such things.
His involvement in politics was manifested in a political platform of which he was very proud. He would bring it out whenever he had visitors and read from it. It is an interesting document because it represents a man whose world had been his own people, whose own project had been to create a kingdom of God, and who now had to turn his mind to politics.”
I want to address some really interesting parts of Joseph Smith’s platform that I found really interesting. Regarding slavery, Joseph Smith came up with a solution that would have avoided the Civil War. He advocated low taxes (just like conservatives do today.) I found most of his points very appealing. Let me quote from Quinn’s book, page 119,
“Smith’s Views revealed him as more than a one-issue candidate. For the reform of government, he intended to reduce the size and salary of Congress. In judicial reform, he advocated rehabilitation of convicts through work projects and vocational training and liberal pardoning. In economic reform, he proposed less taxation, free trade, secure international rights on the high seas, and establishment of a national bank in every state and territory. On the slavery question, he advocated compensated emancipation through the sale of public lands. To cope with resulting social stress, he advocated the relocation of the several million freed slaves to Texas. In keeping with the spirit of “Manifest Destiny” in the 1840s, he proposed annexation of Oregon and Texas and whatever parts of Canada wished to join the Union. As a reflection of the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, Smith’s platform also advocated presidential intervention in civil disturbances within states. As one author noted, this interventionist impulse ‘did not exist until the Civil War and Reconstruction.'”
So I want to address several points, and give my comments.
1. Reduce the size and salary of congress. Wow! Congress continues to grow in size with each census. I’d love to cut salary, but on the other hand, the only people who go to Congress are the rich. Perhaps increasing salary would invite more middle class types. I’m not sure how cutting the size of congress would impact the nation. I need a constitutional scholar on this one.
2. Rehab convicts – I like this idea. While everyone likes to think they’re tough on crime and wants to throw ’em all in jail and throw away the key, the reality is we can’t build prisons fast enough to keep pace. And the prisoners we do have end up becoming more skilled at criminal activity. It seems our current procedures are not working. I’m with Smith on this one.
3. Liberal Pardoning – Hmmmm, didn’t we go through that with Bill Clinton? Mike Huckabee has some pardon problems of his own. I’m not sure I like this one as it has the capacity for abuse, and possible risks to public safety.
4. Less taxes – yes, but we need to balance the budget, not simply reduce taxes.
5. Free trade – I guess he would support NAFTA
6. Secure International Rights on high seas – It seems pirates are making another comeback. I’m with Smith on this one.
7. Establishment of national bank in every state and territory – Bad idea. We are currently experiencing banking problems with banks getting too big and doing bad mortgages. Joseph has a bad record of running a bank. See my post on the Kirtland Bank Failure.
8. Sale of public lands for sale of slaves – I like it. That’s a much better solution than the Civil War was. Richard Bushman commented about this at the Pew Research Forum,
He began by citing the Declaration of Independence, the famous passages about all men being equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, which of course could be a lead-in to religious rights. But he didn’t use it that way. Instead, in the very next sentence, he talked about the obvious contradiction: “Some two or three million people are held as slaves for life because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” His platform called for the elimination of slavery, proposing that the funds from the sale of Western lands, a major source of revenue along with the tariff in those days, be devoted to purchasing slaves from their masters in order to avoid the conflict that would otherwise ensue.
Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston, visited Joseph Smith in the spring of 1844 when this platform was in circulation. Much later, Quincy wrote about that visit, saying that Joseph Smith’s proposal for ending slavery resembled one that Emerson made 11 years later in 1855.
As Quincy put it, writing retrospectively in the 1880s, “We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty” – Joseph Smith’s and Emerson’s – “would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844?”
9. Send all the freed slaves to Texas – Wow, what would Texas be like if that happened? Remember at this time, Texas was trying to become independent nation from Mexico. About 1848 came the Mexican-American War, freeing Texas from Mexico and establishing Texas as an independent nation. (Texas was later annexed into the US.)
10. Annex Texas, Oregon, and parts of Canada??? I know Canadians like the US, but I didn’t know they wanted to be part of our union!!!
11. Presidential authority to get involved in state disturbances. As I mentioned in my Sidney Rigdon post, Van Buren refused to get involved in Missouri because he didn’t feel that was a federal mandate. Joseph was 20 years ahead of actions which resulted in the Civil War. It’s interesting to see how Joseph would have wanted to handle the federal raid in Waco, and the state raid of the FLDS (both in Texas.)
Finally, let me conclude with Bushman again.
This part of his platform accords perfectly with what modern people like us would have liked a candidate in 1844 to say. But Smith went beyond our sense of political propriety in other parts of his platform: he blended his role as candidate with his role as prophet. He was already mayor of Nauvoo and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion when he ran for the presidency. He seemingly had no sense that church and state should be separated. He gave no hint that he was going to give up his religious offices if he were to become president of the United States.
In the closing peroration of his platform, Joseph Smith indirectly, but I think clearly, offered himself to be the priest of the people, as well as the president. “I would, as the universal friend of man, open the prisons, open the eyes, open the ears, and open the hearts of all people to behold and enjoy freedom, unadulterated freedom; and God, who once cleansed the violence of the earth with flood, whose Son laid down his life for the salvation of all his father gave him out of the world, and who has promised that he will come and purify the world again with fire in the last days, should be supplicated by me for the good of all the people.” He would be the intercessor as priest as well as prophet.
Of course, that is point at which moderns part company with Joseph Smith. We don’t want a prophet with his authoritative words from God governing the nation. That seems to lead to the exclusion of unbelievers and the repression of naysayers. All the alarm bells go off when we see these roles merging.
But I would appeal to you, before you turn away completely from that idea, to pay heed to the underlying theme of that platform and that proposal. I think it can be argued that Joseph Smith actually felt he was fulfilling one of America’s dreams. We think of the American dream as the promise of ascent for the wretched refuse of the teeming shores – the promise that in America, everyone has a chance to prosper and to achieve respectability. That is a dream for the individual.
So, what do you think of Smith’s platform?