Joseph Smith’s Presidential Platform

Mormon Heretichistory, joseph, Leaders, Mormon, politics, prophets, smith 30 Comments

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?

Comments 30

  1. #8 — Compensated emancipation was a common middle-ground anti-slavery position. Problem was, the South wasn’t interested in selling. You’d have to use eminent domain (assuming you could’ve gotten Roger Taney to sign off on the purchase being “for a public use” — not likely, given (1) Taney’s pro-slavery inclinations, and (2) Kelo v. New London was still 161 years away). And if you even commenced that process — or any other effort to end slavery by even partial force — South Carolina would’ve revolted. It was prophesied, after all. (Not that it takes a prophet to find antebellum South Carolinians revolting.)

    Re: #1, maybe Congress could’ve used a reduction in its size in 1844, but I think it needs a substantial increase in its size (to make it more representative and accessible, and less bribeworthy) today.

  2. I’m surprised there aren’t a zillion comments on this by now. His platform wouldn’t fall in line with one particular party today, that’s for sure. I like the entire platform except for 1 and 4 (less taxes makes no sense to me right now because “we the people” spend money like drunken sailors). For awhile there, I thought the Quebec thing would result in us annexing parts of Canada, and sending freed slaves to Texas sounds great (‘course, there aren’t that many slaves left to free).

    The thing I like the best are 2 and 3. I realize that rehabilitating criminals hasn’t had a good track record in our country, but locking everybody up with hardened criminals for extended periods of time hasn’t resulted in particularly good results either. Not every bad choice should mess up your life forever.

  3. Nice post.

    I always thought Joseph was focused on building the New Jerusalem, and wouldn’t ever be able to separate church teachings from national political requirements. I don’t think he would have been a good president.

    I also was always surprised when statements were made that some actually took it serious and thought he had a chance. How could you be hated, tortured, and driven from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and then turn around and hope for those people to vote for you?

    In fact, when I got to those sections of Bushman’s book, Rough Stone Rolling, it disturbed me a little that Smith actually tried a campaign. It struck me as if he had established a movement in religion, but was just not sure where he was going next. As you stated, the banking efforts failed, trying to have a social order failed, polygamy was a disaster…it just started to seem like he was unsure where he was going when moving into these non-church areas, and it makes him look less led by God and more led by personal aspirations.

    I think he was a charismatic figure…but he had no support to implement any of these planks to his platform.

  4. I would not vote for Joseph Smith because he is prophet. For democracy to work right, a religious leader cannot be in charge of the country. Not only are there problems of exclusion, but I believe it would also go to Joseph Smith’s head.

  5. Congress continues to grow in size with each census.

    Except for a temporary increase in 1959 to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii, the House of Representatives has not increased in size since 1911. (The 1959 increase in the size of the Senate was permanent). The proposed (and apparently doomed) increase in the size of the House (to include DC and balance it with Utah) has nothing to do with the census.

    but we need to balance the budget, not simply reduce taxes

    “Simply” reducing taxes will push the budget further out of balance. That was not true in 1844, when the federal government ran a surplus and had virtually no outstanding debt to pay off. So this plank cannot be interpreted as an endorsement of tax cuts in general.

  6. MH, your posts are always well put together and thought-provoking. I wouldn’t have wanted to have to decide whether or not to vote for JS, myself. But I would have been interested to see what his campaign would have stirred up, and what kind of support he would have gotten.

    Your #8 was fascinating. I had no idea of JSs plan for purchasing freedom for the slaves. Thomas, you say this was “a common middle-ground position.” But Quincy makes it sound like an idea that was more-or-less unusual at the time. I’d love to learn more about this.

  7. I appreciated reading this post a lot. It’s easier to see into Joseph Smith’s humanity here (especially in some of the motivations that Bushman writes about. Why seek to become President? Because no one else seems to be willing to help Mormons.) The ambition of his platform is also pretty insightful.

    I am somewhat skeptical, but it’s for different reasons than, “He’s the prophet” or even “He seems to be unreliable and inept.”

    I mean, when I look at the idea to reduce the size and salary of congress, what comes to my mind is that if this is the case, the government will become even less representative, because more people will be represented by one seat.

    I can’t help but feel like “send slaves to Texas” sounds a lot like “sends slaves back to Africa/to Liberia” (with similar development.) And so on.

  8. Interesting perspective MH, Joseph’s run for the presidency raised problems for people inside the church as well. I think William Law made as big a deal about Joseph’s desire for political power as he did about polygamy in his one edition of the Nauvoo Expositor. It would seem that both of these issues were the largest motivators for publishing the paper.

    Also, I’m not sure I’m buying into Bushman’s opinion that JS was running for office because he couldn’t get the government to protect the saints. At the time, the Nauvoo Legion had a standing army of over three thousand troops, largest of any single militia in the USA. Most would consider that about as good of protection as could have been had in 1844. (I think the federal government had less than ten thousands for the whole country.) So I don’t see how being President would have provided more protection for the folks in Nauvoo…

    One last thought, most things I’ve read about this campaign lead me to believe that even JS realized he couldn’t win. His running then was serving some other purpose that I could only speculate about. I would be curious to know how his campaign was being financed, any idea where the money was coming from?

  9. Post

    Great comments all. Thomas, I think Joseph’s proposal was novel regarding a bloodless way to rid the nation of slavery. I wonder hwo the South would have reacted if this idea was floated more seriously. Perhaps “South Carolina would’ve revolted” anyway, even in the face of compensation for the slaves, but it sure would have been interesting to see what would have happened if this idea was taken more seriously.

    Martin, I agree that Joseph’s position split both the Democratic and Republican parties. In those early church days, both parties were scrambling for the Mormon vote, and both parties got irritated when Mormons switched allegiances in elections. I’m not a partisan at all, and I have voted for both parties, depending on the candidate (I’ve supported Ross Perot and Ralph Nadar, to go along with Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.) I like centrist candidates, and have been known to vote for a protest candidate when I don’t like the major party nominees.

    Heber, I liked Bushman’s quote that Joseph probably saw himself more of a protest candidate than someone with a legitimate chance of winning. But Joseph did put forth honest effort; nearly all the apostles were called on missions to campaign for him when he was killed.

  10. Post

    Dan, I know you argue for the separation of church and state, so I wonder how you feel about John F. Kennedy, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, and Mike Huckabee as president–I’m guessing you’d vote against them for the same reasons. I note that Sarah Barringer Gordon in her book “The Mormon Question” outlines that separation of church and state weren’t “constitutional” concepts in the late 1800’s like they are today. What do you make of Bushman’s quote? “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.”

    Last Lemming–I’m not a scholar of Congress–I thought it grew with the census. Thanks for the correction. Oh it would be nice to start having surpluses again so we don’t have to worry about hyperinflation.

    Andrew, I note that President Lincoln wanted to send all the slaves back to Africa, so I guess Joseph’s idea to send them all to Texas was similar to Lincoln.

    Doug, Quinn makes some claims that Joseph was more concerned that the Expositor would damage Joseph’s political aspirations than the polygamy claims. I think it’s an interesting claim, but I haven’t found anyone else that supports it. Perhaps I’ll have to post on it…

    Doug, yes the Nauvoo Legion was very large, but Bushman and Quinn and Brodie all detail the Haun’s Mill Massacre, the expulsion from Missouri, and the mobbings that took place. Smith, Rigdon, and a few others actually went to the White House to get Van Buren’s help to obtain property seized in Missouri, and Van Buren’s response was that the federal government didn’t have the constitutional authority to get into state issues–that’s WELL documented. Needless to say, that’s one reason Joseph couldn’t stand Van Buren.

    So, what’s so ironic about Smith’s platform of “11. Presidential authority to get involved in state disturbances” is that the federal government did get involved in the largest state disturbance of all time: the Civil War just 20 years later. And the federal government has continued to get involved in Waco, Kent State, De-segregation in the South, enforcement of anti-polygamy statutes, etc. So, Smith’s platform in #11 was apparently 20 years too early.

  11. Post

    I have to say I’m very uncomfortable with Joseph’s idea of liberal pardoning. While I understand that forgiveness is a good Christian thing to do, Mike Huckabee’s pardoning of a man who went on to kill in Washington state shows that liberal pardoning can have lethal consequences. I’m also really uncomfortable with Pres Clinton’s liberal pardoning of many cronies in the last days of office–especially Mark Rich. It just seems that there can be such negligence (Huckabee) or corruption (Clinton) that I’m just not a fan of this policy.

    On the other hand, I had a co-worker emphasize that Joseph spent much time in jail, so that could affect his perspectives of it. I think that’s a very fair point, but just because someone is religious like Huckabee, doesn’t mean they have the best judgment or inspiration about a person’s character. I don’t think Smith was a good judge of character because so many of the people he trusted turned on him.

    Finally, I do like his idea to rehab prisoners. Here in SLC, there is a big debate about rehabbing drug offenders for $5000/year, or incarcerating them for $30,000/year. The pilot rehab program has shown to be VERY effective at reducing recitivism of drug offenders, yet the state wants to cut the budget. Such a proposal seems short-sighted to me, and I think we’ll save more money rehabbing than convicting. I’m with Smith on this one. Many of the people in jails are there because they don’t have job skills, and I think it makes sense to educate prisoners than let them rot in jail and become better crooks.

    However, there’s the political football. People will say, “Hey, how come prisoners get a free education while I’m a law-abiding citizen and I can’t even get a Pell Grant?” It’s a valid argument, because I don’t want Pell Grant guy to rob a liquor store in order to get a free education. We don’t have money to educate everyone, so how do we decide who we help with education?

  12. As for the idea to create national banks, this would actually have been a great solution in his day – there was no FDIC or national oversight and regulation for banking like there is today. If your bank failed, it failed, and there went your money. As JS discovered firsthand under his own failed banking venture.

    Great post, MH! As always, very illuminating. I knew a lot of the points of his platform, but it’s nice to have it laid out so clearly, and I agree with those who said there are many ideas here (and a great combination of ideas) to admire.

  13. Oh, and my favorite of his ideas was the rehabilitation of prisoners. We seem to be very focused on punishment & revenge, along with protecting the citizenry from our fear of repeat criminals. By the same token, I think there are certain crimes (pedophilia) that may not be curable, and there is a limit to how often a repeat offender can be rehabilitated. But prison as it is today is a better criminal factory than anything else, helping criminals build up their social network rather than reconstructing a productive life.

  14. I’m gonna have to disagree with Hawk (gasp). The idea of a central bank, coupled with oversight is, in my opinion, what leads to economic instability of the sort we have just experienced. The problems associated with fiat money are substantial, and a central bank that artificially controls the supply of credit has proven disastrous for this country.

    I do agree, however, with rehab of prisoners, although I don’t think it is the primary purpose of imprisonment. I view the primary purpose of imprisonment as basically telling someone to go sit in the corner. If you can’t play nice with the other children, you don’t get to play. Rehabilitation is a good add-on though, particularly if it were implemented better than today’s criminal factories.

  15. jmb – well I don’t know how much we really disagree on that point; I just didn’t word my view very well. I’m not advocating a national bank, just national oversight, regulatory requirements, and deposit insurance. My real point was that the FDIC was created to address the gaps in JS’s era – putting your money in “Fred’s Bank” without any federal regulation was pretty risky, which is why many hid their money in mattresses and cookie jars, and why so many were willing to trust JS, an itinerant farmer, as a banker. But perhaps your libertarianism goes further than mine! It feels to me as though a total free market approach to banking was a failure.

  16. I’m surprised that no one mentioned the fact that politics played a huge role in Joseph Smith’s assasination. A good book on the subject is Junius and Joseph by two professors from Utah State.

  17. “yes the Nauvoo Legion was very large, but Bushman and Quinn and Brodie all detail the Haun’s Mill Massacre, the expulsion from Missouri, and the mobbings that took place.”

    Those events all happened in 1838-39 motivating the church to get a charter once they were established in Nauvoo which authorized a militia and certain legal rights such as habeas corpus. I of course don’t want to disagree with Brodie or Quinn, but it would seem that he had already done everything allowable by law to try and prevent further atrocities against the saints. I just don’t see how being president would make the members of the church safer, especially in outlining areas were a group of neighbors may decide in the middle of the night to help move you along. Legally, as president he wouldn’t have been able to influence state courts to rule in favor of LDS members for wrong doings by their neighbors either. Even today the judicial branch of government is separate from the executive branch, or at least I would still like to believe it is. 🙂

    I’m still curious how he was financing this run as well. Presidential campaigns are expensive, even in that day. I don’t want to accuse him falsely of using tithing funds for this venture, so if someone knows for sure how this was all being paid for, I would be interested to know…

  18. In those days the candidate didn’t campaign. He stayed home and sent others to speak for him. Much less time consuming and considering JS’s campaigners likely went without purse of scrip, not very expensive.

  19. I agree with GBSmith–it’s not like Joseph was putting out expensive tv and radio ads. He didn’t have to worry about McCain-Feingold, or any other campaign finance reform.

    I will add that when Joseph wanted to talk to Pres Van Buren, he simply knocked on the door of the White House. The government was much simpler back then. I think we’d be surprised how primitive the government, campaigning, and elections were back then.

  20. #22: “Election rules and ethics” are a modern invention, for our ever-so-much-more-ethical age. In Washington’s time, there were about as many “election rules” as there were in that knife fight at the beginning of “Butch Cassidy.” (“Someone count one-two-three-go!”) And yet that process gave us George Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln. Our new & improved, legislated-to-heck’n’gone current system gives us…

  21. While it is possible that JS didn’t go out and campaign, to say that campaigns in that day weren’t expensive is not really true. (Having said that, I don’t know what JS was spending on his campaign so you could be correct that his didn’t actually cost much.) For serious candidates, whistle-stop train tours all over the east were common by 1844 as well as steam ship travel up and down major waterways giving speeches at all the landings. The newspaper was probably the main source of political campaigning with party newspapers sprouting up in most major cites extolling the virtues of the party’s candidates. If these kinds of things were not part of JS campaign, then his run was kind of a joke. (IMHO)

    Polk’s victory in 1844 was on the narrowest of margins having won the presidency with 141 to 134 Electoral College votes without winning the majority of the popular vote. His dark horse victory was later explained by his excellent use of party newspapers, machinery, and many localized campaign headquarters. My point is, Jacksonian politics was at an end by 1844 and the two party system was well in place. That system drove harder campaigning by delegates and much more money needed to get the party’s nomination. So tell me again why JS campaign didn’t cost any money??? If it didn’t then he really had no desire to win…

  22. “#18 is not me. Please change your user name if you post here in the future.”

    O man, here I thought Ray had turned over a new leaf… 🙂

  23. Post

    doug, I don’t think smith thought he was going to win, so I doubt he has a well-oiled political machine like the whig and democrat parties. I believe bushman said in the pew forum that joseph was running more of a spoiler campaign, similar to pat buchanon in the 1992 election.

    buchanon didn’t think he would win the nomination over bush sr either, but he did force bush to the right, which probably helped clinton win. similarly joseph thought as a third party candidate, he might be able to extract some concessions to help the mormons. I think joseph was realistic in running his campaign.

  24. Post
  25. I love the Prophet Joseph Smith. That man’s heart had not a drop of impurity or self-aggrandizement in it even before he was martyred, and he loved all men with a great love as his brothers and, indeed, his responsibility to some degree, under our Lord Jesus Christ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *