When Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, politics were far from his mind. His settlement had been on the frontier. Politicians didn’t visit Joseph’s Manchester settlement much. Nor did its settlers care if they did.
Even still, Joseph’s movements had grand designs. In a little log cabin in Fayette, New York, Joseph promised a small number of newly-ordinaed Melchizedek priesthood holders that Mormonism would eventually become a world religion. Most of the men had received the right to vote only a few years prior. Joseph’s religious movement was to be a populist revolution against a world order gone awry.
Over the next decade, the Saints settled and resettled in various locations throughout the Midwest. Starting in the fertile country of the northeastern Ohio River valley, the Saints always established themselves as a bloc. They paid little overt attention to the Whig and Democratic political factions of the day. Their eyes were on the millennial horizon ahead of them. In Kirtland, W.W. Phelps declared that “There must great changes take place in the world, both political and religious-great revolutions will take place among men to prepare the way of the Son of man.”
Early on, Joseph Smith received a revelation directing him to establish the Mormon people as a “new Zion” in the frontier of Missouri. The city of Zion was to be a theo-political entity—independent from the rough-and-tumble politics that rocked antebellum America. In 1831, a small wave of Mormons ascended to their new Zion on the Missouri frontier. While the Mormons were speaking of kingdoms, promised lands, and covenant peoples, the men of the Missouri frontier were Jacksonian Democrats—living in Jackson county—who believed in individual enterprise without the meddling of a Yankee religious sect opposed to slavery and had all the trappings of a theocratic government-in-waiting. Local settlers chased the Saints from Jackson County at gunpoint. When Joseph arrived with a band of men ready to defend the Saints’ land, Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin informed him: “In this republic, Vox Populi Vox Dei [“The Voice is the Voice of God”]. While the Saints managed to win support in the state legislature for a new county made for them, it was clear that they were persona non grata in the state of Missouri. The image of an enraged mob led by sectarian ministers was seared into the collective memory of the Mormon people. Missouri marked the beginning of the Saints’ loss of faith in American democracy.
The Missourians cast the Mormons as rabid abolitionists. In 1834, Missouri had passed one of the most restrictive laws in the country regarding the importation of African-Americans into the state. Mormons would unleash “degraded and corrupted free negroes and mulattos” as “fit companions for [their] wives and daughters.” To avoid the political Joseph Smith distanced himself from the abolitionists. Joseph tried to assure locals that they “do not believe in setting the Negros free” since it would “set loose, upon the world a community of people who might peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society,—chastity and virtue.” While Joseph himself was inclined towards abolitionist sentiments, he felt constrained to uphold the peculiar institution in the name of holding onto his hoped-for Zion on the Missouri frontier. But the war was not over.
The Saints continued to spill over into Jackson County, and the Jackson County residents watched them like hawks. Black-loving theocrats had no place in the American republic or civil society. So when Governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered the Mormons “exterminated or driven from the state” in fall 1838, he believed he was eliminating a rival government, a threat to the political and social stability of the state. In the dead of winter, the Saints removed to Commerce, Illinois—a swampy marsh that Joseph promptly renamed “Nauvoo”—a Hebrew
word for “beautiful” he learned during his Hebrew lesson taken in Kirtland. They built a bustling rivertown that would come to rival Chicago in size. As a cohesive voting bloc, the Saints were an attractive constituency for local politicians to win, especially in a region with evenly-matched Democratic and Whig voting bases. Throughout the 1830s, the Democrats seemed to hold sway
over the Saints until Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, told Joseph Smith in 1840 that his hands were tied; he could do nothing for the Sain
ts hoping to gain redress for their loss of land in the 1838 war. Perhaps the Whigs would help them? Politicians of both political parties fought for the Mormon vote. The major political issues of the day—slavery, the national bank, and the annexation of Texas—had little relevance to the city-state of Nauvoo. As a refugee population frightened of being expelled again, the Saints were obsessed with self-determination and the right to protect themselves from the hands of unruly mobs.
In 1841, Stephen R. Douglas managed to convince Joseph Smith that he could protect Mormon interests. But when Democratic Governor Thomas Carlin allowed Missourians to extradite Joseph Smith in 1843, the Mormons withdrew support and returned to the Whig camp. After Smith escaped from the Missouri mob’s custody, Whig attorney Cyrus Walker even agreed to provide Joseph legal counsel, a promise that won Joseph’s promise of a vote for him to the House of Representatives. Only when the Mormons heard rumors that the newly-elected (and Democratic) governor Thomas Ford would invade the city to retake the Prophet did Smith direct his people to vote for Walker’s Democratic opponent, Joseph Hoge in the August 1843 election. The 11th-hour flip enraged both parties. Joseph publicly claimed independence: “I am a third party [and] stand independent and alone.” All were bent on “driving the Mormons out of the state.” The Mormons’ presence was no longer an obnoxious nuisance; now they were a political liability that inspired “deadly hostility” from all who sought public office. Unreliability was an unforgivable sin in frontier Illinois.
From August 1843 onward, political party organs across the state churned out charges accusing Joseph Smith of heading a theocratic city-state. Joseph himself would declare his candidacy for the Presidency in spring 1844. Few paid him heed. Those concerned with politics at all only found the move to be an even more egregious affront to American democratic sensibilities. The Nauvoo Expositor, formed in early June by dissident Saints, parroted the claims. Joseph ordered the newspaper to be destroyed. Joseph’s act ignited murderous rage throughout the state and his arrest for riotous activity. While this charge was eventually dropped, another charge of treason was soon handed to him. Joseph finally submitted to the authorities and was jailed in the Hancock County seat jail at Carthage, Illinois. The mob that killed him was nothing more than simple ruffians. They followed the cues set for them by partisans enraged that someone would dare to defy the two-party system.
The assassination of Joseph Smith dashed any lingering hope the Saints had in American party system. Elected officials were weak and beholden to the whims of mobs and factions. Lilburn W. Boggs had ordered for their removal. Thomas Ford had failed to ensure Joseph’s safety while in custody. The only way to ensure justice would be for the Saints to create their own government free of the partisan bickering that had contributed to their leader’s death. They searched about for a land to build their city of God: Texas, California, or even the Great Basin. America had failed them. There must now be a “new order of things.”