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The Mormon Question: Polygamy & Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America

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Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

The Mormon faith has had a significant impact on American culture and law, though most people are probably unaware of this. It’s not as though people are unfamiliar with Mormonism or even a bit of Mormon history, but that familiarity tends to be superficial and rarely includes knowledge of the Mormon legal or political battles of the 19th century. These battles were important because they helped shaped the contours of America’s policies on religion in the public square.


Title: The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America
Author: Sarah Barringer Gordon
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 0807849871

•  Amazing synthesis of information from many different sources
•  Reveals the continuing relevance of debates which most people are only dimly aware of
•  Relevant to current debates on gay marriage; possibly future debates on polygamy again

•  None

•  Analysis of the arguments used against and on behalf of polygamy in 19th century America
•  Explores how these debates impacted American politics and continue to affect us
•  Draws together research from literature, law, politics, and popular culture


Book Review

The primary source of conflict between Mormons and the government was, as people might expect, over the institution of polygamy. Plural marriages were one of things which most distinguished Mormons from the rest of the population. Because of polygamy and other practices, Mormons were hounded from their homes and their prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed by a mob.

The concept of “local sovereignty” allowed communities to persecute Mormons without the possibility of relief form higher authorities; when the Mormons moved to Utah, though, they used “local sovereignty” as a means to enforce and protect their own ideas. Here, then, we have the nexus of the conflict: Mormons tried to use their local sovereignty as a defense for polygamy while opponents of Mormonism justified efforts to use the authority of the federal government to outlaw polygamy on the basis of “common morality.”

Interestingly, both attacks on and defenses of polygamy were inextricably linked with attacks on and defenses of slavery — both were defended on the premise of federalism and both were attacked on the premise that they were affronts to morality and civilization. All of this is explored not only in great deal, but also in engaging prose by Sarah Barringer Gordon in her book The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Bringing together diverse cultural, legal, and political materials, Gordon’s research provides fascinating insight on the politics of religion in the 19th century as Mormons battled for a right to put their religious beliefs into practice.

According to Mormons, polygamy was their right as Americans; according to their opponents, polygamy, like slavery, was a remnant of barbarism that needed to be extinguished.

Many conservatives today believe that the centralization of power in the federal government was a product of the New Deal policies of Roosevelt and liberal Democrats in the early 20th century. There is merit to this view, but it’s clear from Gordon’s book that conservatives themselves launched this trend in their fight against polygamy. The fact that conservatives today oppose federalism and state sovereignty when it comes to moral issues is made more understandable when we link these policies to earlier anti-Mormon politics. The Mormon defenders of polygamy eventually lost, obviously, but it was never clear that their loss was inevitable. They not only had good arguments in defense of their position, but they had powerful political supporters as well.

Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America

It was possible that they could have won, at least in a limited way, and that would have had as profound of an effect on American politics and religion as their loss has had. Either way, then, the Mormon challenge to prevailing Christian standards of behavior ensured that they would affect how church and state interact for everyone in America.

It’s curious that today we have reached a point of legally guaranteed sexual autonomy that would have been unthinkable to the anti-polygamists of the era; indeed, even the polygamists probably would have been aghast at the extent of people’s liberty today. Yet at the same time, polygamy remains illegal even as people are fighting to legalize gay marriage. The arguments in both cases sound familiar: opponents of gay marriage insist that heterosexual monogamy is the cornerstone of civilization; opponents of polygamy said the same thing. Thus the arguments over polygamy continue to be relevant not only because of their influence on the shape of American politics, but also because they continue to be used in one form or another in current debates.

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