Lincoln’s views on Mormonism
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 13:03
It is not unusual to think of Abraham Lincoln as a hero. For all that he overstepped the bounds of his constitutional authority more than any other man in the history of the Presidency, the feats he accomplished and the good he managed to do erase it from our memory. And great feats he truly did accomplish. Lincoln oversaw our fledgling nation as it teetered near complete collapse. He pulled us away from the precipice exerting extraordinary and utterly unprecedented extra-constitutional powers, and yet managed to preserve the proper functionality of the constitution for peacetime prosperity. He actually held an election — which he thought he was going to lose — in the midst of the Civil War. Indeed, there is much to respect in the history of Abraham Lincoln. But what you may not be aware of is that in the middle of everything that Lincoln was doing, the Mormons in Utah were never far from his mind.
Lincoln’s taking notice of Utah begins with the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. At the time, the admittance of new states to the Union was highly controversial as it could upset the balance between slave and free state representation in the Senate. Stephen Douglas was not an avid supporter of slavery, but neither was he willing to tread on Southern states’ toes. In the end, his justification for refusing to condemn slavery boiled down to a state’s right to institutionalize its own moral ethic. Lincoln quickly jumped in with the Utah card. If states should choose their own moral ethic, then why not let Utah into the Union as a polygamist state?
As much as we like to think that we helped Lincoln win a debate, Lincoln was no friend of polygamy. You may have heard that the Republican Party was founded in opposition to the grave moral wrong of slavery. Actually, the Republican Party was founded in opposition to “the twin relics of barbarism,” referring to both slavery and polygamy. In 1862, the Republican-dominated congress passed the Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, and Lincoln quickly signed it into law. But Lincoln never tried to enforce that law.
Rather than imposing his will on the Utah Territory, then being governed by the theocratic pseudo-state of Deseret headed by Brigham Young, Lincoln instead sought knowledge. The New York Times reports that on November 18th, 1861, Lincoln “asked the Library of Congress to send him a pile of books about Mormonism…” These books included “The Book of Mormon” in its 1831 edition, and three other early studies of Mormons. Then, Lincoln decided to do … nothing. He let the Mormons be. They sent the telegraph and railroad through Utah, and Brigham Young famously remarked, “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.”
Today, we recognize and remember Lincoln for his courageous and strategic inaction as he deftly maneuvered a trying political battlefield, and struggled to reunite a nation in chaos. We remember him for his firm resolve to fulfill the oath he took upon entering office to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.” We remember him for firmly rejecting out of hand the idea of being monarch even as he held the powers of a monarch in his hand and had ample opportunity and motive to hold onto them. And finally, we remember Lincoln because almost 150 years after his death, Utah is a firmly loyal state of the Union.
Did Lincoln really read the Book of Mormon? Maybe. He certainly had means and motive. But we can never know for certain as long as we live. You’ll just have to ask him in Paradise.
– Peter Daines is a senior in the political science department. He has been involved in the leadership of multicultural and diversity clubs such as the Latino Student Union and Love is for Everyone. Send comments and questions to email@example.com.