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by James L. Kimball, Jr.
By legislation signed into law on December 16, 1840, the Illinois General Assembly granted corporate city status to Nauvoo. Among literally hundreds of Illinois settlements, only Alton, Chicago, Galena, Quincy, and Springfield shared such distinctive legal status. Expectations of what would result ran high for both Latter-day Saints and their neighbors.
Many Illinoisans, shocked at the harsh treatment given the Latter-day Saints by the Missourians (see Missouri Conflict), sought to succor the beleaguered followers of Joseph Smith by helping them politically and providing legal safeguards. Moreover, the economic fabric of the state suffered from the deepening effects of the panics of 1837 and 1839, and many legislators saw an economic boon in the future immigration of several thousand new settlers. Encouraged by state political leaders, the Saints believed that a city charter would guarantee them a kind of security they had never yet enjoyed. Even State Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Douglas, despite prior judicial decisions to the contrary, opined that a corporate charter was irrevocable and perpetual.
The Nauvoo document, neither the longest nor the shortest city charter, was much like the charters of other Illinois cities. More than half the sections were modeled on the Springfield charter. City status allowed governance by a council chosen by an electorate; unlike other city councils in Illinois, the Nauvoo Council contained aldermen, councillors, and a mayor. The Nauvoo instrument also differed from others in being not one but three charters, granting corporate status the city, a university, and a city militia. Previous practice was to establish schools and also militia units by separate acts. The University of the City of Nauvoo, governed by the city council, was the only city-operated university in the state.
One important provision stated that the Nauvoo Council could pass any ordinances not repugnant to the constitutions of the United States or that of Illinois. This, in effect, empowered the Nauvoo body to stand in a federated position with the Illinois General Assembly. Ordinances passed by the Nauvoo Council could be in direct violation or disregard of state law and still be valid in Nauvoo, provided they did not conflict with specific powers granted by the federal and state constitutions. Leaders of the city militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, and the university trustees could also pass laws, limited only by state and federal constitutions.
Almost at once this power became a focal point of misunderstanding and controversy, though the same delegation of authority was also in three of the other five city charters. Since this provision was not unique, adverse reaction to it clearly had a good deal to do with how others viewed Latter-day Saints and the implementation of the provision by Nauvoo and its leaders. The Nauvoo Municipal Court, the third such court provided for by the Illinois General Assembly, also became a point of contention. While the city courts of Chicago and Alton convened under one judge, the principal Nauvoo judge was the mayor of the city, sitting as chief justice, with the aldermen as associate justices. Adversaries argued that the way Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, used the legislative and judicial powers granted by law resulted in "anti-republican" abuses.
In granting the charter, some legislators may have hoped to protect Latter-day Saints from persecution, but it proved to be a two-edged sword. When the Illinois majority turned against Nauvoo but lacked legal tools to curb the city's power and influence, it turned to extralegal means. Later, after violence, it also succeeded in getting Nauvoo's charter repealed. Although based solidly on precedents not termed "anti-republican" until Latter-day Saints obtained and used them, the Nauvoo Charter nevertheless ultimately fell short of providing the Saints the peace and protection they desired.
(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1831-1844 home page)
Kimball, James L., Jr. "The Nauvoo Charter: A Reinterpretation." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 54 (Spring 1971):66-78.
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