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by Annette P. Hampshire
Political power played an important role both in the development of the LDS community in Illinois and in its demise. The political situation was complex, inviting rivalry and controversy.
On the Eve of the arrival of the Latter-day Saints, Commerce (Nauvoo), in Hancock County, Illinois, was situated in a pro-Whig enclave in a state where Democrats dominated all political offices except the supreme court. In Hancock County, however, the two parties were so evenly matched that a few hundred votes could be decisive. But in the state legislature, even voting as a unit, a community the size of that of the Latter-day Saints could have only moderate influence. County offices were more vulnerable; the number of votes needed for election to such offices as sheriff, county commissioner, and probate judge was under one thousand. A liberal provision in the Illinois Constitution enfranchised all adult immigrants after only six months' residencea contentious issue in a state where party lines were sharply drawn, especially with the regular arrival of new British immigrants in Nauvoo (see Immigration and Emigration).
Joseph Smith's decision to use LDS voting strength sprang from a desire for security from persecution and for self-government. Conscious of the divine imperative to gather the Saints and build the physical kingdom of God on earth, he came to see politics as one means of enlarging and protecting his community. At first, the Saints were politically neutral. But in 1840-1841 they voted solidly Whig in Illinois, though they had voted Democrat in Missouri. This alienated some Democrats, but most politicians courted the LDS bloc vote in Illinois, just as others courted the Roman Catholic vote in New York.
The first example of possible "vote trading" by Latter-day Saints was the legislative vote in favor of the Nauvoo charter in December 1840, promoted by Democrats but also voted for by the Whig Abraham Lincoln. The resulting Nauvoo Municipal Court, Nauvoo Legion, and Agricultural and Manufacturing Association formed the backbone of a self-governing theocracy, which was anathema to frontier Illinoisans.
The prevalence of lawyer-politicians and the frequency of Missouri arrest warrants enmeshed Joseph Smith in vote trading. One clear example was LDS support for the Whig John T. Stuart in the congressional election of 1841, a direct result of assistance rendered to Joseph Smith by the Whigs Orville H. Browning and Cyrus Walker when Smith was arrested following a Missouri extradition order. Joseph Smith was technically a fugitive, having fled Missouri after six months in Liberty Jail awaiting trial (see Smith, Joseph: Trials of Joseph Smith). However, not all lawyers were Whigs. The judge in the 1841 case was Stephen A. Douglas, an ambitious Democrat determined to win the LDS vote. His efforts were successful in December 1841 when Joseph Smith declared for the Democrats; Hancock County subsequently lost its Whig identity.
Seeing Nauvoo as a political threat, non-Mormons in Hancock County organized politically on an anti-Mormon platform. Successful in the county elections in 1841 (they were unopposed in many contests), they were singularly unsuccessful in 1842 with nominations for the state legislature. Existing partisan affiliations were too strong for the emergence of a third party, and the Whigs had usurped the anti-Mormon cause in the 1842 gubernatorial elections. The Democratic candidate for governor, Thomas Ford, an opponent of the Nauvoo Charter, won the election.
Governor Ford advised Joseph Smith to stay out of politics. Smith seemed inclined to do that until Ford, in June 1843, issued another writ for the Prophet's arrest on a Missouri requisition. After the Whig Cyrus Walker, a prominent criminal lawyer, using the controversial habeas corpus provisions of the Nauvoo Charter, effected Joseph Smith's release from custody, the Prophet pledged his vote to Walker. But his brother Hyrum Smith, a Democrat, announced that he believed the Saints should vote for Walker's opponent, Joseph P. Hoge. The Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, part of the Sixth Congressional District, voted for Hoge, but those in the Fifth Congressional District voted for the Whig O. H. Browning, running against Douglas.
This marked the beginning of disillusionment with the LDS vote by both parties. In particular the Whigs, who had retreated from anti-Mormonism in 1842-1843 in the hope of finding favor, now openly opposed LDS political and judicial power. In 1843, even within Nauvoo, Joseph Smith found politics problematic. There was internal dissent over city elections in February, and in August, Mayor Smith complained of being roughly treated by pro-Democrats in city elections. Also, the prominent Church leader William Law publicly challenged Hyrum's "Hoge testimony."
In January 1844, after canvassing U.S. presidential hopefuls for support in obtaining redress for Missouri depredations and finding none, Joseph Smith announced his own candidacy. Some saw this as a bid for political power, consistent with the goal of furthering the political kingdom of God; others felt that because Joseph Smith was not likely to win national election, he simply wanted a platform for presenting his message. The leading anti-Mormon newspaper in Illinois, the Warsaw Signal, greeted the move with customary derision but nonetheless viewed it as an audacious and threatening development.
All Joseph Smith's attempts to gain political influence were objectionable to the apostate group that launched the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, the destruction of which set in motion the events leading to Smith's death in June 1844 (see Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith). In this volatile atmosphere, anti-Mormons gained strength by accusing Governor Ford of pursuing pro-Mormon policies in order to secure Democratic votes. The Latter-day Saints gradually lost support until, in January 1845, their charter was repealed, disincorporating Nauvoo. Unauthorized municipal elections continued in Nauvoo, however, and Latter-day Saints voted in county and state elections, still favoring the Democrats. From then until the Saints left in 1846 (see Westward Migration, Planning and Prophecy), this persistent involvement of Mormons in politics continued to inflame non-Mormons and rally them to press for Mormon expulsion.
Politics and political power were indispensable to the rise and strength of Nauvoo and to the protection of the Prophet Joseph Smith. But mismanagement of political power may also have contributed to the city's downfall.
(See Politics: Political History; Daily Living home page; Church History home page; 1831-1844 home page)
Flanders, Robert B. Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi. Urbana, Ill., 1965.
Gayler, George R. "The Mormons and Politics in Illinois: 1839-1844." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49 (1956):48-66.
Hampshire, Annette P. Mormonism in Conflict: The Nauvoo Years. New York, 1985.
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Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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