R. Scott Lloyd
CALGARY, ALBERTA — The U.S. presidential campaign of 1856 sowed the seeds that precipitated the Utah War, yet it gets little attention from most histories that chronicle the conflict in which U.S. President James Buchanan sent an armed force to put down a supposed rebellion of Mormons in the territory.
That is the premise of a paper prepared for the 47th annual Mormon History Association Conference, which convened this weekend on the University of Calgary campus.
Ronald W. Walker, professor emeritus of history at Brigham Young University, authored the paper, but illness precluded his being present at the conference to deliver it. So it was read and summarized during the session by Matthew J. Grow, LDS Church History Department, who is coauthoring a book with Walker on the topic.
Walker noted that James Buchanan won the election on the issue of "local" or "popular" sovereignty. The Republican Party attacked this central plank of the Democratic Party, which was designed to allow the Western territories to make their own decision about slavery.
But before the campaign ran its course, Mormon polygamy became an issue, with Republican newspapers and politicians attacking the Democrats for supporting legislation that in theory might allow the Utah Territory to favor plural marriage, Walker wrote.
The Republican Party platform thus denounced what it called "the twin relics of barbarism": the extension of slavery in the territories and Mormon plural marriage.
"Part of Ron's argument is that the election of 1856 plays a much more important role in the causation of the Utah War than we have traditionally understood in our history," Grow explained.
Buchanan had stayed mostly in the shadows during his political career, unwilling to attach his name to any important legislation, Walker wrote. "Instead he preferred to work behind the scenes, perhaps in small groups or at one of his celebrated dinner parties, where he was at his best. He earned the nickname 'friend of the obvious.' "
One of Buchanan's opponents for the Democratic Party nomination was Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. His plan was to let the people of the territories decide for themselves regarding the issue of slavery, a policy he dubbed "popular sovereignty."
At the party national convention that summer, delegates accepted the doctrine of popular sovereignty as the centerpiece of their platform. The leading candidates were incumbent President Franklin Pierce, Douglas and Buchanan, who prevailed on the 16th ballot.
During the election, Buchanan had two opponents: former U.S. President Millard Fillmore of the American Party and John C. Fremont of the Republican Party.
"For Republicans, popular sovereignty was a dodge to avoid making hard moral decisions about the extension of slavery," Walker wrote. "For their presidential candidate, the new party overlooked some of its most able and experienced members in favor of pathfinder John C. Fremont, famous for four explorations of the American West."
By the beginning of 1856, John Bernhisel, Utah's territorial delegate, knew that the opposition to his people was strong and growing. Bernhisel knew Congress would never reconfirm Brigham Young as territorial governor and its bid for statehood was doomed.
"It was probably inevitable that polygamy would find its way into the Republican Party's platform in 1856," Walker wrote. "Californian John Willes was given the task of writing the plank on federal authority of the territories. He decided to join slavery and polygamy together 'to make war upon polygamy,' he said, 'and at the same time strengthen the case against slavery.' "
His resolution declared: "Resolved: that the Constitution confers upon Congress sovereign power over the territories of the United States for their government and that in the exercise of this power it is both the right and the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery."
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