SALT LAKE CITY — On Jan. 25, 1900, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on whether or not to seat B. H. Roberts, the congressman-elect from Utah. Bitter opposition, led by evangelical Protestants, turned national public opinion against Roberts by employing arguments used against him during his campaign.
Roberts, a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the subject of a presentation on Sept. 10 at the 58th annual Utah State History Conference by John Sillito, an author and emeritus professor of libraries at Weber State University. Sillito looked at Roberts' 1898 congressional campaign that led to the historic vote in congress.
In 1895 Roberts ran unsuccessfully for Congress. That campaign saw little of the controversy that would plague him a few years later. Sillito said that Roberts had some reason to hope that he might be elected and seated when he ran in 1898.
The greatest opposition against Roberts in Utah came from his earlier personal views against giving women the right to vote. "His opposition to women's suffrage gained him the displeasure of several key members of the Mormon hierarchy," Sillito said.
Notwithstanding his views, Roberts promised to uphold the national and local Democrat platform, which supported women's suffrage. "I think he was a smart enough person to know that he had to make that commitment to get elected," Sillito said. At the end of the Democrats' state convention Roberts had the votes — 264 out of 486 votes cast.
Emmeline B. Wells, a Republican and women's rights advocate (who later became president of the church's Relief Society organization), wrote in her diary that the women of the state generally saw Roberts' nomination as an insult. She consulted with LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow and his counselor President George Q. Cannon. Although they had given Roberts permission to run, they did not support his election. They encouraged Wells to work for his defeat.
Other Republicans went even further to work against Roberts and tried to use his plural marriages against him, Sillito said. "They shifted to this particular issue."
Roberts entered into plural marriage before the LDS Church ended the practice in 1890. But the opposition still called him an open violator of the law of the land, unlike his Republican opponent, Alma Eldridge "who," an Ogden, Utah, newspaper said, "was just as good a church man." This approach, however, was too-little-too-late to affect the election, Sillito said.
In the end, Roberts won with about 35,000 votes against his Republican challenger, Eldridge, who garnered about 29,000 votes.
"My heart is very sad," Wells wrote in her diary. "I cannot understand how the women of the state can be so unscrupulous as to vote for such a man."
But Roberts did convince the majority of voters that he could represent their interests, Sillito said. But it was only a temporary triumph.
"Despite his victory, he had no chance to savor it. Once the campaign was over, the attacks and vitriol … would quickly find residence with a group of evangelical Protestants who would seek to overthrow the voters' will," Sillito said.
The controversy continued at the national level until the vote on Jan. 25, 1900. The tally was 268 against seating Roberts, 50 for seating him and some 30 abstaining. Roberts had won his victory in Utah, but the nation had other ideas.
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