What Shall be the Character of this Vast Western Territory?: National Expansion, Imperial Ideology, and the Utah Expedition, 1857-1858


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Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is the political doctrine the United States subscribed to during the mid-nineteenth century. The doctrine places the power for the state in the people of a locality and they govern themselves according to their true will and consent. As a compromise over the slavery issue, Senator Stephen A. Douglas wrote popular sovereignty into the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 as the method for new territories to determine their social institutions for themselves. In Eugene Campbell's study Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869, the author relates the Mormon attempt to build a religious empire in the West. Campbell depicts Mormonism, in its early years, developing as a communal system and centralized organizational structure that explored, colonized, and defended its position in the inter-Mountain West. Such a system of governance differed greatly from the American model and became the practical foundations for a unique Mormon culture, which severely tested popular sovereignty.

While the United States owned the land in the West following the Mexican-American War cession, it did not control, nor have much power, over the vast western territories due to the doctrine of popular sovereignty. The Mormons applied the doctrine of territorial self-government in a manner different than Senator Stephen A. Douglas had intended by employing it to empower their Church leaders and to shield their peculiar domestic institutions. While the doctrine allowed Mormons to determine social institutions, it did not give them license to create new, non-republican, forms of governance. Apostate Latter-day Saint John Hyde wrote to the New York Herald that the Utah legislature would always remain Mormon, "for the Mormon people will elect no other; their laws will be Mormon, for they will enact no other; and their polygamy will still be legal, for there is no law existing that reaches it in Utah. Congress cannot, and the Mormons will not, prohibit it; and in order to defend their polygamy against the sentiment of the country, they will again resist official interference, and again rebel against official appointments."

On 12 June 1857, Senator Douglas delivered a speech that characterized Mormonism as a loathsome ulcer on the body politic, and recommended that Congress should apply the knife and cut it out. The Senator understood that Utah upset his doctrine of popular sovereignty, so he proposed to repeal the territory's organic act, abolish the present territorial government, and bring it back into United States custody. Popular sovereignty, a critical principle in Douglas's 1854 legislation, came into question because under this principle the Mormons could adopt any form of religion and social institutions that suited them best. Prior to Douglas's speech, a National Era writer described "the miserable doctrine of squatter sovereignty," as one that shuts Congress out of the territories and prevents millions from having a say in the destiny, character, and institutions of vast territories - abandoning them to the few adventurers from all parts of the world that may first get foothold in them. Following the speech, the National Era wrote, "It thus appears from Mr. Douglas's own exposition, that this vaunted right of the people of the Territories to govern themselves is not what he used to call it, an 'inherent right of self government,' but merely a privilege, that Congress may give or take away as it pleases." These contemporary reports suggest the foreboding problems brought forth by Douglas's renunciation of popular sovereignty in Utah.

The inherent question of popular sovereignty was determining who was fit for self-government. In the public discourse surrounding Utah affairs and the coming Expedition it becomes clear that Washington decided this question, not the people. Mormons and their theocratic government did not conform to the American paradigm. Public rhetoric reveals that Mormons, often characterized as uncivilized, savage, or alien, failed to meet the requirements.

Figure 10 - Affairs at Salt Lake City

Figure 1. The left hand image portrays Brigham Young as "Chief," giving him a name and look of a Native American. Brigham Young is cast as "chief," a racial connotation connecting the Mormon president as being an uncivilized Indian. Image from Harper's Weekly May 1, 1858, page 288.
A Harper's Weekly demonstrates this connection by indicating that the Mormons are and always have been alien enemies. Similarly, a National Era article states "If Brigham Young and his deluded followers have formed an independent, alien community in one of our Territories, resolved to maintain it, and will not reside there on any other condition, let Congress authorize and require the President to break it up and disperse it, just as it would in relation to any other alien attempt to appropriate a portion of our Territory. If they will agree to keep their superstition out of politics, to maintain a church or a sect, like other sects, without pretension to political power." Senator Douglas even intimated that the Mormons were un-naturalized aliens, but worse he suggested, "that they do not acknowledge allegiance to our Constitution, and that they violently resist the laws and government of the United States, and therefore that they obtained a Territorial organization on false pretences." The question of whether the federal government, since an alien or "foreign" population controlled a territory's government, could assume political control over that territory came into stark relief.

Figure 10 - national era word cloud

Figure 2. This word cloud is from a corpus of National Era documents. It illustrates the importance of sovereignty and congress's role in determining the character of the territory.

The discourse reveals that popular sovereignty allowed un-American beliefs and institutions to take hold in a growing American space (See Figure 3). Mormons were considered un-American and there existed a need to bring them into American Democracy and improve them. The growing power of the federal government is beginning to show in this, as the wrinkle in popular sovereignty makes clear that localities and people were not free to govern themselves, unless they followed the dominant mentality. Clearly, the American public did not confide in the Mormon capability for self-government.

Figure 10 - national era sovereignty context

Figure 3. This key word in context shows the usage of sovereignty from a corpus of National Era documents. It illustrates the importance of sovereignty and congress's role in determining the character of the territory.
The message grew clear: The territories had the right to govern themselves as long as their cultural and political customs fell in line with the American majority and with federal consent. Utah Territory required non-Mormon governance enforced by officials and an armed force to ensure obedience. Mormons saw this as arbitrary and unconstitutional relics of colonial usage. Looking back this is an incredibly accurate statement because these carpetbag officials inhibited the Mormon voice in their own governance. The controversy over popular sovereignty in Utah demonstrates the imperial ideology of subordination and domination of a "foreign" people.

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2008 Brent M. Rogers, University of Nebraska—Lincoln