The Mormon Question |
Popular Sovereignty |
Power and Control in the Emerging American West |
Power and Control in the Emerging American West
The character of the West had yet to be determined in the mid-1850s. Another question emerged that tie into the Mormon Question and that of popular sovereignty: would the West be Mormon or American? Who would have the power and the control in this increasingly vital region? Scholars typically have not examined these questions, especially not in terms of American imperialist expansion and empire. Figure 1 shows the word power in its context from a corpus of documents. There are two highlighted, it is these that helped begin considering new questions regarding power and control in the West, and it is this notion that drives this part of the argument.
. The highlighted key word in context emphasizes power from a corpus of Harper's Weekly
documents. While there are only four instances of the word power, the context of the two highlighted reveal their significance.
A major point emphasized in public rhetoric pertained to the character of Utah's population, which consisted of nearly all Mormons, with the exception, Utah Surveyor General David H. Burr suggested, of 50 Gentile settlers. Such disproportionate numbers of Mormon settlers and strict compliance with Mormon law caused many newspaper editors and essayists to take seriously the idea that Mormons were not American citizens, but aliens and outlaws who sought to develop an independent theocratic and monarchical State operating within and defying the authority of the United States.
One reason these commentators depicted Mormons as aliens resulted from mid-nineteenth century distrust and deep-rooted consternation concerning foreign immigration. By 1857 approximately 22,000 Mormon converts flooded into Utah from Europe and other foreign regions raising the territorial population to roughly 75,000. In the act organizing Utah Territory the law provided that the right of suffrage and of holding office shall be exercised only by citizens of the United States, yet in Utah, Americans perceived that alien immigrants gained permission to vote and hold office because Mormonism remained the higher law qualification. The character of Utah became such that one newspaper intimated that the "Mormons of Salt Lake are now a nation, rather than a religion."
Utah's geographic location also emerged as a major factor in shaping the public's perception and in leading toward a move to suppress the growing nation. The Utah Territory comprised a large and increasingly important region within the United States, but distant from any watchful eyes. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, Salt Lake City emerged as a key location in the heart of the Union. Lodged in the path of United States western expansion, the Mormons threatened to halt progress and emigration across the plains, and take possession of that critical regional crossroads. The great distance that separated the territory from any center of federal control, the lack of efficient communication, and particularly the character of the inhabitants had produced a peculiarly independent community, which generated a perceived threat in the public's mind. Figures 2 and 3 below show sketches of Salt Lake City in 1853 and 1857, respectively.
. Salt Lake City view in 1853.
3Notice the growth and activity that the city underwent in four years, which may have added to the concern over the Mormon presence in Utah. Also, notice the interesting imagery in figure 3, the path that leads through Salt Lake City, the key to controlling the West.
. Panoramic view of Salt Lake City from Harper's Weekly
May 15, 1858, page 313. This image demonstrates the expanses of the West and the critical pathway through Salt Lake City towards the rest of the West.
Utah territory was one-eleventh the size of all the land under the American flag and five times larger than New York or Pennsylvania in the mid-1850s. Imagining the Mormons inside their rapidly growing nation disrespecting the American administration of law and governance, the body politic feared the Mormons with their peculiar character, violent tendencies, and strategic geographic location. The press revealed to the public a perceived immediate and growing threat in the West that required suppression. By the time James Buchanan took over presidential duties in March 1857, public sentiment favoring a firm assertion of federal authority in Utah and curbing the theocratic political power made a response to the Mormon question mandatory. With the Mormons blocking a crucial path to American republicanism, progress, and expansion, Buchanan sought to keep the line to the Pacific open, and the only way he thought he could accomplish this was through violence or the threat of violence. The public agreed.
. This Word Cloud from the Vermont Patriot and State Gazette
illustrates many of the key words that arise in this section. Notable are authority, submit, and power. It further demonstrates the importance of these issues to public discourse and the move to send troops to Utah.
Mormons, meanwhile, decided to fight to maintain their autonomy and customs against the efforts of the federal government to extend American law and establish a formal territorial administration. The Mormon population had multiple times been driven from their homes and said that it would not happen again. On September 15, 1857, Brigham Young delivered a rousing "Martial Law Proclamation" that set out the course for the Mormons. This solidified to Buchanan and the country at large that the Utah population was in fact in rebellion and that they were a group incompatible.
The purpose of empire relates to the importance of prestige, survival, and growth of the home nation, in this case the United States, and it is often through subordinating "others" that that end is achieved. Westward migration in mid-nineteenth-century America became the major component of the larger concept called "Manifest Destiny." Mormons blocked this destiny in the public mind and placed in jeopardy the westward historical, political, and psychological orientation of the nation. Believing the Mormons maintaining a design to hold and occupy that land, Utah became a key to control the West so that a Mormon West would not replace the emerging American West. It also became necessary for the Union to rid the hostile governmental form burgeoning there. According to official rhetoric as demonstrated in James Buchanan's Proclamation, the federal government did not send the troops to Utah to break up the social ties of the people, but to re-establish federal power in the Territory and quell an intolerable rebellion. This was an imperialist move, as it made clear that the United States government, in its move to gain control of the growing West, placed popular sovereignty behind asserted federal domination over the locality. As was shown in Figure 1 the supremacy of the West would fall in the hands of Federal power. Therefore, this move demonstrates and helps explain U. S. expansionist imperial ideology.