Last week I had the opportunity to meet with the Alexander Doniphan Committee in Kansas City. I had no idea that such a committee existed, although I am heartened by its commitment to reinforcing the civic ideals that Doniphan espoused. I was invited to meet with them, over lunch at UMB Bank, because I had written Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate (University of Missouri Press, 1997).
For those who have never heard of Alexander Doniphan, he was a frontier attorney, militia commander, and politician in western Missouri. I first encountered him through Mormon history, where he served as the attorney for the Mormons during a series of altercations in 1830s Missouri.
Born on July 9, 1808, in Kentucky, Doniphan moved westward and settled in Liberty, Missouri, where he practiced law. His first clients of stature were the Mormons, who had been physically run out of nearby Jackson County. He helped to create a haven for them in Caldwell County north of Liberty.
By 1838 the rapid growth of Caldwell County, and the movement of Mormons into surrounding counties, had brought tension to the western part of the state. A series of incidents, of which both sides were at fault, erupted violently in August 1838 during an election at Gallatin, Daviess County, north of the Mormon-controlled Caldwell County. By early September the countryside was ablaze with violence. Rumors that the Mormons were in open rebellion against the state were sufficient to prompt Governor Lilburn W. Boggs to call out the militia.
Doniphan, as a general in the militia arrived at Far West, Missouri, the Caldwall County seat, late in October 1838. His task was to gain the surrender of Mormon leaders wanted for causing the disturbances. Doniphan served as a mediator in these efforts, securing the surrender of the Mormon leaders on October 31.
The next day General Samuel Lucas convened a court-martial, found Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders guilty of treason, and ordered their execution by firing squad. Doniphan, apparently the only lawyer present, protested that the court-martial had been “illegal as hell” because civilians were not subject to military law and because the judges sitting for the court-martial were not all members of the military. In spite of this, on the morning of November 2 Doniphan received orders to execute the prisoners. He refused to carry out this order and wrote to his commander: “It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o’clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.”
Doniphan’s stand prompted Lucas to spare the prisoners and to take them in for trial. Once again, Doniphan served as the Mormons’ legal counsel. After a preliminary court of inquiry the majority of the prisoners were released, but Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, and a few other key leaders were placed in the Liberty Jail over the winter of 1838-1839 to await trial. Eventually, Doniphan was able to get a change of venue and while enroute to the new location, the Mormons were allowed to escape and leave the state.
Doniphan’s identification with the unpopular Mormons in Missouri during the 1830s did not hurt his personal career in the 1840s. His legal career took off after the Mormon War and in the early 1840s he was showered with important and lucrative cases.
When the United States entered the war with Mexico in 1846 Doniphan commanded the First Missouri Volunteers. Part of Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West, this unit departed Fort Leavenworth in June 1846 for Santa Fe, where the Mexican government surrendered without a battle. While other parts of the army pushed on toward California, Doniphan remained in Santa Fe to establish a civil government.
Late in 1846 Doniphan’s troops marched for El Paso, and on Christmas day camped at a place called El Brazito. They soon learned that a Mexican army was approaching, and by the time the Mexicans attacked Doniphan’s men had moved into defensive positions. After a short fight the Mexicans withdrew. He fought another larger battle in Mexico on February 28, 1847, near the Sacramento River. Throughout this action Doniphan sat serenely on his horse and at one point remarked sarcastically, “Well, they’re giving us hell now boys.” At a key moment Doniphan ordered his troops to advance across the field. The battle secured the province for the United States.
Not long after this action, Doniphan’s force was mustered out and sent home. In one year, Doniphan’s unit had traveled more than 3,500 miles by land and another 1,000 by water; fought two battles in Mexico; established an Anglo-American-based government in New Mexico; and paved the way for the annexation of the territory that became New Mexico and Arizona.
Afterward, Doniphan became a powerful voice in Missouri politics, business and law. His most significant political activity took place in 1860-1861 when he worked to prevent Missouri’s secession from the Union and as a delegate to the Washington Peace Conference that tried to prevent civil war. He lived until 1887.
The Doniphan Committee found my book on Doniphan helpful and wanted to talk with me about it and my further thoughts on this fascinating individual in Missouri history. I was asked to speculate on what I would ask Alexander Doniphan if I were ever to meet him. I responded that I would like to ask him how a pro-Union constitutionalist, committed to the rule of law and justice for all, could support the institution of slavery? I’m sure Doniphan labored over this difficult question. I would like to understand—just as I would like to know the answer to this same question from Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others of the founders—how Doniphan reconciled slavery for others and liberty for himself.