With presidential runs by both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman underway, both of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it seems appropriate to reflect on the 1844 run for president of Joseph Smith Jr, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smith’s third party/non-party campaign was underway when he was assassinated on June 27, 1844. The opposition that Romney and Huntsman face in the Republican Party primary process, and perhaps among the larger electorate, about their Mormonism are deep seated in American history and culture and are illuminated in the unsuccessful presidential run of Joseph Smith in 1844.
My friend Adam Christing has produced an excellent documentary on this political campaign, and information about it is available here. Christing has made an important connection between 1844 and the present political season by noting: “The two things you aren’t supposed to talk about in this country are religion and politics. But that’s the explosive combo that makes this such a fascinating subject.” Let me offer here a brief discussion of some of the issues connecting Joseph Smith and both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in this blog post.
Joseph Smith, prophet/president of the Mormon church, was nominated for president, with fellow Mormon Sidney Rigdon as vice presidential candidate, in February 1844. They sent Mormon missionaries out to campaign for Smith, and a pamphlet—Gen. Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government—offered his views on a range of issues was published and distributed. Those positions included, in the words of historian D. Michael Quinn:
Smith’s Views revealed him as more than a one-issue candidate. For the reform of government, he intended to reduce the size and salary of Congress. In judicial reform, he advocated rehabilitation of convicts through work projects and vocational training and liberal pardoning. In economic reform, he proposed less taxation, free trade, secure international rights on the high seas, and establishment of a national bank in every state and territory. On the slavery question, he advocated compensated emancipation through the sale of public lands. To cope with resulting social stress, he advocated the relocation of the several million freed slaves to Texas. In keeping with the spirit of “Manifest Destiny” in the 1840s, he proposed annexation of Oregon and Texas and whatever parts of Canada wished to join the Union. As a reflection of the Mormon expulsion from Missouri, Smith’s platform also advocated presidential intervention in civil disturbances within states. As one author noted, this interventionist impulse ‘did not exist until the Civil War and Reconstruction.’ (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1994), p. 119).
The positions stated in this pamphlet were middle-of-the-road and rational. They might have been a little broad and theoretical rather than detailed and specific but they certainly represented legitimate positions.
The decision of Joseph Smith to run for president was met with range of reactions. Faithful members of the church celebrated him for his courage, some even suggesting that this was the beginning of the establishment of Zion, the political kingdom of God, so long fabled in Mormon doctrine. Many anti-Mormons denounced it as evidence either of Smith’s egomania or his radicalism, or both, in trying to establish a theocratic state. There were other responses in between these, most of them negative. Of course, Smith did not live to complete his campaign for president. He was assassinated on June 27, 1844, by a group of conspirators while being held for trial in the Carthage Jail in Illinois.
There are at least six plausible reasons why Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844. Your guess is as good as mine in which of these, or a combination of them, represents the best explanation of Smith’s 1844 candidacy. Let me enumerate them:
- Joseph Smith believed he could be elected president. After all, the quest for Zion was very much a part of the church’s belief system and this might be the method by which the Saints would help usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth. And God, all powerful, could make such a long shot candidate successful if He chose to do so.
- Joseph Smith recognized that he could not be elected but wanted to make a statement about positions and principles. Were this the case he would neither be the first nor the last candidate to get into a presidential race to accomplish that goal.
- Joseph Smith recognized that he could not be elected but wanted to remove the Mormons as a voting block from the election. There had been a series of scandals and other difficulties associated with Mormon involvement in politics in Illinois throughout the early 1840s, and by declaring his candidacy he knew that the members would vote for him and therefore remove the church from the political games that might have been played otherwise.
- Joseph Smith was never really serious about running for president, but did so at the behest of others. The behest of others might be senior officials in the church, Illinois politicos, or someone else. There is very little evidence to support this thesis.
- Joseph Smith was not serious about running for president but wanted to use it as a platform for advancing another agenda. The agenda could be anything from publicizing his religious cause to gaining advantage in other arenas. Again, he would be neither the first nor the last candidate who really was not serious but realized fame and fortune through the process of candidacy.
- Joseph Smith was a megalomaniac who had lost touch with reality and had delusions of grandeur who believed he was the perfect candidate for president of the United States.
There may be other possible explanations for Smith’s decision. What do you think?
So what does this have to do with Mitt Romney and to a lesser extent Jon Huntsman? Why is Romney so despised by the political right? By all accounts he is a mainstream Republican politician whose track record is just fine, his positions are generally acceptable to a majority of Americans, and his family life is exemplary. True, some criticize him for changing his mind on some issues, for working across the aisle, for expressing tolerance on, if not actually championing, social issues. Why is that not admirable rather than despicable?
Fundamentally, this seems to go back to the Mormon church membership of both Romney and Huntsman. We saw this in 1968 with Romney’s father, George, who was condemned for his allegiance to what many people on the Christian right termed a cult. It seems that little has changed since 1968, or 1844.
I’m curious what others think about the possibility of a Mormon president. Any concerns?