1844 News Flash: Joseph Smith Killed Running for President

Columns / Jul. 24, 2011 3:05pm EDT

By Greg Guma

There are a number of Mormon political heavy-weights, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s ties to the Church are among the deepest. A fifth-generation Mormon whose ancestors were involved from the mid-1850s, he is a former lay bishop of Massachusetts' temple. 

But he isn’t the first Mormon to seek the presidency. That honor goes to founder Joseph Smith, a Vermonter by birth who struck out for the west in revival days.

The enthusiasm of 19th century revival movements was contagious. Part of an evangelical surge known as the Second Great Awakening, many centered on Christian prophecies of impending doom. The prophecies faded but the righteous attitude and enthusiasm gave energy to diverse movements, from abolition to temperance and opposition to Masonic influence.

Smith was born in Sharon on December 23, 1805 but moved to New York before founding the church in 1831. He began by announcing that an angel had given him a book of golden plates inscribed with a religious history of ancient peoples. Once “translated” by Smith, their contents became The Book of Mormon.

Believers flocked to the new religion, but hostile neighbors forced Smith and his followers to keep moving, first to Ohio and then Missouri and Illinois. In Missouri the tensions broke into outright war. Hostile Missourians thought the Mormons were planning an insurrection and the governor said they should be "exterminated” or driven out. 

Smith next led them to Illinois, where they built a town on some Mississippi River swampland. There, Smith became the mayor of a town he named Nauvoo and commanded an impressive militia.

He announced for President as candidate of the National Reform Party in early 1844. It was a long shot, since former President Andrew Jackson was engineering the nomination of Tennessee farmer, lawyer and political “dark horse” James K. Polk. The Whigs were backing Henry Clay, and the big issue was expansion – specifically the takeover of Texas and Oregon.

Joseph Smith’s party had emerged from the National Reform Association, a coalition of unionists, locofocos (a radical Democratic faction combining unionists and libertarians) and the Workingman’s Party, united in their concern about the depression and the “social degradation of the laborer.” What especially attracted Smith, however, was the Party’s policy focus—homesteading rights. National Reformers wanted legislation allowing workers and others to acquire public lands free of charge, state laws exempting farmland from seizure to collect debts, and restrictions on ownership of large land parcels by the wealthy. Their slogan was “Vote the Land Free.”

Unfortunately, like many candidates before and since, Smith had some personal baggage. In his case it came in the form of romantic overtures he had made to the wife of a convert, William Law, a Canadian who quit the Church and publicly attacked the Mormon practice of polygamy in a newsletter. 

“We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms,” wrote Law. Accompanied by the Nauvoo city marshal, Smith responded by destroying his accuser’s printing press. The governor thereupon charged Smith with inciting a riot and had him jailed.

On June 27, 1844, while Smith was drinking wine with his brother and some friends in a spacious cell in Carthage, Ill., a mob surrounded the building. The prophet had a gun, a six-shot “pepper-box” pistol, but a gang with blackened faces charged into his cell and opened fire, immediately killing his brother and the others. Smith almost escaped out the window. With shots coming at him from behind and below, he plummeted two stories to the ground and died.

Five men were tried for his murder. All were acquitted. But Mormonism soon recovered when a new prophet emerged—a 43-year-old former housepainter and carpenter, also from Vermont, named Brigham Young.

Thirty-seven years after Smith’s fateful race, Chester Arthur succeeded where he’d fallen short, becoming the first president from Vermont upon the assassination of President James Garfield. But Arthur was the Episcopalian son of a Baptist minister, and public attitudes had turned less tolerant in the intervening years. In his first annual message to Congress on Dec. 6, 1881, Arthur called Mormon polygamy an “odious crime” and a “barbarous system,” urging legislation to stop its spread. By then, Mormons were well established in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and other Western Territories. Attacks on polygamy peppered Arthur’s speeches throughout his presidency. 

More than a century later, the Pew Research Center has concluded that 25% of Americans would be “less likely” to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The responses from white evangelicals are even less encouraging. More than a third reacted negatively to the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Among those, 63% said there is no way they will vote for Romney. University of Akron political scientist John Green claims that distrust among Christian evangelicals contributed to Romney’s 2008 loss in the Iowa caucuses.

During Romney’s 2008 presidential run, he tried to defuse the issue and dispel doubts with a speech, a strategy used with success by John F. Kennedy when he spoke publicly about Catholicism and politics during his presidential run. But Romney's "Faith in America" talk in Texas mentioned his Mormon faith just once, raising questions about whether he was as comfortable with the issue as he suggested.

This time around, he moved to preempt attacks by announcing on CNN that he is “not a spokesman” for the church. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

(This article is the third in a series adapted from The Vermont Way, a new study to be released in 2012. The author’s website and blog may be found at http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com.)

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