American West Latter-day Saint History

George Q. Cannon and His Son Frank: A Complicated Relationship

They are the only father and son in U.S. history to be opposing candidates for the same U.S. Senate seat.

George Q. Cannon had complicated relationship with his son, Frank. At one point, George Q. wanted nothing to do with his rebellious son. At another, he viewed Frank as a key negotiator on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this interview, biographer Val Holley expounds on the complex dynamic between Frank J. Cannon and George Q. Cannon.

Learn more about Frank Cannon in the biography by Val Holley: Saint, Senator, and Scoundrel.

Who were George Q. Cannon and Frank J. Cannon?

George Q. Cannon was counselor to four Latter-day Saint prophets and Utah’s territorial delegate to Congress. His biographer, Davis Bitton, opined that, after Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, “no one surpassed him as a leader, shaper, and defender of nineteenth-century Mormonism.”

Frank J. Cannon, the eldest son of George Q. Cannon’s second wife, Sara Jane Jenne, became a prominent journalist at a young age and rose through Utah’s political ranks to become Utah’s last territorial delegate to Congress—and its first U.S. senator.

What made their relationship unique?

I wouldn’t call their relationship “unique,” but I do think many of their shared experiences were unique. I did not realize until after Frank J. Cannon: Saint, Senator, Scoundrel was published, for example, that they are the only father and son in U.S. history to be opposing candidates for the same U.S. Senate seat.

He paid his tithing in full—at least until he was excommunicated.

How would you characterize their relationship in Frank’s early years?

George Q. Cannon was a loving father, and he—along with all who came into contact with young Frank—recognized his son’s keen intelligence. He consented to Frank’s leaving home at age thirteen to work in Ogden as deputy Weber County recorder.

However, when Frank’s shortcomings became apparent—most prominently, his adulterous liaison with a domestic servant and his habitual drunkenness—George Q. came to regret allowing Frank to leave home so young.

He resented Frank’s choice to behave in ways contrary to church teachings and wrote an ultimatum in his diary:

For myself I desire to dissolve all connection with [Frank]. He has chosen his course. If I can prevent it, it must not cross mine.

George Q. Cannon Diary

How did it change over time?

The turning point in their relationship appears to have been George Q. Cannon’s request in 1888 that Frank go to Washington to make headway in the impasse between Congress and Utah territory over plural marriage.

Frank persuaded President Cleveland to appoint a territorial chief justice (Elliot Sandford) who was more merciful than Charles Zane.

Although George Q.’s diary does not spell this out, he had clearly perceived something in Frank’s nature that would allow him to succeed in Washington where highly-paid lobbyists and other church emissaries had failed.

Was Frank Cannon a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?

Frank J. Cannon loved his fellow Latter-day Saints and devoted much of his life to serving them, but whether he was ever devout is questionable.

He consistently maintained that he did not believe in plural marriage. I’m not certain he ever disavowed any other church doctrine—even if he often transgressed church teachings. And he paid his tithing in full (at least until he was excommunicated).

Lisa Olsen Tait and Matthew J. Grow talk about “the Manifesto” and the end of plural marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

How did Frank Cannon’s disobedience affect his father?

That disobedience gave much sorrow to George Q. Cannon, who never let any of his younger children leave home at an early age as Frank had.

Frank played a major role.

What were Frank J. Cannon’s contributions to advancing the Church’s interests nationally?

If you equate the Church’s interests with Utah statehood, I would point to four major contributions:

  1. Judges. The overhaul of Utah’s judiciary, previously noted.
  2. Polygamy. Lobbying Congress and the executive branch in 1890 to delay passing additional, more onerous anti-polygamy legislation until the Church acted on its own (through the Manifesto) to prohibit polygamy.
  3. Politics. Frank facilitated the transition to national political alignment by helping to found the Republican Party of Utah. Perhaps more importantly, he also persuaded the First Presidency not to oppose the dissolution of the old People’s (Mormon) Party.
  4. Money. During the Church’s fiscal crises of the 1890s, Frank recruited friendly financiers to provide loans and credit.

How did George Q. Cannon use Frank’s talents?

In addition to sending Frank to Washington as a church emissary in 1888, George Q. Cannon called on his son’s services many other times. This included sending him to negotiate privately with the Department of Justice over the resolution of bonds forfeited in 1886 when George Q. went into hiding (rather than be tried as a polygamist).

Frank played a major role in founding the Pioneer Electric Power Company in 1893, of which the First Presidency became officers and directors. (George Q. had said, “We are very desirous of securing all our streams in this way, that our enemies shall not have power to control our waters.”)

A headshot of Utah pioneer Frank Cannon, the son of George Q. Cannon
George Q. Cannon believed in his son Frank Cannon’s efficacy as a political negotiator, according to biographer Val Holley.

When lobbyists presented a bill to the First Presidency for their work in obtaining statehood in 1894, George Q. asked Frank to draft a letter objecting to its exorbitance:

My son Frank has manifested a great deal of ability in treating this question, and I have been greatly pleased that the Lord has given me a son who can be so useful.

George Q. Cannon Diary

Did their relationship ever surface in meetings of senior Church leadership?

Yes, and seldom if ever in a flattering context. Whenever the Quorum of the Twelve took George Q. Cannon to task for his financial stewardship, they always seemed to pile on criticism of Frank’s past scandals and, they alleged, George Q.’s role in covering them up.

How did Frank Cannon feel about opposing his father for the 1896 US senate seat?

Privately, Frank felt he had earned the Senate seat and had no intention of stepping aside for his father. Publicly, he said he only wanted what was best for Utah and if that meant sending George Q. Cannon to the Senate, he would respect the choice.

George Q. Cannon, while living, had shielded Frank.

How did George Q. Cannon’s death affect Frank?

Frank revered his father and felt great sorrow at George Q. Cannon’s death in 1901. It impelled Frank to live more like a Latter-day Saint than ever before—at least for a year or two.

He hosted Sunday School in his Washington, D.C., home; he donated lots of money to the British Mission; and he wrote articles in praise of Joseph F. Smith for the Millennial Star.

Did George Q. Cannon’s death lead to backlash against Frank—or expose his son’s true self?

Both parts of this question can be answered in the affirmative. Certainly George Q. Cannon, while living, had shielded Frank from considerable ill-will and even church discipline from many apostles and prominent church members.

Frank felt his father, had he lived, would have made a better church president than Joseph F. Smith, and increasingly made his objections to Smith public.

Frank would always claim that he had pledged his personal honor to the U.S. government in 1890, to the effect that the church would recede from polygamy. Smith’s secret embrace of post-Manifesto polygamy, Frank would say, was a desecration of Frank’s pledges.

For his vehement editorials criticizing Smith, Frank would be excommunicated.

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About the author

Val Holley is an independent historian who has written four books, including a biography of Frank J. Cannon. He has an affinity for Hollywood biographies and Utah history.

Further reading

George Q. Cannon and Frank Cannon resources

  • Frank J. Cannon: Saint, Senator, Scoundrel (Book)
  • George Q. Cannon Family Papers, 1842–2005 (Archives)
  • George Q. Cannon: A Mighty Instrument (Church History)
  • Utah Maverik: Frank J. Cannon and the Politics of Conscience in 1896 (Article)
  • Charles Dickens on George Q. Cannon (Keepapitchinin)

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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