Sponsored by BYU Studies — The effects of Joseph Smith’s 1844 run for president can still be felt today says historian Spencer McBride.
What was the catalyst for Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom?
Spencer McBride: In my work at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, I have worked closely with many of the documents related to Joseph Smith’s engagement with state and federal politics. I do not think that it was in Joseph Smith’s nature to be a political person. What these documents made clear is that circumstances and a desperation to protect the civil rights of Latter-day Saints forced him to engage in politics, and that engagement culminated in his presidential run.
I found that story of how Smith came to declare his candidacy fascinating, and, in many ways, the campaign he ran was unique for that time in American history.
At the same time, I felt that the story of Smith’s campaign illuminates the plight of religious minorities in United States history and stands as a critique to celebratory narratives of American religious freedom.
Many Americans today think that the inclusion of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights was the end of that story, but it only enshrined an ideal. It did not make universal religious freedom a reality. This book shows that achieving that ideal requires structural change in laws and policies as much as it requires the individual abandonment of prejudice.
What were some of the more interesting questions you bounced back and forth with Benjamin Park as you both worked on your books?
Spencer McBride: This question tells me that you read the acknowledgments section! Ben is a good historian who I am happy to count as a friend. He was working on his own book project relating to Nauvoo, Illinois, for much of the time that I was writing Joseph Smith for President.
I’m not sure how interesting readers will find the various questions we bounced back and forth. They could be pretty nuanced. We would occasionally share quotes or sources that we found in documents or discuss different ways to understand and contextualize much of what we were finding.
What kinds of persecutions did the Saints face in Missouri—and how successful was Joseph Smith in obtaining redress from the government?
Spencer McBride: The conflict in Missouri was an incredibly violent one. The state militia and a mob comprised of anti-Mormon vigilantes waged war against the Latter-day Saints. The militia and mob killed or wounded several Saints and raped others. They destroyed or confiscated much of their property, as well. Then, when the governor of Missouri issued an executive order calling for the expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state under the threat of extermination, the Saints were forced to flee to Illinois as refugees in the dead of a frigid winter. Many of them did not have sufficient provisions to make such a trip.
How does Joseph Smith’s reticence meeting with President Martin Van Buren illuminate his view of politics at the time?
Spencer McBride: I think it reveals that Smith arrived in Washington DC in 1839 with a strong sense of American idealism.
He believed that if he set forth all the facts of the Saints persecution to the president and congress that they would clearly see the need for redress. But instead, he found the capital filled with politicians and policy decisions often based on political calculations. It was very disheartening for Smith.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed this meeting with Van Buren, Smith developed his political acumen. By the time he ran for president in 1844, his eyes were wide open to the political realities of partisan politics in the government of the United States.
What role did the Council of Fifty play in Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign?
Spencer McBride: The Council of Fifty played a vital role in managing Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign. For instance, while that group considered political questions about the future of the Latter-day Saints, it also weighed in on the search for a vice presidential candidate.
I think it is also clear that the political conversations in that group helped formulate many of the campaign messages that electioneering missionaries would preach while canvassing the country.
But the Council of Fifty was focused on larger questions of government than just Smith’s campaign, including several different petitions and proposals to the United States Congress.
What was the primary reason for Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign?
Spencer McBride: Joseph Smith ran for president to protect the lives and rights of the Latter-day Saints.
For years, political leaders had failed to grant them redress for their lost property in Missouri. Then, in late 1843 and early 1844, it seemed that the persecutions they had experienced in Missouri would be repeated by their critics in Illinois.
After writing to five men believed to be candidates for president in 1844 and not one of them committed to help the Saints as president, Joseph Smith and other church leaders determined to run an independent candidate for president.
Smith was that candidate.
What was Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign platform?
Spencer McBride: Joseph Smith’s campaign platform was quite progressive. He published it in a pamphlet titled General Smith’s Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. Smith called for massive reform to the criminal justice system, including shutting down a penitentiary system that was rapidly growing throughout the country.
The pamphlet also called for the end of slavery in the United States through a large-scale system of paid emancipation in which the federal government purchased the freedom of all enslaved individuals. He wanted to establish a new national bank, one that functioned more as a public service than as an institution that would enrich investors.
There were other proposals, as well, but the heart of his campaign was a call for constitutional reform that would allow the federal government to protect the civil rights of religious minorities when the states failed to do so.
Was Joseph Smith a serious contender for president?
Spencer McBride: Smith was serious about his campaign, but he was not a serious contender.
By the 1840s, the two-party system was so established that it was virtually impossible for a candidate outside the Whig or Democratic parties to win. The party machinery and organization were vital to winning a national election.
However, Joseph Smith still stood to play a significant role in the race, potentially drawing votes from one party or another in tightly contested states, especially in Illinois. It also appears that Joseph Smith and some of his campaign surrogates hoped that his candidacy could help inform the platforms and campaign platforms of the Whigs and Democrats, or maybe win some promises of aid from one or both of those parties’ respective candidates.
Did Joseph Smith believe religious freedom was possible without addressing systemic inequality in laws and government?
Spencer McBride: Joseph Smith’s history reveals his developing understanding of just how difficult it would be to successfully combat bigotry and bigots when they were protected and emboldened by laws and policy. In the case of the states’ rights doctrine, it was a philosophy of government that, on the surface, had nothing to do with religion.
But in its implementation, it had a detrimental effect on several religious minority groups, including the Latter-day Saints.
So, when we talk about the political obstacles to universal religious freedom in nineteenth-century America, we are not just talking about a list of discriminatory laws or public policies or philosophies of governance. We are also talking about the way Americans use seemingly neutral policies to enact or condone discrimination against minority groups.
What most surprised you while writing Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom?
Spencer McBride: This is a tough one and there are a lot of things that I could choose here. I think the selection of the vice-presidential candidate was particularly fascinating. Smith and his campaign leaders struck out on their first two invitations to potential running-mates.
The first invitation was to James Arlington Bennet of New York and that turned into a dead end because of false rumors that Bennet was foreign-born and therefore ineligible to be vice president. However, he was actually born in the United States and had merely not corrected those rumors because they helped him to more easily obtain a copyright for his book in the United Kingdom.
The second invitation was to Solomon Copeland of Tennessee. It was an unusual choice because Smith had called for the end of slavery in his platform but Copeland owned slaves. What makes the situation all the more interesting is that Copeland’s wife was a Latter-day Saint, as were two of the men that the Copelands enslaved.
Ultimately, when Copeland never responded, Smith invited fellow church leader Sidney Rigdon to join him on the ticket and Rigdon accepted.
If you could go back in time and observe any event from your book, what would it be?
Spencer McBride: It is probably a toss-up between Joseph Smith’s meeting with President Martin Van Buren in the crowded parlor of the White House in 1839 or the nominating convention held in Nauvoo in 1844.
The former is such a pivotal event in prolonging Smith’s political involvement and directing the nature of his policy positions in the years that followed.
The latter is one of the more triumphant moments in Smith’s life, an occasion on which thousands of people expressed their enthusiasm to help him effect real change in bringing about true religious freedom.