Guest Post: “A Display of Folly and Show”: Joseph Smith’s Impressions of Congress

Today’s guest poster, Spencer McBride, received his PhD at Louisiana State University in 2014 and is now a historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers.  His research examines the politicization of clergymen during the American Revolution and in the early American republic.

JS uniformIn my work at The Joseph Smith Papers, I have recently been examining dozens of documents surrounding the trip Joseph Smith made to Washington D.C. in 1839. As I have prepared these documents for publication in one of the project’s future volumes, they have drawn my mind to the way men and women living in rural America during the nineteenth century perceived the federal government and what they thought occurred in its different branches. Though Smith’s experience in this regard is but one example, I think that it is a telling one.

In 1839, Smith held the federal government in high regard. Well, at least he did when he left Nauvoo, Illinois for Washington, D.C. Smith, the founder of Mormonism, travelled to the nation’s capital as part of a delegation of Mormons seeking redress for the persecutions they had experienced in Missouri over the previous eight years. They had carefully documented the acts committed against them by violent mobs and the state militia. These persecutions included the confiscation and destruction of Mormon property, the rape of Mormon women, the violent death of more than a dozen Mormon men, and the prolonged incarceration of Smith and other Mormon leaders in violation of the Constitution’s habeas corpus clause.[1] But their appeals to Missouri’s courts and state government failed, and Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order declaring that “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”[2] Smith travelled approximately 1,000 miles from western Illinois to Washington optimistic that the people’s representatives in Congress would prove more inclined to justice and decided action in the Mormons’ favor than government and judicial officials in Missouri had been. But Smith’s idealistic impression of the men who collectively governed his country soon came crashing down.

Smith first met with Martin Van Buren. According to Smith, the president declared “I can do nothing for you, – if I do any thing, I shall come in contact with the whole State of Missouri.”[3] After this rejection, the church’s delegation devoted their time to “hunting up the Representatives, in order to get [their] case brought before the house.”[4] In the process, Smith and company witnessed the federal government in action for the first time. They were unimpressed. “There is such an itching disposition to display oratory on the most trivial occasions,” Smith wrote in a letter to his brother in Illinois, “and so much etiquett, bowing and scraping, twisting and turning to, make a display of their witticism that it seems to us rather a display of folly and show more than substance & gravity, such as becomes a great nation like ours.”[5] While the Mormon delegation was impressed by the grandeur of the capitol, they were dismayed to find that the men who conducted business in that building would be more concerned with pomp and posturing than with efficiency and lawmaking.

Despite their misgivings about the competency of Congress, Smith and company continued their efforts to present the Mormons’ case to both the House of Representatives and the Senate. With the aid of the Illinois delegation, the church’s delegates presented a memorial to Congress, starting with the Senate on 27 January 1840.[6] The Senate sent the memorial to a committee for consideration. During the weeks that followed, the committee heard testimony from Elias Higbee, one of Smith’s associates on his trip to Washington, and witnesses for the state of Missouri. Though Higbee believed he had made a compelling case for redress, he was dismayed that many committee members were frequently absent from its meetings.[7] Ultimately, the Senate dissolved the committee on 23 March, explaining that the Mormons should address their grievances in Missouri and that the federal government should not become involved. According to Higbee, this “was a trick of the Missouri Senators to slide it along without making a noise, by its going to the committee as it did.”[8] In reality, the Senate’s hesitancy to take action against Missouri was influenced by the heated debate between Whigs and Democrats over the proper balance of federal and state power.

It is important to note that Smith was hardly an unbiased observer of Congress. He praised the delegates that were willing to help his cause, but held in utter disdain those who opposed him and his followers. For instance, he wrote that the delegates from Illinois “are worthy men, and have treated us with the greatest kindness, and are ready to do all that is in their power – but you are aware… that they with us have all the prejudices, superstition and bigotry of an ignorant generation to contend with….”[9] He reserved his harshest criticism for the members of Congress from Missouri, one of whom had actually shared a coach with Smith en route to the capital, but had not recognized the Mormon leader. Smith attributed this to the fact that the unidentified congressman “was drunk but once and that however was most of the time.”[10]

Still, the failure of Congress to meet Smith’s expectations is significant. It demonstrates the disconnect between what many rural Americans thought happened in the houses of the federal government and what actually occurred therein. The posturing and speechifying that Smith witnessed in Washington, D.C. and the seemingly endless committee process through which a petition must pass were not new to that city, but they were new to him. One visit to the capital had sufficiently stripped away from Smith’s mind the idealistic allure of the federal government. Smith returned to Nauvoo frustrated that the months he spent lobbying Congress had been fruitless and convinced that the ideals of religious equality enshrined in the Constitution would only be universally realized by religious minorities when the federal government was strong enough, competent enough, and willing enough to enforce them upon individual states.


[1] Collections of Mormon accounts of their persecutions in Missouri include “Memorial to the United States Senate and House of Representatives,” 27 January 1840, National Archives, Washington, D.C., and “A History, of the Persecutions, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri,” December 1839-October 1840, in The Joseph Smith Papers, H2: 203-286.

[2] Lilburn W. Boggs, Missouri Executive Order no. 44, 27 October 1838, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.

[3] Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith, 5 December 1839, The Joseph Smith Collection, 1827-1844, Church History Library.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Memorial to the United States Senate and House of Representatives,” 27 January 1840.

[7] Letters from Elias Higbee to Joseph Smith, 20 February 1840, 22 February 1840, 26 February 1840, Joseph Smith Letterbook 2, Church History Library, 96-103.

[8] Elias Higbee to Joseph Smith, 24 March 1840, Joseph Smith Letterbook 2, Church History Library, 105-107.

[9] Letter to Hyrum Smith, 5 December 1839, Joseph Smith Letterbook 2, 85-88.

[10] Ibid.

7 responses

  1. Today, thousands of organizations have a “legislative day” in Washington. They take special care in scheduling meetings with representatives from every State. They divide and communicate (conquer is way to optimistic). The legislative offices have a different perspective. They are viewed as a revolving door of cattle calls. Sound like Mr. Smith may have been one of the first to put the door in motion.

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