The Mormon National Convention, 1844

Given that we just witnessed the Democrat and Republican national conventions a few weeks ago, I thought I’d draw from a current research project and take a look back at an earlier moment in the development of presidential politics. And if you think Donald Trump’s convention was quixotic, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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Sutcliffe Maudsley, “Lt. General Joseph Smith In Nauvoo Legion Uniform,” gouache on paper.

Whatever your feelings concerning Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, you have to admit the guy was confident. The first decade of his church’s existence was mired in societal and political problems, and the final year of his life was spent trying to find novel and, to some, outlandish solutions. One of his most audacious proposals was his own candidacy for the United States presidency in 1844.

Smith’s presidential run mostly strikes modern readers as amusing. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had already drawn around thirty thousand converts since its founding in 1830, a majority of them were located on the banks of the Mississippi River in an Illinois town called Nauvoo. They could hardly manipulate the politics within their own state, let alone those of the nation. How then could the controversial leader of this marginalized sect have such delusions of grandeur?

But the Mormon message during this period was nothing if not grandiose, and Smith’s followers quickly mobilized to make their prophet’s vision a reality. A pamphlet containing Smith’s platform was published in thousands of copies, feelers were sent to possible vice president candidates, and two hundred and forty-four “electioneering” missionaries were called to drum up interest in the eastern states. They were pumping in both man-power and resources. If this was merely a “protest” campaign, as some have alleged, it was a protest with enormous vigor.[1]

While there has been much written on Joseph Smith’s ambitions, ideas, and actions concerning his presidential run, less attention has been paid to those who campaigned on his behalf.[2] The seriousness of Smith’s campaign can be seen in the fervent efforts of these ambassadors. One particularly zealous saint, Dwight Harding, urged all of his family and friends out east to convert, be baptized, and vote for the Mormon prophet. “You wrote to me that you wanted [us and] all the rest of your connections to vote Jo Smith for President of the united states,” responded Dwight’s father, Ralph, probably in an alarmed tone. “The people here arent such fools as to vote for Jo Smith,” Ralph urged, because they recognized that “what you are after…is for the mormon[s] to get the power into their own hands.”[3] And we thought today’s presidential politics were divisive.

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A list of delegates for Joseph Smith’s campaign throughout the nation, published in May 1844.

But these efforts had to be organized. On April 9th, only three months after Smith announced his candidacy, a general conference of the church spent considerable time structuring a campaign body. Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother, declared that they would “engage in the election the same as in any other principle”: massive mobilization. “Lift up your voices like thunder,” he urged the electioneering missionaries; “there is power and influence enough among us to put in a President.”[4] The ecclesiastical leaders then doled out particular assignments and called for conventions to be held in each state—where they could each nominate Smith and then choose their electors—which would then culminate in a national convention.

The state convention for Illinois was held in Nauvoo a month later. Few attended from outside Hancock County, where Nauvoo resided, but they chalked that up to “heavy rains” that rendered transportation “entirely impossible.” They discussed “the political dishonesty of both Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren” and disparaged the other potential presidential candidates. None of them stood up for liberty or the protection of minority groups. By contrast, “the superior claims of Gen. Smith” were praised for their wisdom and generosity. The convention even heard from two non-Mormons who supported Smith’s candidacy. One of them, William Goforth, professed Smith to be “the proclaimer of Jefferson Democracy, of Free trade, and Sailors rights and the protection of Person and Property with us stands first.” They read a list a delegates scattered across the nation who would serve as their network for campaigning. They adjourned for a national convention to be held in Baltimore on July 13th. A barrel of tar was set on fire in celebration.[5]

The Mormons chose Baltimore as the location for their national convention because the Whigs, Democrats, and independents supporting John Tyler met as well. Smith’s supporters wished to demonstrate that they were at the same level as their competitors. Two weeks before the convention was to take place, however, Smith was killed by a mob while being held prisoner at Carthage Jail. A Baltimore newspaper reported that the Mormon convention was still held on July 13th, though they “assembled in a gloomy spirit” because they had “just received intelligence of the murder of the murder of the man they all contemplated to have named as their candidate for the presidency.” Such was the anti-climactic ending to what was supposed to be a triumphant moment for a fledgling faith as they entered the national stage. With no candidate to nominate, they “resolved to adjourn sine die.”[6]

There are many striking things about this sequence of events. But what stood out to me was the importance of political parties and organized mobilization. In 1844, political conventions were less than two decades old, and Americans were only just becoming accustomed to organized parties dominating the national landscape. The Anti-Masonic Party in 1831 was the first to hold a national convention, and the Democratic Convention in 1840 was the first to adopt a platform. These practices were a result of the Jacksonian impulse to expand decision-making power to a broader array of delegates. The platforms were meant to systematize national principles and policies. Even in Mormonism, where authority was based in a top-down structure, and even when it was obvious that Smith would gain the support of those in his faith, Smith’s followers elected to mimic national precedent by holding a series of state conventions, climaxing in a national convention. And even if they didn’t have an official platform, they at least had a series of resolutions meant to permeate national publications. Such a process would assure a democratic election. This attempt at expansive organization displayed the increasingly organized nature of American campaigns and electoral proceedings.[7]

Even if Joseph Smith were a protest candidate, even if his campaign was based on the principles of political corruption and national degradation, and even if Smith didn’t organize a particular party, it is important to note that one of the things Smith didn’t protest was the democratic electoral process based on party organization. Though that political system and procedures were still somewhat novel at the national level, they already seemed entrenched within America’s political culture. Observance by marginal groups like the Mormons only reaffirmed the mainstream ritual.

____________

[1] For background on Joseph Smith’s Presidential Run, see Richard D. Poll, “Joseph Smith and the Presidency, 1844,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 17-27; Robert S. Wicks and Fred R. Foister, Junius and Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assassination of the First Mormon Prophet (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2005); Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, The mormon Quest for the Presidency (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2008), 7-49; Richard Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Ambitions,” in Randall Balmer and Jana Riess, eds., Mormonism and American Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015): 3-13.

[2] One of the few exceptions is Derek Sainsbury, “The Cadre for the Kingdom: The Electioneer Missionaries of Joseph Smith’s 1844 Presidential Campaign” (PhD diss., University of Utah, 2016).

[3] Ralph Harding to Dwight Harding, August 22, 1844, Ralph Harding Correspondence, LDS Church History Library.

[4] Hyrum Smith, Address, in General Church Minutes, April 9, 1844, in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo: BYU Studies, 2002), vol. 1.

[5] “State Convention” and “Minutes of a Convention Held in the City of Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, May 17th, 1844,” Nauvoo Neighbor, May 22, 1844, [2]. Though not a Mormon, Goforth was a close friend to the Mormon faith and even served in their secretive Council of Fifty, a private political body.

[6] “The Mormon National (Presidential) Convention,” Niles National Register, July 20, 1844, 325.

[7] The resolutions were published in “Minutes of a Convention Held in the City of Nauvoo.” Smith’s political theology attempted to coalesce theocratic principles with democratic practice. He termed it “theodemocracy,” where “God and the people [jointly] hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness.” Rather than the traditional democratic refrain that “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” he explained that theodemocracy was “the voice of the people assenting to the voice of God.” Joseph Smith, “The Globe,” Times and Seasons, April 15, 1844, 5:510. See Patrick Q. Mason, “God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth-Century Mormonism,” Journal of Church and State 53, no. 3 (September 2011): 349-375.

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8 comments on “The Mormon National Convention, 1844

  1. […] at The Junto I wrote about the 1844 National Convention planned by the Mormons for Joseph Smiths presidential campaign. This is an outgrowth of my current research on the political culture of Mormon Nauvoo, which I […]

  2. Steven Peach says:

    Great post, Benjamin. I’m teaching an upper division course on Antebellum America this fall and will be assigning this post to get the conversation going about politics and society during the Second Great Awakening. What can you recommend in terms of a brief, quick-and-dirty reading (aside from your post) on Smith and the 1844 convention?

    • Christopher J. says:

      Ben might disagree, but I would recommend Richard Bushman’s essay in the Mormonism and American Politics book he cites in the first footnote. It’s short and very accessible.

      • Benjamin Park says:

        Christopher is right. However, that essay, like all the work on JS’s candidacy, focus on his political thought rather than his actual campaign activities. But for what’s out there, Bushman’s “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Ambitions” would be the way to go.

  3. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Ben, Great post. One quibble is the way you conclude: “one of the things Smith didn’t protest was the democratic electoral process based on party organization.” Maybe true in a sense, but Smith did protest the spirit of American political party culture. His prophetic critique of America was decidedly against social, sectional, and party divisions and contentions. He and his followers denounced the party candidates, and called for a president of the United States. Smith was all about building a society based on harmony, unity, love, and peace. He was always speaking against (in his language) contention, strife, jarrings, railing, party spirit, &c. This is my effort to add a wrinkle of nuance to your engaging approach.

  4. […] For JS’s presidential campaign see this post and its sources: The Mormon National Convention, 1844 […]

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