At a FAIRMormon conference several years ago, Spencer McBride, a researcher on the Joseph Smith Papers project, presented these ideas on Joseph Smith’s visit to Washington D.C., asking the United States President, Martin Van Buren for redress for the Mormons who had been so severely persecuted in Missouri.
We have heard the famous story of Joseph Smith’s visit to President Martin Van Buren, but very few know how greatly the prophet was impacted by the event, nor that Congress actually held a hearing concerning the plight of the Mormons in Missouri with results that to this day would curl your toes.
Joseph Smith was still huddled and freezing in the Liberty Jail in 1839, while his followers were beaten, starved out, and driven from the state of Missouri in persecutions that were more intense than most modern Church members realize. They were frustrated, pained and robbed of their property, and the ultimate question for them, according to Spencer McBride, who is writing a book on the subject, is this: “We are citizens of the United States. Religious liberty and property rights are enshrined in our founding documents. What redress is there for such instances when persecution takes those rights away?”
What redress indeed?
Sidney Rigdon sent a letter to Joseph in prison, explaining their plan. “Our planned operation is to impeach the state of Missouri on an item in the Constitution of the United States, that the general government shall give to each state a republican form of government.” Such a government does not exist in Missouri and we can prove it.
McBride said that Joseph Smith liked the idea of appealing to the Federal government and he approved the plan. By the time Joseph was out of jail and back in Nauvoo, he, Sidney Rigdon, and Elias Higbee were appointed as a delegation to represent the stricken people in Washington D.C., hoping for redress.
They left 20 Oct., 1839, but found that their trip was continually delayed because Sidney Rigdon was very ill, most likely suffering from malaria. Finally, they made the hard decision to leave the eloquent and masterful Sidney behind so they could arrive in Washington DC in time for the legislative session.
Ironically, in the stagecoach on the way East, the Mormon delegation was accompanied by a congressman from Missouri, one of the very men they were going to challenge. To their relief, they found he didn’t recognize them and with tongue in cheek they said this was because, “He was drunk, but once, and that was most of the time.”
Visit to President Van Buren
Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee arrived in Washington DC on Nov. 28, went directly to the White House the next day and knocked on the door, being led to the second floor parlor just outside of the President’s office.
In that time, petitioners could just directly knock on the door of the White House to talk to the President who held office hours, or a reception in his parlor every afternoon. Joseph Smith recorded that he “felt at home in the White House, that he had a perfect right to be there, because it belonged to the people and he was one of the people.”
McBride said, “We always imagine that Joseph Smith had a private meeting in the President’s office to present their petitions, but it was actually a busy parlor with a number of people vying for his attention. When they finally get his attention, they explained why they had come to Washington D.C. and President Van Buren, according to Elias Higbee, “looked upon us with a kind of half frown and said, ‘What can I do? I can do nothing for you,–if I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole State of Missouri.’” That phrase, “come in contact with” actually meant, “come in conflict with”.
We have more commonly heard the report of the President’s words from W.W. Phelps, made in 1844, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,” but either way the gist of the remarks was this, according to McBride. “In other words, there is a re-election next year, and I am not so sure I can win this election. The Whigs are breathing down our necks. Missouri is one of the few states that I know for certain is for me, and I don’t want to tick them off. We see a little bit of political naiveté on the part of Joseph Smith and his party. They appear to still view the United States as a meritocracy that they can go in person and make their case and the government will hear their case, and, of course, sympathize with them and help them. Joseph Smith might have said, if you don’t help us, you are going to lose the vote in Illinois, but he didn’t say that. He just continued to make his case.
“What exactly were they asking Van Buren to do?” said McBride. “It isn’t readily apparent in any one document, but if you look at several of the documents, the Mormon leaders clearly had one thing in mind. Their petition was going to go to Congress and they wanted Martin Van Buren, architect of the Democratic party to speak out in their favor in his annual message to Congress or as we call it today, the State of the Union address. It was a written address that was published in the newspapers and read before Congress. The Mormons were hoping that he would mention their plight and their cause in the State of the Union address and that would urge Congress on to take action.”
Looking to Congress
While they are waiting for that address, they wrote home, “We spent the remainder of our time hunting up the representatives in order to get our case brought before the House.”
Their original plan was to bring the matter before the House of Representatives, but Congress was delaying organizing because of contested elections in New Jersey, with multiple candidates arriving in Washington, D.C. for the same seat, a glimpse of the unruly nature of Washington, D.C. at the time. Ultimately, because of the delay, they decided to submit their petition to the Senate.
McBride said, “It gave Joseph Smith time to sit and watch Congress go about its business and he was unimpressed.” Joseph wrote, “There is such an itching disposition to display their oratory on the most trivial occasions and so much etiquette, 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 and gravity, such as becomes a great nation like ours. (However, there are some exceptions).”
Joseph Smith was aware there was generally a disconnect between what happens in the halls of Congress and what people think happens in the halls of Congress. The closer you get to Washington, D.C., you realize that what is happening there is not as idealistic as you were led to believe.
“This was disruptive to Joseph Smith’s view of politics and government,” noted McBride. Yet this was only the beginning of shattering his view of government in Washington, D.C.
Finally, tired of waiting and with his people in a tenuous position on the shores of the Mississippi, Joseph returned home, leaving Elias Higbee as their sole representative to handle their petition before the Senate. It was finally brought up on 28 Jan., 1840 with a long debate as the senators from Missouri worked to have the petition tabled, which it was.
When the petition came up again in February, it was sent to the Judiciary Committee, and what did they consider? McBride said, “They didn’t consider whether the Mormons deserved redress and reparations, even though that is what they were asking. Instead the judiciary committee was tasked with determining whether or not the federal government had jurisdiction in the case. If it determined that they did, there would be a full hearing on the floor of the Senate with witnesses.”
The committee hearing lasted three days, with the only record we have of it being Elias Higbee’s several letters back to Nauvoo, which were read with great excitement and interest. Finally, amidst a hearing filled with accusations and prejudice, the committee came to its conclusion that Congress had no jurisdiction in the matter.
The Judiciary Committee, did, however, issue this counsel. “The petitioners, may, if it seems proper, apply to the justice and the magnanimity of the state of Missouri for redress, an appeal which the committee feels justified in believing will never be made in vain by the injured or oppressed.” This was certainly adding insult to injury. Congress was directing them to appeal to Missouri, the very state that had an extermination order making it legal to kill a Mormon.
The Mormons responded, “that part of the report, referring us to the justice and magnanimity of the State of Missouri for redress, we deem it a great insult to our good sense, better judgment and intelligence; when from numerous affidavits, which were laid before the committee, proved, that we would only go into the State of Missouri, contrary to the exterminating order of the governor, and consequently at the risk of our lives.
McBride said, “Ironically…Marvin Van Buren was not a bigot. As far as we can tell he was not prejudiced against the religious views of the Mormons. In fact, Van Buren’s track record suggested that he would actually be one of the most likely politicians in Washington, D.C. to hear the Mormon’s plight with sympathy. When he had been a senator from New York, the Shakers appealed to him to help get redress and protection from persecution and he had helped them. As Secretary of State, he had written to the pope to assure him that Catholics would be treated fairly in the United States, which made many Americans angry. It caused quite a stir.
“As far as we can tell, Van Buren’s decision was entirely political. It was based on electoral concerns and that’s it. We see that sometimes systems of inequality that are created by bigotry and prejudice are upheld by quests for power, by people who would rather have power or get it and maintain it than stick their necks out to help the truly injured and oppressed. “
Joseph is Changed by the Experience
This oblivious and disdainful treatment from the government changed the way Joseph led and Church and it impacted the way he led the city of Nauvoo from then on. McBride said, “We see Joseph Smith coming home to Nauvoo who is no longer convinced that the Federal government will openly protect his rights and the rights of his people. He must take matters into his own hands.”
From this came the Nauvoo Charter in which he puts every possible right that had existed in other city’s charters. He forms the Nauvoo militia, giving the city tremendous power to protect itself from what had happened in Missouri.
McBride said, “To some it seemed that Joseph Smith was a megalomaniac for consolidating so much power in the city. If we understand his trip to Washington, D.C. and how it affected him, we don’t see megalomania, we see a man desperate to protect himself, his people and their rights as Americans any way he possibly can.
McBride continued, “Joseph Smith started using some innovative tactics to get around the philosophy of the states rights. He petitioned the federal government to be made a general in the United States army. It doesn’t work. In that case, he would have the United States army at his disposal to protect the citizens of Nauvoo.
“He petitioned for a grant to perpetual lands in the Western territories where he and his people could move away from Illinois and live in peace. It’s not granted. He petitioned to have Nauvoo turned into a federal territory, which is essentially to have Nauvoo secede from the state of Illinois and become a federal city perhaps like Washington, D.C. Again, it doesn’t happen.
“The chances of any one of these actually happening is slim to nil. But these actions matter because they show Joseph Smith’s desperation and they demonstrate the desperation of a number of religious minority groups in 19th century America. Sometimes it was all a religious minority group could do to throw a legal challenge against the wall to see what stuck. Joseph Smith was among the very first to call for the Bill of Rights to apply to the individual states, and this is a shock to many. The Bill of Rights did not apply to individual states until after the Civil War and the terms of the First Amendment the application of religious freedom not consistently until the 1920’s and 1930’s.
“Joseph Smith and other religious leaders were among the first to call for Constitutional reform. The Constitution was not working for them. It needed to be changed. Joseph Smith was no constitutional theorist. He hadn’t had the formal education and legal background, but his lived experience demonstrated that there were inadequate protections of religious minority groups and something had to be done about change if universal religious liberty was ever to be achieved in the United States.
“We also see that though inequality may be motivated by bigotry and prejudice, often they are upheld by devotion to policies and philosophies that on the surface have nothing to do with prejudice. The states rights philosophies on the surface have nothing to do with religion, but what Joseph Smith was saying, is that in their implementation they have a discriminatory affect.”
McBride said, “Joseph Smith also comes back from Washington, D.C. more committed to protecting the religious freedom of all minority religious groups. Equal rights are given in Nauvoo to members of all Christian faiths, to Jews and to Muslims. He realizes that religious freedom for some is actually religious liberty for none. It is really easy to defend your own right of conscience. It is easy to defend your own right to live and worship according to the dictates of your own conscience, but what Joseph Smith realized is that we will never have universal religious liberty unless we are willing to do the same for others.”
McBride acknowledged that, in some ways, there is not a happy ending to this story. The political fight continued for the Mormons for decades, extending to the time when the Latter-day Saints had lived in the Great Basin for decades. “As much as we love to have happy endings to our stories, sometimes history just doesn’t cooperate and this is one of those stories.”
However, he said, “Maybe we can find inspiration, not in the outcome, but in the story itself. When the plans to petition Washington DC were developed, Joseph Smith was still in Liberty Jail. He was at one of the lowest points of his life. No matter where he and his followers went, persecution followed. And the more people who gathered together under his leadership, the more severe that persecution was.
“Many a man in Joseph Smith’s position would have given it up, thinking that the persecution outweighed the benefits, that the persecution outweighed prophetic responsibilities. Where many others may have gone this direction, Joseph Smith persevered. He was committed to his cause. He was committed to the doctrine and the practices that he preached and then after his efforts in Washington DC failed, he returned to Nauvoo with his sense of American idealism shattered, yet his optimism and his determination remain intact… We see a man deeply committed to his beliefs, a man who endured, severe conditions to protect the people who followed him and believed he held the mantle of a prophet. He was true to his convictions and he was moved by his faith in God.
“To see such conviction, to witness such faith, by those who came before us is something that should inspire us. Maybe, Smith’s resiliency in difficulties and his perseverance in the face of rejection is the encouraging moral that comes out of this story.”