A hard confession from someone who specializes in the early republic and antebellum periods: the 1850s is my favorite decade to teach in the American survey. It always feels like my lectures are a sprint throughout he semester, given the nature of the course, but it still seems to pick up speed once we hit the Compromise of 1850, and we don’t get another breather until The corrupt bargain of 1877. (I can never skimp on Reconstruction, especially given today’s circumstances.) I say this is a hard confession because my own research ends in the 1840s, so you’d think I’d prefer the weeks that precede these lectures. But there’s something about the 1850s that really captures me.
Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Brent Rogers’s new book, helped me finally put my finger on what it is about the decade that grabs my attention: the sheer audacity of imperial desires, the violent results of local implementation, and the juxtaposition of sophisticated political theories and parochial hypocrisies dominated the American landscape. These tensions had been around since the beginning, of course, but they were brought to the foreground as soon as the nation finally possessed a continent-wide empire. It is ironically tragic, of course, that the fulfillment of that long-held dream was what cemented the Union’s (temporary) dissolution.
Utah Territory in 1850 was part of a large swath of land theoretically governed by the federal government. In reality, though, the area west of the organized states was an arena for racial, political, and provincial squabbles. This was no small region under the careful thumb of Uncle Sam: the square mileage of the territories outnumbered that of states. America was finally an empire, but one that was spread razer-thin. Determining how to colonize, organize, and integrate this region was of national significance. Historians of early Utah have often emphasized the tense relations between LDS leaders and national politicians, but few have adequately contextualized the episode within this much broader question of federal governance in an era of over-expansion. Rogers’s book exhaustively overviews the political interplay between the Mormon people, with their theocratic ideas and people spread across the Rocky Mountain region, and the Washington DC leaders, who tried to corral their renegade zealots even as they simultaneously attempted to hold their nation together.
Central to these 1850s debates was the idea of popular sovereignty. Most know the concept from its most prominent proponent, the “little giant” Stephen A Douglas. Basically, it was the belief that these western territories should be able to determine their own fate rather than rely on federal intervention. The issue most relevant to this concept, of course, was slavery. How should the nation decide which new states carved from the expansive western area would be slave or free? Douglas proclaimed that the federal government had no business solving this question at all. He worked to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned previous congressional ruling regarding the fate of slavery in those territories. Students in my survey courses become well aware of Douglas’s popular sovereignty philosophy when we dissect his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. I’m sure this is quite common in classrooms throughout the nation.
So what does Mormonism have to do with popular sovereignty? Rogers argues that, like Kansas, Utah “emerged as a key battleground and hotbed of antebellum debate over popular sovereignty” (3). If western territories should be granted the autonomy to govern themselves, what about the Mormons? Federal dealings with Utah proved that popular sovereignty was not a monolithic one-size-fits-all philosophy. The strength of Unpopular Sovereignty is found in Rogers’s exhaustive overview of competing ideas concerning democratic governance in the West. The federal government was surprisingly adaptive. At the heart of the issue was a question of civilization: Who could be trusted to govern themselves? Southern slaveholders? Mormon polygamists? Native tribes? These three groups, along with others, were found on a spectrum of political philosophies that were never full comprehensive nor coherent.
I wish Rogers would have spent a bit more time on the racialization of popular sovereignty and democratic governance. He does have a chapter on the relationship between the Mormons and their Indian neighbors, both the real connections as those imagined in Washington, but he mostly dealt with them as political bodies. Popular sovereignty, I’d argue, was built upon ethnic conceptions of belonging and nationhood. Paul Reeve’s recent book highlights this, but the political dimensions of this angle should still be unpacked. The place of racial minorities was a crucial topic for the American nation at the time, especially with the newly-acquired land from Mexico, and Mormons played into that debate as well. Whiteness and American westward imperialism still needs more work. That’s likely too much to ask for an already hefty tome that has dug so deeply into other topics, however.
Rogers makes several key historiographic interventions, both in political and Mormon spheres. His work on the plurality of popular sovereignty adds to a lively discussion on what was previously a staid topic. His comparative work on Kansas and Utah also demonstrates the fraught nature of democratic experiments in the 1850, proving that popular sovereignty was contested even within the Democratic Party. And his argument that the Utah War in 1857-58 set the stage for nation schism (Southerners saw it as a challenge to local sovereignty, and Republicans used it as evidence for the Democrats’ hypocrisy) contributes an intriguing nuance to a crowded narrative. Historians of American politics will learn a lot about the vagaries of democratic discourse, and teachers should have new material to share in the classroom.
And what about the Mormon historiographic sphere? For starters, Rogers demonstrates one way to overcome the “donut hole” problem of western history. (That traditional narratives of the American West circle around Utah but never really integrate the state and its Mormon residents.) The Mormon clashes with federal government in the 1850s was not completely unique, but rather part of a much larger moment of imperial expansion and related to questions concerning federal governance. And Rogers’s focus on the multiplicity of opinions on either side of the divide—neither the Mormons or their opponents were ever notably consistent—breaks down the tired bifurcated narrative of saints vs. gentiles. His is a model of integration and nuance.
The book became quite long and meticulous at times—perhaps like this review?—but overall I found it quite compelling. It interweaves published and private writing, not to mention useful maps, into a grand story of federal conflict. I hope it is a sign of more scholarship that better situates Mormonsim into America’s quixotic history of democracy.