Editor’s Note: Michael Keller is the brother of FAIR blog regular David Keller. Michael recently completed a Master’s degree in History at Memphis University. He wrote the following review of an article that helps document some of the tensions that contributed to the atmosphere for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Thomas G. Alexander. “Carpetbaggers, Reprobates, and Liars: Federal Judges and the Utah War (1857-58).” The Historian 70 (Summer 2008): 209-38.
In this article published in The Historian, Thomas G. Alexander focuses on federal officials in Utah during the 1850s. He theorizes that the false reports of federal judges and agents convinced President James Buchanan to send U. S. troops to Utah Territory. Offering his 1857 State of the Union message as proof, he notes that Buchanan’s arguments reverberate the reports of Utah Territory’s carpetbag officers. His treatment features the cultural and political problem in Utah Territory and the relationship of misinformation to presidential military decisions thoughout American history.
The author’s meager use of contemporary Latter-day Saints’ sources in documenting the charges and the defenses against them allows the reader to concentrate on the federal government and not the populace of Utah. He outlines the separate charges of the federal officers, which included Brigham Young’s absolute control over the populace, Utahns’ opposition to the American government and military, church ordered seizure of property and murder of dissenters and non-members, and the church’s effort to persuade Indians to kill non-members. Recent scholarship and contemporary legal documents and other reports refute the validity of these accusations. Alexander determines that the dispatch of troops to Utah represents “political hypocrisy and cultural myopia” of the Democratic Party, a party which pledged a year earlier to support the principle of religious freedom.
Concentrating on judges, the author highlights their personalities, qualification, and relations with Latter-day Saints. The first set of three judges, who arrived in 1851, impaired Utah Territory’s legal system by leaving after six weeks. The flight stemmed from when Judge Brocchus addressed the Latter-day Saint in a conference and demonstrated his misunderstanding of the Latter-day Saints oppression in Missouri and Illinois. Alexander claims that Brigham Young, knowing that the audience was offended, addressed the same conference by saying, “Judge Brocchus was either profoundly ignorant or willfully wicked.” The incident created mistrust and fear, spurring judges Brocchus and Brandebury to flee. Alexander postulates that the effects of the flight of and later criticism from Brocchus and Brandebury had on Buchanan are unclear, but public opinion in American remained anti-Mormon. The remaining judge Zerubbabel Snow was responsible for Utah’s court system. To ease Snow’s burden, the territory legislature extended the powers of probate courts to hear civil and criminal cases.
The author characterizes the federal government as having jealously guarded their power and fought against any steps taken by the territory citizens, legislature, and courts that could not be solved by Washington or the few residential federal officials. Many federal judges considered Utah Territory’s probate courts illegal, although other territories used similar arrangements. The successor of Judge Brocchus, Judge Kinney, disagreed with the enlarged legal jurisdiction of probates, allowing Judge Drummond to not stand trial for using his slave to attack a Jew. Kinney also ignored the territorial law that required juries to come from the same counties as the accused. The author highlights the friction between Utahns and judges by citing the failure of Judges Kinney and Drummond in dictating the defense attorney’s tactics and sentencing Pahvant Indians in murders of the Gunnison party.
The federal judges’ hostile rulings, comments, and attitudes against the Latter-day Saints flood the author’s narrative. Judge Drummond receives the most attention because his apparent moral depravity and influence on Buchanan. Curiously, the author attempts to connect Buchanan’s Blunder to other misinformed United States presidents who made poor military decisions that have produced the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the invasion of Russia in 1919, Vietnam, and the second invasion of Iraq.