I’ve never been to FairMormon. This is my first time, but I love each and every opportunity I get to speak to people about the past and particularly about the Mormon past, and what we’re talking about today is Joseph Smith’s 1839 trip to Washington, D.C. Now, this trip that Smith made to the capital is familiar to some, but there are some Church members to whom it’s utterly foreign. Still others know that the trip happened, but they wonder about the details, the fuller context and the deeper meaning of his visit with the President in the White House, and we’re going to talk about that. But most members, I’d even wager to say the majority, are unaware that the United States Senate held a committee hearing on the Missouri persecutions, that Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Elias Higbee submitted a petition to the United States Congress, and the Senate heard and considered that petition.
What are the implications for the history of the Church and for the history of Joseph Smith in that petition? We’ll talk about that too. A lot of Church members, maybe all of us included, are interested in stories such as this. For Latter-day Saints, there seems to be something quite exciting to hear about the man they revere as a prophet, a man who is integral to their own history and to that of the Church to which they pay religious devotion. To hear of this man interacting with Presidents and Senators, men who more often than not garner more historical attention in the books and speeches of our country, but besides just being a neat story, besides being just interesting that Smith was able to obtain an audience with the President in the White House, I hope that we’ll take something else away from this episode of the American and Mormon past.
Historically Joseph Smith’s 1839 trip to Washington, D.C. was one of the most, if not the single most, important trips of his entire life. It had a direct impact on the way that he subsequently designed and led the city government of Nauvoo. It had a direct and clear impact on the way that he sought to protect the citizenship rights of his people and other religious minorities throughout the United States. His trip to Washington, D.C. had a direct impact on the way that he engaged with the federal political system until his untimely death in 1844. Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington, D.C. helps us understand the long history of religious discrimination in the United States and some of the political obstacles to universal religious liberty. In sum, if we want to understand these aspects of Joseph Smith’s life, if we want to better understand the early history of the LDS Church, if we want to understand the history of religious discrimination in the United States, than we will understand them far better if we know what happened when Joseph Smith went to Washington.
So let’s get to it. The scene opens in 1839 – early; Joseph Smith is still imprisoned in Missouri. Meanwhile, most of the Church members have already ventured across the Mississippi River into Illinois. You know this story. They’re devastated, they’re heartbroken, they’re angry. The persecution has been severe. Most have lost everything that they owned; some even gave their lives. And there’s this prevailing question – “What do we do now?” And yeah, the “what do we do now” has to do with rebuilding lives on the other side of the Mississippi River, about whether or not they rebuild a city. But also the question comes, “We’re citizens of the United States. Religious liberty, property rights are enshrined in some of our founding documents. What redress is there for such instances when persecution takes those rights away, especially when it’s done at the hands and with the support of a state government? This is one of the big questions, and what do we do?”
Well, Sidney Rigdon and others, safely settling in Illinois, sent a letter to Joseph Smith explaining their plan, and this is what he wrote to the still-imprisoned Joseph Smith “Our plan of operation is to impeach the state of Missouri on an item of the Constitution of the United States, that the general government shall give to each state a Republican form of government” [For those of you familiar with the Constitution, that’s the guarantee clause]. Rigdon went on to say such a government does not exist in Missouri and we can prove it. Well, Joseph Smith liked the idea of this plan, this direct appeal to the federal government, and he approves the plan. By October 1839, Smith has gone to Illinois. He’s reunited with the Church and a General Conference appoints Joseph Smith, Elias Higbee, and Sidney Rigdon as the official delegation of the Church to the federal government. Orrin Porter Rockwell joins the men on this trip, not as a member of the delegation, but presumably as a bodyguard for Smith. They leave Nauvoo on 29 October 1839 and head to the capital, but one of the problems they have causes delays and that is that Sidney Rigdon is still suffering the lingering effects of what we believe to have been malaria. He’s sick. Making this trip is especially difficult and so they don’t get very far and by the time they’re in Springfield, they’re delayed. And they say, “Well, if we stay here in Springfield for a little bit, Sidney Rigdon will have time to recover his health.” And it seems that he is able to, to some degree and they get going again, and Rigdon continues worse. So by the time they’re in Columbus, Ohio, a decision has to be made because if they keep going at the slow pace, the Mormon delegation will not be in Washington, D.C.before the legislative session begins. To them that’s imperative. And so they make the hard decision. They are going to leave Sidney Rigdon in Columbus, Ohio under the care of Robert D. Foster, a physician who had recently joined the Church, and Rockwell stays behind as well and Joseph Smith and [Elias Higbee} get on a stagecoach and continue down the national road to Washington, D.C. But very shortly after they get on the stagecoach, they are unnerved when they realized who one of the other passengers is. They’re on their way to D.C. to impeach the state of Missouri. And lo and behold, one of their fellow passengers is a Congressman from Missouri. And in the words of Scooby Doo, “Ruh-row!”
But they’re relieved when they find out he doesn’t recognize them. And this is because he was intoxicated or, as they wrote back to Hyrum Smith, this Congressman from Missouri was “…drunk but once, and that however was most of the time.” I love the letters that have survived. They’re so colorful. So November 28th, Elias Higbee, Joseph Smith, they arrive in the capital city, and the very next day accompanied by one of their Congressman John Reynolds, they go and they knock on the door of the White House and the door opens and they are let in.
You see the White House was a little bit different at this time. Could you imagine doing that today? At this time, the President would typically hold of what professors might call office hours, or in this case, reception in his parlor, just about every afternoon , where you could come, often with Congressmen, but sometimes if you were a respectable company enough you could go yourself and meet with the President in the parlor just outside his office. And this is the days before the Oval Office as we know it today, so it’s a parlor on the second floor, and so accompanied by John Reynolds, Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee get to meet the President. And Joseph Smith recorded how he felt and what he saw. He said that he “…felt at home in the White House; that he had a perfect right to be there, as much right as Van Buren, because it belonged to the people and he was one of the people.”
I think a lot of you probably know this story, at least the basics. We imagine a private meeting with Van Buren in his office, but what we don’t envision, what actually happened was a busy parlor with people competing and vying for the attention of the President of the United States and such was the task of Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee and when they finally get his attention, they present them with a few of his letters of recommendation that explained why they’re coming to Washington, D.C., and Van Buren looks up and says, “What can I do? I can do nothing for you. If I help you, I will come in contact with this whole state of Missouri.” Now, “to come in contact”. Essentially, if we look at the Oxford English dictionary, we realize at this time that was essentially a euphemism for come in conflict with the state of Missouri.
You’ve sometimes heard this same, perhaps your cause is just, but that phrase actually comes from as far as I can tell William W Phelps in 1844. The earliest record of what Van Buren said is, “What can I do? I can do nothing for you. If I do anything, I will come in contact with the state of Missouri.” In other words, “There’s a re-election next year and it’s tight. I’m not so sure I can win this re-election. The Whigs are breathing down our necks. Missouri is one of the few states that I know for certain is in my column. I don’t want to tick them off.” I mean, he didn’t use those exact words, although it’d be awesome if he spoke like that. But essentially that was the gist of his remarks.
Now we see a little bit of political naiveté on the part of Joseph Smith and his fellow Mormon leaders. When they write about this trip to D.C., they appear to still view the United States Government as a meritocracy, that if they simply go in person and make their case, that the Government will hear it and of course sympathize with them and help them, and perhaps if he was less naive at this moment, I don’t mean that as a slight, but just a statement of he was new to the political system – Joseph Smith was. He might have said, “Well, if you don’t help us, you’re going to lose the vote in Illinois”, but he didn’t. Instead he continued to make his case and Van Buren said he would reconsider it. Well the question arises, and this is one of the ways where we can better understand this meeting if we understand more than just Mormon history. If we have more than just a survey history, textbook understanding of American political history, we can ask – what exactly were they asking Van Buren to do for them? And it’s not readily apparent in any one document.
But if you look at several of the documents, their letters home, their letters to each other, the Mormon leaders clearly had one thing in mind. Their petition was going to go to Congress and they wanted Martin Van Buren, the architect of the Democratic Party to speak out in their favor, in his annual message to Congress or as we know it today, the State of the Union address. But back then it wasn’t one of those addresses that is really hard to watch on TV because after every sentence, everyone stands up and claps. It was actually a written address that was published in the newspapers and read before Congress. The Mormons were apparently hoping that he would mention their plight, their cause, in his State of the Union address and that would urge Congress on to take action on their behalf.
And we see this following the meeting with Van Buren. And Van Buren still says, “I’m going to think about it,” but rather than a second meeting coming up, in response to that, they are waiting for his State of the Union address in their letters home to Nauvoo. “Still no address, still no address, but don’t worry, we’re going to get subscriptions to newspapers and send the State of the Union address to you as soon as we get it.” We see this obsession with the State of the Union address. And so they wait for Congress to start and after this disappointing meeting with Van Buren, Smith and Higbee write home to Hyrum and other Church leaders – “We have spent the remainder of our time hunting up the representatives in order to get our case brought before the House.” Their original intention was to have it brought before the House of Representatives. The Congress was delayed in organizing because there were contested elections in New Jersey.
And you want to talk about political drama. Can you imagine the start of a Congressional session in New Jersey? I believe New Jersey had five or six seats in the house, and you have 10 or 11 people come to sit in those five or six seats because they’re contested elections and they hadn’t resolved them. So rather than all stay home, all of these candidates showed up in Washington, D.C., and the House couldn’t be organized until they had sorted through these contested elections. So ultimately because of the delay, the Church decides to submit their petition to Congress through the Senate. And it of course is also delayed, which gave Joseph Smith plenty of time to sit and watch Congress go about its business. And he was unimpressed. Let me give you a little taste of what Joseph Smith said about Congress – “There is such an itching disposition to display 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.”
He couldn’t have possibly been describing Congress. Actually, no matter where I go, no matter the political leanings of an audience, you always score easy laughs if you make a joke about Congress, something I’ve found. But this is also significant for another reason because it kind of demonstrates something more widespread throughout the United States and throughout United States history; there is generally a disconnect between what happens in the halls of government and what Americans far removed from the capital think happens in the halls of government. The farther you get from Washington, D.C. or from a state capital, your idealism of what’s going on tends to be higher and those who are closer to the action tend to recognize that it’s not as idealistic as maybe we’re led to believe, and this was kind of disruptive to Joseph Smith’s view of politics and government.
Well, there’s such a long delay for Congress to get to the Mormon petition that Joseph Smith decides there’s little he can do in Washington, D.C. and so he takes a trip to New Jersey and to Philadelphia and visits the branches of the Church there. In fact, the Philadelphia branch of the Church had just been organized a few weeks before. He doesn’t preach in Washington, D.C. in kind of a public affairs effort to win over the support of the American public in addition to their petitioning of Congress, but ultimately there is so much pressing business in Nauvoo. His people, his Church are rebuilding their lives as religious refugees on the banks of the Mississippi River. There’s more for him to do back home than there is for him to do in the capital. So Joseph Smith decides to go back home. Sidney Rigdon went with him to Philadelphia but got sick again and was delayed. He leaves Elias Higbee to represent the Church as its sole representative before Congress.
And so eventually Senator Richard M. Young who’s best known in Mormon history as the Supreme Court Judge in Illinois, who presided over the trial of some of the accused murderers of Joseph Smith. At this time, he was a Senator and he presents the petition to the Senate on 28 January 1840. And I’ll give you a two guesses of who objected right away. The Senators from Missouri, they didn’t like this one bit. So there was a lengthy debate and Missouri was essentially attempting to have their petition tabled, but Senator Young prevails upon them to at least hear the 27 page memorial in its entirety before they make a decision. Well, they ultimately are able to table the motion. It comes up again in February. And this time the Senate decides, okay, we’ll send the petition to the committee on the judiciary and they’ll have a hearing for it. So what exactly was the Senate committee on the judiciary considering? They were considering not whether or not the Mormons deserved redress and reparations, even though that’s what they were asking for. They wanted redress and monetary reparations from the federal government. Instead, the judiciary committee was tasked with determining whether or not the federal government had jurisdiction in the case. And if they determined that they did, there would be a full hearing on the floor of the Senate, replete with witnesses and evidence. So there’s a hearing over three days. Higbee’s representing the Church; you have one of the Missouri Senators and one of their Congressman representing the State of Missouri. And the only record that we have of this hearing comes from Elias Higbee’s several letters back to Nauvoo, and those were received excitedly and read publicly. Everyone in Nauvoo was concerned with what was happening in the United States Capitol.
And it’s a committee hearing filled with accusations and prejudice of one side or the other, and ultimately the committee of five deliberates and comes to a decision that Congress has no jurisdiction in the matter. And Higbee tried to explain, “Look, we have gone to the judges. We went to the state government and look what happened. They issued an exterminating order.” He was trying to say, “Our only avenue of redress left open is the federal government. And if you guys can’t help us, who will?” But despite those passionate pleas, the Senate Judiciary Committee cited the doctrine of states’ rights, the philosophy of states’ rights, as preventing them from taking any action in behalf of the Mormons. In fact, the report that they published reads, “The petitioners, [meaning Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Elias Higbee], the petitioners may, if they see proper, apply to the justice and magnanimity of the state of Missouri [it gets worse], an appeal which the committee feel justified in believing will never be made in vain by the injured or oppressed.” So when word of this gets back to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, they’re disappointed and they’re frustrated.
They were particularly incensed by the recommendation that they appeal to the “justice and magnanimity of Missouri,” and they record such an insulting feeling in the General Conference minutes. So the General Conference of the Church in May 1839, they thank the Illinois delegation for its assistance, and they thanked Smith and Rigdon, and Higbee. Even before Smith got back, he starts actively campaigning against Van Buren to support William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate. And we actually see this. We see Joseph Smith is disappointed. He’s frustrated with Van Buren after his meeting, but he doesn’t write in any insulting ways. His vitriol towards Van Buren is not present because he’s waiting for the State of the Union address, but after that State of the Union address comes to Congress, we see a change in the way Joseph Smith talks about Martin Van Buren. He’s passionate and he’s frustrated and he doesn’t hold back his feelings. In one speech in Nauvoo, he declared that his dog was better fit for the presidency than Van Buren. Another one of his speeches was recorded by a newspaper, which reported that Smith recounted a conversation that had occurred when they were in the President’s crowded parlor, in which a couple of Congressmen had commented that Van Buren had gained considerable weight since being in the presidency. Van Buren acknowledged this and lamented the fact, saying he had to go to the tailor every few weeks to get his coat let out, and it was after explaining this that Joseph Smith declared loudly, “He hoped he would continue to grow fat and swell, and before the next election burst.” So clearly, no love lost between Joseph Smith and Martin Van Buren.
Joseph Smith doesn’t give up, however. Joseph Smith decides he’s going to continue to petition the federal government, but he’ll take other avenues to protect the future rights of his people. But I think it’s worth mentioning that Martin 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 Mormons’ 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 at the hands of the government and Van Buren agreed to help the Shakers. As Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren had written to the Pope to assure him that Catholics would be treated fairly in the United States and that made a lot of Americans mad. They did not like that they had a member of the federal government, a member of the President’s Cabinet, advocating for equal rights for Catholic Americans. It caused quite a stir, but we see Van Buren has this track record of helping religious minorities. As far as we can tell, Van Buren’s decision not to help the Mormons was entirely political. It was based on electoral concerns and that’s it. Which doesn’t necessarily feel any better than if it was determined by religious prejudice or bigotry, but we see that sometimes systems of inequality that are created by bigotry and prejudice are upheld by quests for power. There are people who would rather have power, to get it or maintain it, then stick their necks out to help the truly injured and oppressed. If you’re interested in more, the project director of the Van Buren Papers is a friend of mine. We sat down in conversation about the full political context of this historic meeting and we published the video on the Joseph Smith papers website. It’s free. You’re welcome. If you’re super interested go and watch 13 minutes talking about Van Buren, Smith and politics. So I mentioned that this changed the way Joseph Smith led the Church and it impacted the way that he led the city of Nauvoo.
We see a Joseph Smith returning to Nauvoo who is no longer convinced that the federal government will ultimately protect his rights and the rights of his people. He must take matters into his own hands as much as he can, and so we see the Nauvoo Charter, which becomes so controversial and in which he puts every possible right that had existed in other cities’ charters, and what made it so controversial is that the Mormons had an aggregation of all those rights in their charter. They form a militia that ultimately grows to something like a quarter of the size of the United States army or some high fraction like that. They have tremendous power in the city of Nauvoo to protect themselves from a repeat of what happened in Missouri . So whereas some have seen Joseph Smith as a megalomaniac for consolidating so much power in the city and ultimately in himself, if we understand Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington, D.C. and how that affected him, we don’t see megalomania. We see a man desperate to protect himself and his people and their rights as Americans any way he possibly can.
He also learns and becomes convinced that the biggest obstacle to universal religious liberty in the United States is adherence and devotion to the states’ rights philosophy. States’ rights was what prevented the federal government from taking action, and they declined each and every one of the Church’s petitions on the same grounds, and so Joseph Smith starts to use some really innovative legal and political tactics to get around the philosophy of states’ rights. He petitions the federal government to be made a general in the United States Army. It doesn’t work, but in that case, he would have had the United States Army at his disposal to protect the citizens in Nauvoo. There’s a way around states’ rights. He petitions for a grant of federal lands in the Western territories where he and his people can move away from Illinois and live in peace. It’s not granted. He petitions to have Nauvoo turned into a federal territory, essentially to have the city of Nauvoo secede from the state of Illinois and become a federal city, perhaps comparable to the status of Washington, D.C. Again, it doesn’t happen, and the chances of any one of these efforts to actually happen was 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 whatever legal challenge they could against the wall to see what stuck, and that’s what was happening here. So Joseph Smith, Father Bernard Permoli in New Orleans, the Shakers in New York were among the very first call for the Bill of Rights to apply to the individual states. And this comes as a shock to a lot of Americans. The Bill of Rights did not apply to the individual states until after the Civil War, and in the terms of the First Amendment and the protection of religious freedom, not consistently until the 1920s and 1930s. Joseph Smith and these other religious leaders were among the very first to call for Constitutional reform.
The Constitution was not working for them. It needed to be changed. And Joseph Smith was no Constitutional theorist. He was not the greatest Constitutional mind in the United States. He hadn’t had the formal education of so many others who had legal backgrounds, but Joseph Smith’s lived experience had demonstrated that there were inadequate protections of religious minority groups, and something had to change if universal religious liberty was ever to be achieved in the United States. We also see, and I mentioned before that systems of inequality, be they racial inequality, gender inequality, or in this case, religious inequality, are often created through bigotry and prejudice, but often they’re upheld by adherence and devotion to policies and philosophies that on the surface have nothing to do with religion. The states’ rights philosophies on the surface have nothing to do with religion. They’re religiously benign, but what Joseph Smith was saying was in their implementation they had a discriminatory effect against certain groups.
And we see this in our own time. Yes, we still have religious bigotry. We still have religious prejudice in our country, but there are people who would never discriminate against a member of a religious minority group in their interpersonal interactions, who would be nothing but supportive and open to helping them as they interact with them in their communities. And sometimes unwittingly, these same people will support philosophies or political policies that on the surface have nothing to do with religion but in their implementation have a discriminatory effect. And so when we talk about religious freedom in our own time, we can glean a lesson from Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington, D.C. Yes, we need to banish bigotry and prejudice, but we also need to look at ourselves and say, are there things that I support that on the surface have nothing to do with religion, but in their implementation have a discriminatory effect?
Joseph Smith similarly comes back from Washington, D.C. more committed than ever 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 what so many others have since realized, that religious freedom or religious liberty for some is actually religious liberty for none. It’s really easy to defend your own rights of conscience. It’s very easy to defend your own right to live and worship according to the dictates of your own conscience, but what Joseph Smith realizes is we’ll never have a universal religious liberty unless we’re willing to do the same for others. And a lot of this development of Joseph Smith’s thinking on these terms comes out in part at least his trip to Washington, D.C.
So in concluding, and I wish there was a happy ending to this story, I really do, but as you know, that’s not the case. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the fight for the restoration and ongoing protection of the Mormons’ religious liberty is one that Smith would never win. And the political fight continued for decades after the Latter-day Saints had moved to the Great Salt Lake Valley. And then they finally got rid of states’ rights and they had a federal territory and things didn’t get better, as you know. And so as much as we as humans love to have happy endings to our stories, sometimes history just doesn’t cooperate and this is one of those cases, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing where history and this full study of the past is concerned.
An increased understanding of what happened before we occupied this world sometimes is more important than happy endings. I don’t want to leave you with a discouraging note. I don’t want you to go home and say, “Guys, I went to this FairMormon conference and I heard this talk on Joseph Smith and Martin Van Buren and my goodness, it was depressing.” I don’t want you to go home sad, so let me see if I can glean some encouragement from the story. Maybe we can look a little bit deeper. Maybe we can find inspiration, not in the outcome, but maybe in the story itself.
Consider this. When the plan to go to Washington, D.C. was developed by Sidney Rigdon and company, 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, opposition and violent persecution followed, and the more people who gathered together under his leadership, the more severe that persecution seemed to be. Personally, I think many a man in Joseph Smith’s position would have given up, would say that this was not worth it, that the persecution outweighed the benefits, that the persecution even outweighed his prophetic responsibilities. But where many others may have given up, 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, D.C. failed, he returned home to Nauvoo, Illinois with his sense of American idealism shattered. Yet again however, we see that his optimism and his determination remained intact. We see a man who was human, just like you and just like me. We see in Joseph Smith a man who was flawed, just like you and just like me, but we also see a man deeply committed to his beliefs, a man who endured severe conditions to protect the men and women who followed him as a prophet. He was true to his convictions and he was buoyed 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. So maybe, just maybe, Smith’s resilience amid difficulties and his perseverance in the face of rejection is the encouraging moral that comes out of this story. It is the hope, it is the positive note we can take from Joseph Smith’s trip to Washington. Thank you.
Q 1: Can you give us a current example of how states’ rights harms or discriminates?
A 1: Just as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that states’ rights is always or only discriminatory, because as we saw with the Mormons, once they get to Utah and they are under federal jurisdiction, things don’t necessarily get better. But we do see sometimes states’ rights and other similar philosophies; it’s not that the philosophy itself is inherently prejudiced or discriminating, but it can be used to protect those who wish to discriminate. It can be used as a shield. And it wasn’t slavery, for instance, people who wanted to protect slavery but avoid the claim that they were racist, could use the cover of states’ rights to preserve the institution of slavery.
Without taking a position one way or the other, we see people flip flop on whether or not they think states’ rights should be the prevailing political philosophy. We see this, for instance, with the Defense of Marriage Act signed by Bill Clinton, which many people who normally love the states’ rights philosophy celebrated the federal government getting involved on their issue. But when the federal government years later reversed that position, the claim was the federal government shouldn’t be involved. It should be state’s rights. So without getting into the mud of the political issue itself, I use that as an example to say sometimes states’ rights is used as a cover for other discriminatory sentiments at play. So, good question.
Q 2: If Joseph Smith waited till after the election, would Van Buren have helped him?
A 2: Maybe. Martin Van Buren actually ultimately did win Illinois, but just by the thinnest of margins and you can look at the voting records in Nauvoo and it’s not even close in Nauvoo. Maybe Van Buren would have been more willing to speak out to Congress. An executive order from the President was extremely rare in these days and while the Mormons would have taken it, I don’t think they were expecting it. So I think [the chances of] Van Buren ever issuing an executive order on this matter would have been slim, but maybe if he had waited till after Van Buren… Well, Van Buren lost the election, so I guess it’s a moot point, but maybe Van Buren not in an election year, if we think of that ‘what if’ scenario, possibly, but probably not is my guess.
Q 3: Do we know how much time Joseph spent observing Senate Congressional hearings? What direct impact did this have on how Joseph governed the Church?
A 3: You know, I don’t know how much actual time he spent viewing what was going on in Congress. We have his remarks and a couple letters, but you know, maybe he viewed it for five minutes and came to this realization, maybe he viewed it for several days. I’m not sure to what extent it affected the day to day governance of the Church. It’s possible that in establishing the Council of Fifty, which he saw as the political kingdom of God, that there was some impact there. So, that’s actually a really good question. I don’t know the answer. [You did it! I want you to ask questions I don’t know the answer to.] And maybe there is some connection to the way he operated the Council of Fifty and what he saw in Congress. I’m going to have to look into that. So whoever asked that question, well done.
Q 4: How did Sidney Rigdon’s not going to Washington, D.C. affect his later apostasy from the Church?
A 4: That’s another one where if I don’t know the answer to the question that was asked, I can answer one that wasn’t, right. I don’t exactly know. We see that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s relationship is strained throughout much of the Nauvoo period of the Church. There’s a lot of different factors involved in this and if you’re talking 1840, late 1842, 1843, there’s familial aspects on allegations having to do with plural marriage involved, but Sidney Rigdon doesn’t fully recover from the ill effects of malaria for years. There are stretches of three or four months at a time in Nauvoo where Sidney Rigdon is confined to his bed, so I don’t know how much impact it had on his apostasy, but it did impact Sidney Rigdon and his physical ability to be up and about in Nauvoo. And we do know that Joseph Smith lamented that Sidney Rigdon was not with them in the White House, because Sidney Rigdon was perhaps the most eloquent speaker of the Church leadership at that time. [He] even comments in a letter home, how they really miss Rigdon and his eloquence, and it could be of great use in speaking to the powers that be.
Q 5: Since Van Buren lost the election, [did] Joseph attempt to appeal to William Henry Harrison?
A 5: Others mentioned that he was going to. I don’t know of any direct appeal to President Harrison, and maybe that’s because Harrison was only in office for some very short amount of time, but he does continue to appeal to Congress in subsequent years, but not to Harrison. And we do see that when Van Buren runs again in 1844, Van Buren has a new opponent, an independent candidate named Joseph Smith. But before Joseph Smith announced his own presidential campaign, he wrote five letters to the five presidential candidates or presumed candidates for president, Lewis Cass, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, Robert M. Johnson, and John C. Calhoun. And the letter is absolutely identical to all five candidates with the exception of Van Buren. And there’s a little PS asking if his opinion has changed since he last spoke with him. Van Buren never responded.
Q 6: You didn’t mention the story of the prophet stopping a runaway stagecoach from having an accident. Do you consider this story ahistorical, similar to how Givens and Grow discount the Prophet’s famous rebuke of his jailers in Richmond, Missouri?
A 6: So on that same stagecoach with the drunken Missouri Congressman–well, he’s only drunk once. I don’t know all the details off the top of my head, but their driver stops to get a drink or for a rest stop of some kind. The passengers are still in the stagecoach and something spooks the horses and they take off running, and it’s Joseph Smith who gets out of the stagecoach and is able to climb, almost I imagine it like Indiana Jones, up to the front to stop the horses and to save possibly the lives of the members. Then poor Elias Higbee decides he’s going to help too, but just a moment too late because as he’s getting ready to jump out to the outside to climb and help Joseph, that’s when the horses come to a screeching halt and Higbee actually injures himself just from bad timing. I have no reason to think that this story is apocryphal, because it’s actually mentioned in one of the early letters Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee send from Washington, D.C. So it’s coming from a letter from Joseph and Elias. That being said, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction in the D.C. trip because one of the best sources we have is Robert D. Foster writing to Joseph Smith III decades later, and Robert D. Foster places himself as having been in certain places when we know for a fact he was back in Ohio with Sidney Rigdon. And so we don’t know what he’s making up or what he’s passing on from stories he heard or he’d been told by his fellow travelers. We just don’t know some of these stories, but I have no reason to suspect that the stopping the stagecoach story is not in fact true. Good question.
Q 7: So until the 14th Amendment, the federal government would have had little power to intervene in Missouri’s affairs. Shouldn’t Van Buren’s response and Congresses’ be seen in the light of states’ rights?
A 7: So Van Buren only cites electoral politics, but Congress definitely cites states’ rights, and this is what kind of leads Joseph Smith to be on the vanguard of those who call for a new interpretation of the Constitution, for the Bill of Rights to apply to the individual states. But you’re right. That is the light and understanding which we should see how Congress heard the case of the Mormons.
Q 8: What was Elias Higbee’s background in going before Congress, educationally, professionally, politically, etc.?
A 8: When the Mormons submitted their petition to Congress, they attached to it hundreds of affidavits from individual Church members where they itemized the things they lost in Missouri, and a large number of these were sworn before Elias Higbee, who was the Justice of the Peace, so he had more firsthand knowledge of what had happened and the property losses of the Saints than perhaps anyone. Now on the other side of that, he was also a militant leader of the Mormons who fought back in Missouri. He was involved in taking up arms and fighting the vigilantes or mobs as well as the state militia. So he also had a lot of firsthand knowledge of the military action that had occurred in Missouri. So it seemed like he was a logical choice of someone to bring to D.C. The affidavits [are] in the national archives.