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Civilization, Republic, Nation: Contested Keywords, Northern Republicans, and the Forgotten Reconstruction of Mormon Utah

From: Civil War History
Volume 56, Number 3, September 2010
pp. 283-310 | 10.1353/cwh.2010.0003

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“Sherman’s dashing Yankee boys will never make the coast!”
So the saucy rebels said and ’twas a handsome boast,
Had they not forgot, alas! to reckon with the Host,
While we were marching through Georgia

—“Marching through Georgia,” a Union soldiers’ song

“Orland’s boys with carpet bags will never take Salt Lake!”
So the royal families said, but that was their mistake,
We’ll show them at the ballot boxes who will “take the cake,”
While we go marching through Zion.

—“Marching through Zion,” a song of Utah’s Liberal Party

The reconstruction of Mormon Utah is one of the most fascinating episodes in the political and cultural history of the Civil War–era United States.1 Yet, while several detailed and insightful analyses of this prolonged confrontation exist, it has been almost entirely neglected by mainstream Reconstruction historiography.2 This is unfortunate, for this scholarly isolation has obscured what many postbellum Americans, especially the politically powerful northern Republicans, considered important and obvious connections among Mormon Utah, the South, and the future of the United States. As such, recovering these perceived linkages affords new insights into the Republican Party and the political culture of the Civil War era. In particular, most research on postbellum northern Republicans has focused on their economic beliefs, their internal divisions over southern policy, and their leadership’s increasingly debilitating corruption.3 Without dismissing this impressive body of scholarship, this examination of northern Republican discussions of Mormon Utah emphasizes that a widely shared complex of presumptions and ideas did lend consistency to how members thought about themselves, the nation, and the world. It also underscores the value of recent research on the connections between Reconstruction and the American West and offers insight into related but longer-running challenges concerning how to address Reconstruction as a series of conflicts that were at once quintessentially southern and inherently national.4 As northern Republican concern over Mormon Utah demonstrates, if the South absorbed congressional energies, shaped national politics, and served as the setting of a violent tragedy, in doing so it did not circumscribe the landscape of American social and political thought. In fact, consuming though they were, the sectional and partisan conflicts that did much to define Reconstruction actually impelled attention outward.

Integral to the politics and culture of the postbellum period were competing claims, voiced in newspapers, magazines, books, political speeches and public lectures, about the nature of an allegedly unitary American national identity and, more broadly still, what was possible and what was good in the realms of individual character, society, and government. In the course of their arguments, Americans made assertions about presumed racial differences, forms of labor, gender relations, technological and economic development, cultural differences and religious beliefs, and much else. Without simplifying the rich vocabulary of nineteenth-century Americans, we should note two ubiquitous but contested concepts that recurred in these varied discussions and therefore gave contour to the larger dispute of which they were a part.5 First, few postbellum Americans could think of their country without considering what it meant to be a republic. Here, divided Americans found a common term that had a generally accepted core meaning: republics were societies in which a people ruled themselves as citizens instead of living as the subjects of despots and aristocrats. Yet, by the time of the Civil War, this ancient idea had been appropriated and interpreted by so many and had accrued so many associations and connotations that it embodied and sustained disagreement rather than prompting accord.6 Similarly, postbellum Americans believed that the United States should or did exemplify what was often called the progress of civilization. Civilization, according to most Americans, described a stage of development distinguished by its qualitative and continuing advancement from what was held to be a simpler, harsher, and antiquated form of life referred to as savagery or barbarism. Again, however, here agreement ended as Americans articulated competing interpretations about the character, sources, and limits of progress.7 If Americans generally failed to approach their overlapping arguments concerning what it meant to be “American,” “republican,” and “civilized” with open minds, they nonetheless found that their expansive claims led naturally to consideration of developments and...

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