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  • Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory by Brent M. Rogers
  • Amy S. Greenberg (bio)
Key Words

Mormons, Utah Territory, Popular sovereignty, Utah War, Expansionism, Gender

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory. By Brent M. Rogers. ( Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 402. Paper, $32.00.)

"What is this popular sovereignty," asked the Bangor Daily Whig on April 18, 1857, "if under it the Mormons may not keep as many wives [End Page 183] as they please? It protects slaveholding, according to democratic doctrine; why not polygamy?" Although the newspaper's equation of slavery with a marriage practice northerners and southerners alike deemed barbaric was deliberately provocative, the question was not without merit. Popular sovereignty is virtually synonymous with the Kansas–Nebraska Act in the historical imagination. But Brent Rogers's welcome study of Mormon struggles for self-governance in Utah Territory reminds readers that Bleeding Kansas wasn't the sole locus in the national debate over the exercise of power in federal territories in the second half of the 1850s. His close examination of events in Utah joins Christopher Childers, The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics (Lawrence, KS, 2012), in inviting a reconsideration of reigning narratives of this crucial political concept.

The 1856 Republican Party platform identified slavery and polygamy as the "twin relics of barbarism" (15), but because much of the Mormon experience has been treated as exceptional within mainstream historiography, it's been easy for scholars of antebellum political development to bracket the second twin. Not so for non-Mormons in the 1850s. While proslavery and antislavery forces battled to control Kansas, Mormon settlers were busy establishing a theocracy in the far West that onlookers considered deeply disturbing.

Mormon settlers driven west to the territory they called Deseret after persecution in Missouri and Illinois were desperate to gain statehood and political autonomy, but the sect was denied the authority it craved by a federal government that questioned Mormons' loyalty. The Compromise of 1850 brought Utah into the union as a territory governed by popular sovereignty. Mormons, like southerners, opportunistically embraced popular sovereignty out of hopes that it might offer them protection for their "peculiar institution."

But Democratic support for popular sovereignty was undermined by events in Utah. The doctrine of plural marriage was deeply threatening to the gender norms of non-Mormons, and the presence of U.S. soldiers in Utah infuriated Mormon men who grounded their masculinity in their ability to control Mormon female sexuality. At the same time, ongoing fears of Mormon–Indian conspiracy were exacerbated by Mormon Indian policy, directed by Superintendent of Indian Affairs Brigham Young, which clearly undermined Federal authority. Mormons proselytized among Indians, and expended federal funds to ingratiate themselves [End Page 184] with tribal leaders. Territorial expansion made the sect increasingly hard for the rest of the country to ignore. Lodged in the path of the much-desired transcontinental railroad, the Mormons were "perceived by most Americans as a subversive imperium in imperio threatening to halt progress and emigration across the plains, and take possession of that critical regional crossroads" (143). The presence of Mormons thus jeopardized the expansion of both monogamy and national territorial sovereignty.

The Buchanan administration was forced to choose between supporting its own doctrine of popular sovereignty and asserting federal authority in the West, knowing full well that actions contrary to the interests of local inhabitants would exacerbate southern fears of federal power, and that "repudiating popular sovereignty in Utah might strike a blow to the potential of slavery expansion in the new territories" (149). In 1857, Mormons disguised as Indians killed 120 California-bound immigrants. Brigham Young declared martial law four days after the massacre, forbade armed forces from entering the territory, and ordered the territory militia to prepare to defend the Salt Lake Valley. This clear act of rebellion drove Buchanan to send in the army. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was not the cause of federal assertions of authority over Utah; Rogers argues that "was already well in motion" (180) but the resulting Utah War of 1857, the "antebellum period's most influential display...


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pp. 183-186
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