Polygamy & Slavery

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May 11, 2014

There is a wonderful, surprisingly unbiased, and brilliantly written book entitled The Mormon Question, by Sarah Barringer Gordon (2002). It documents the historical constitutional debates about polygamy.

One side issue it discusses is the relationship of polygamy to the issue of slavery. To me (J.P.P.) it was so interesting as to merit writing this email, which summarizes my understanding of what she wrote.

The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to do pretty much what they want, and greatly limits the federal government. States could have an official state religion (6 of the first 13 did), could have slavery, etc. At first the Bill of Rights (including freedom of speech and religion) was only for the federal government.

By 1850, even though many people felt that slavery is wrong, the will of non-slave states could not be imposed on slave states. Then the Mormons announced in 1852 that in Utah Territory polygamy is legal. Then everything changed.

It was a topic that galvanized the entire country. Many court rulings affirmed that this is a Christian country, and Christians felt that monogamy is clearly taught in the Bible and should be the law of the land. But the polygamy question was very similar to the slave question: it referred to domestic life which was out of the scope of the Constitution.

With all the states agreeing that polygamy was evil, and was very much like enslaving women, the idea was hatched to connect polygamy and slavery in the minds of all U.S. voters. The Republican Party was founded for the 1856 election, replacing the Whig, on the platform to eradicate the "twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery". Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 on that platform before the Civil War began.

Congress had power to legislate laws in a territory like Utah, so with the people united against polygamy, they passed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act in 1862. That was supposed to end polygamy, the first of the "twin relics". Now that the precedent had been set for the government to interfere into domestic affairs, slavery was also soon eliminated thereafter with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, then after the Civil War with the 13th Amendment in 1865, and finally citizenship granted by 14th Amendment in 1868.

So the U.S. fighting Mormon polygamy helped break through the barriers to eradicate slavery also!

~ John P. Pratt