Articles/Essays – Volume 03, No. 3

Joseph Smith’s Presidential Platform: Joseph Smith and the Presidency, 1844

At a meeting in the mayor’s office in Nauvoo, Illinois, on January 29, 1844, it was moved and voted unanimously that “we will have an independent electoral ticket, and that Joseph Smith be a candidate for the next Presidency; and that we use all honorable means in our power to secure his election.”[1] Whereupon the Mormon Prophet remarked to the Quorum of the Twelve and others who were present at this informal political caucus: 

If you attempt to accomplish this, you must send every man in the city who is able to speak in public throughout the land to electioneer and make stump speeches, advocate the “Mormon” religion, purity of elections, and call upon the people to stand by the law and put down mobocracy. . . . 

. . . Tell the people we have had Whig and Democratic Presidents long enough; we want a President of the United States. If I ever get into the presidential chair, I will protect the people in their rights and liberties. I will not electioneer for myself. . . . There is oratory enough in the Church to carry me into the presidential chair the first slide.[2]

Among many historical questions left unresolved by the untimely death of Joseph Smith is the question of the Mormon leader’s intent and expectations in announcing for the Presidency. Recent scholars like Robert Flanders and Klaus Hansen relate the 1844 candidacy to the projects of the General Council (Council of Fifty) and believe it was seriously meant.[3] B. H. Roberts expressed the traditional L.D.S. view when he quoted with approval the Prophet’s own language later in 1844: “As to politics, I care but little about the presidential chair. . . . “[4] By this interpretation, Smith was acutely dissatisfied with the major parties and so ran primarily to give the voters among his own people an acceptable option and to avoid further entanglement in the partisan politics of Illinois. 

This editorial introduction to General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States does not undertake to resolve the question of intent. It seeks only to establish a historical context for the document which is commonly referred to as Joseph Smith’s Presidential platform and to clarify some of the allusions in that document. A companion article by Dr. Martin B. Hickman suggests some possible relevance of the Prophet’s Views for the present day. 

The idea of announcing for the Presidency probably occurred to Joseph Smith during the winter of 1843—44, when his inquiries to some of the leading national political figures about what would be their course of action toward the Mormons if elected to the White House drew unsatisfactory answers or no answers at all.[5] Following the meeting described above, the Times and Seasons of February 1, 1844, promised to name a candidate, and six days later the other Church paper, the Nauvoo Neighbor, concluded a long editorial, “Who Will Be Our Next President?” with the name of “General Joseph Smith.”[6]

The first draft of the Views was the product of a collaboration between Smith and William W. Phelps (and perhaps John M. Bernhisel), with Phelps possibly being responsible for the turgid style. Given a first public reading on February 7, the document was reread in several meetings and apparently revised a little before fifteen hundred copies came off the Times and Seasons press in Nauvoo on February 24.[7] It was mailed to President John Tyler, members of his Cabinet, Supreme Court judges, members of Congress and many newspaper editors, postmasters, and other prominent persons, and it elicited a limited and mixed response during the following weeks.[8]

As his running mate, General Smith first proposed James Arlington Bennett, a New York lawyer, religious eccentric, and political opportunist who had recently been baptized by Brigham Young.[9] When it was discovered that Bennett was apparently Irish-born and thus ineligible, the Vice Presidential nomination was extended to Colonel Solomon Copeland, of Paris, Tennessee, but Sidney Rigdon, “of Pennsylvania,” ultimately received the designation of the General Council on May 6.[10]

The official but secret organization of the General Council, or Council of Fifty, took place meanwhile on March 11, 1844, and thereafter the direction of the Presidential project appears to have been in the hands of this body.[11]

The campaign was aggressively launched by a special conference on April 9, immediately following the annual conference of the L.D.S. Church. Brigham Young’s call for volunteers “to preach the Gospel and electioneer” drew 244 immediate responses and donations of $100 cash and $100 on loan. As president of the Quorum of the Twelve, and probably also as spokesman for the Council of Fifty, Young instructed the elders to proceed quickly to their assigned states and conferences and there put Smith’s views before the people and line up electors.[12] Reports of meetings around the nation, some attended by disturbances, and copies of the Views with 1844 imprints from Pontiac, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City bear witness to their efforts.[13] After designating May 17 for a nominating convention in Nauvoo and sending D. S. Hollister to Baltimore to observe and possibly lobby for the Smith candidacy at the forthcoming Whig and Democratic conventions, the General Council joined the political missionaries.[14]

The May 17 convention followed the standard routines of this first generation of organized political party pep rallies. By counting the places of origin of the overwhelmingly Mormon delegates, all 26 of the states and ten Illinois counties were found to be represented. Tactical reasons probably explain the prominent speaking roles of two Gentile delegates, Dr. G. W. Goforth and John S. Reid, and the reading of a letter from Joseph Smith to the National Reform Association of New York, pledging support of a “uniform land law” for free homesteads. The nomination of Smith and Rigdon was uncontested, as was the designation of Willard Richards, John M. Bernhisel, W. W. Phelps and Lucian R. Foster as a committee of correspondence for the campaign.[15]

The resolutions adopted by the convention are puzzling in that they do not square in all respects with the Views. One is led to speculate that a gesture to the Democrats was deemed expedient to offset press charges that the Views were full of Whig doctrine.[16] After denouncing the existing government and the major parties for corruption and imbecility, this platform document stated in part:[17]

4. Resolved, that to redress all wrongs, the government of the United States, with the President at its head, is as powerful in its sphere as Jehovah is in His. 

5. Resolved, that the better to carry out the principles of liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade, and sailors’ rights, and the protection of person and property, we will support General Joseph Smith, of Illinois, for the President of the United States at the ensuing election.[18]

6. Resolved, that we will support Sidney Rigdon, Esq., of Pennsylvania, for the Vice Presidency.

7. Resolved, that we will hold a National Convention at Balti- more on Saturday, the 13th day of July.[19]

Events were already moving toward the showdown between Joseph Smith and his opponents in and outside the Church, and the month of June found Presidential politics pushed to the background in Nauvoo. Still, the committee on correspondence continued to solicit support in the East and many of the missionaries kept at their labors until word of the tragedy at Carthage on June 27 finally reached them.[20]

A parting word on the candidacy of the Mormon Prophet was an editorial in the Times and Seasons, August 15, 1844, which pledged that the Latter-day Saints would support only candidates who would carry out “General Smith’s program.” In the November election, Hancock County went almost 2 to 1 for the dark-horse Democrat, James K. Polk, over the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, which may or may not be interpreted as a fulfillment of that pledge.[21]

The original of the document which follows is the eight-page pamphlet printed in Nauvoo in May, 1844, from type previously used to present General Smith’s Views to readers of the Nauvoo Neighbor, May 8, and the Times and Seasons, May 15.[22] When Roberts edited the Views for the Documentary History of the Church, he changed some paragraphing, spelling and punctuation, but the substantial changes were the deletions of some of the ostentatious foreign language phrases, which Roberts attributes to Phelps.[23] As a campaign tract the Views would have benefited from compression and tighter organization, but as it stands, it is an intriguing blend of ante-bellum political rhetoric, Whig economic doctrines, Democratic expansionism, abolitionism, and the original and wide-range constitutional and political ideas of Joseph Smith himself.[24]

[1] Joseph Smith, History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City; Deseret News, 1950), VI, 188. Hereafter cited as D.H.C. (Documentary History of the Church).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert B. Flanders, Nauvoo, Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1965), pp. 301-302; Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire (E. Lansing: Michigan State University, 1967), pp. 75-79; the candidacy is also interpreted as a serious project in Edward G. Thompson, “A Study of the Political Involvements in the Career of Joseph Smith,” (unpublished master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966), pp. 113-16ff., and Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Causes of Mormon Non-Mormon Conflict in Hancock County, Illinois, 1839-1846,” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1967) , pp. 60-69. 

[4] B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Century I (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1930), II, 209. 

[5] On November 4, 1843, letters were addressed to John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren. Cass, Clay and Calhoun responded, but none proposed the kind of federal intervention in behalf of the Latter-day Saints that the Prophet desired and that his Views and his caustic replies to Calhoun and Clay recommended. D.H.C., VI, 64-65, 155-60, 376, gives all the correspondence except the letter from Cass and the grossly insulting reply to Clay; these appear in Thompson, op cit., pp. 178-84.

[6] References to the semi-monthly Times and Seasons and weekly Nauvoo Neighbor are drawn from the microfilm copies at Brigham Young University. 

[7] D.H.C, VI, 189, 197, 214, 221, 224. Copies of this first edition are in the L.D.S. Church Historian’s Office, the Illinois State Historical Society, the Yale University Library, the New berry Library, and the Reorganized L.D.S. Church Library. The 12-page pamphlet bears the imprint: General Smith’s views of the powers and policy of the government of the United States. Nauvoo, 111. 1844. John Taylor, printer. 

[8] D.H.C, VI, 268-70; Nauvoo Neighbor, March 20, April 24, 1844; New York Herald, March 18, 23, 1844. 

[9] Smith and Bennett never met, but correspondence between them is in D.H.C., V, 112-14, 156-59, 162-64; VI, 71-78, 231-33. Earlier, possibly on recommendation of John C. Bennett, James Arlington Bennett (also spelled Bennet) had been named inspector-general of the Nauvoo Legion and granted an honorary LL.D. from the University of Nauvoo. Ibid., IV, 593, 600-601. Ultimately Brigham Young wrote him off as an adventurer when he volunteered to come to Nauvoo and take over command of the Nauvoo Legion after Smith’s death. Ibid., VII, 429, 483, 488, 528. In 1855 Bennet (t) privately published A New Revelation to Mankind, drawn from Axioms, or self-evident truths in Nature, Mathematically demonstrated (Microfilm at B.Y.U.). 

[10] D.H.C, VI, 244, 248, 268, 356. Bennett to Willard Richards, April 14, 1844, denies foreign birth but declines the nomination.. Cited in Godfrey, op. cit., p. 62, which also says that Copeland declined. 

[11] Hansen, op. cit., pp. 60, 73-81; Thompson, op. cit., pp. 141-42. That neither the Prophet nor the Council was totally preoccupied with the political race is clear from the investigations of Texas and other possible new homes for the Saints which were in progress, and also from the intriguing and rather convincingly documented report that the Prophet was ordained “king on earth” in the Council during this period. Hansen, op. cit., pp. 66 and 45-89; Godfrey, pp. 63-65.

[12] D.H.C, VI, 334-40. In all, 340 missionaries were appointed to all 26 states and Iowa Territory, and 47 special conferences were scheduled to be conducted by the Twelve, ending in Washington, D.C., Sept. 7-15, 1844. 

[13] Ibid., VI, 399-401; Nauvoo Neighbor, May 8, June 5, 1844; George R. Gayler, “A Social, Economic and Political Study of the Mormons in Western Illinois, 1839-1846,” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1955), p. 183. The pamphlet editions of the Views varied in format and pagination, and William A. Linn, The Story of the Mormons (New York: Macmillan, 1902), p. 254, mentions editions in Kirtland, Ohio, and Dresden, Tennessee. At least one of the political proselyters, John D. Lee, apparently confined himself to preaching the L.D.S. religion. Juanita Brooks, John Doyle Lee (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1962), p. 60. 

[14] D.H.C., VI, 340-43, 416-18. 

[15] Details of the convention are found in D.H.C., VI, 385-98, and Nauvoo Neighbor, May 22, 1844. According to Godfrey, pp. 65-67, the meeting was followed by a street parade in which the Presidential candidate was carried on the shoulders of the jubilant crowd. 

[16] See examples of this charge and Smith’s replies in Nauvoo Neighbor, March 20, April 10, 17, 1844. 

[17] D.H.C., VI, 391.

[18] The writer has not found the source of this resolution, which in its free trade plank contradicts the Prophet’s Views and in its invoking of sailors’ rights recalls a minor political issue of the years immediately preceding the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. The resolutions committee was G. W. Goforth, John Taylor, W. W. Phelps, William Smith and Lucian R. Foster. According to Roberts, Comprehensive History . . . , II, 207-208, the resolution found expression in the campaign slogan: “Reform, Jeffersonian Democracy, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.” 

[19] Gayler, op. cit., pp. 183-84, cites a report in Niles National Register, July 20, 1844, that the national convention actually met in Baltimore and in the face of the recent tidings of the death of Joseph Smith adjourned sine die. 

[20] D.H.C., VI, 404, 416-18; Godfrey, op. cit., pp. 68-69. 

[21] Gayler, op. cit., p. 184. 

[22] It seems nearly certain that this is the same type used in the February pamphlet edition.

[23] D.H.C., VI, 197-209, 75 fn. 

[24] Comparison of the Prophet’s platform with those of the political parties which fielded candidates in 1844 reveals the extent to which eclecticism and originality are mingled. The Democratic Party (James K. Polk), responding to the growing Southern influence in its leadership, affirmed that the federal government is one of limited powers and that those powers did not include a protective tariff, a national bank or the distribution of public land proceeds; yet its expansionism on Texas and Oregon was unrestrained. The Whig Party (Henry Clay) concentrated on the virtues of the candidate without itemizing the elements of his “American System” or mentioning Texas and Oregon. The Liberty Party (James Birney) called for the abolition of slavery by state and ultimately federal action, but without compensation to the owners. Kirk H. Porter and Donald B. Johnson, eds., National Party Platforms, 1840-1964 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1966), pp. 3-9.