Mitt Romney is Not the First Mormon to Run for President





9-24-12

Thomas B. Allen is the author of "The First Mormon Candidate" and a contributing editor to National Geographic.


1842 portrait of Joseph Smith by an unknown painter.

Mitt Romney is not the first Mormon to run for president. That title belongs to Joseph Smith, who was in fact the first Mormon. He founded what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based on a divine vision that he had seen as a teenager in 1820. Unlike Mitt Romney in 2012, Smith in 1844 campaigned as a Mormon -- the head of the Mormon Reform Party, with Sidney Rigdon, a high-ranking Mormon leader, as his running mate.

In his 16,500-word platform Smith spelled out exactly what his policies would be. He called on Congress, for instance, to abolish slavery by paying "every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from the members of Congress." Congressional pay would be cut to two dollars a day plus board, except on Sundays, which "is more than the farmer gets, and he lives honestly."

Smith was not a newcomer to national politics. Newspapers across the country followed the doings of the Mormons and their leader. In November 1839, for instance, papers reported that Smith had presented President Martin Van Buren with "the grievances of the Saints," as Mormons sometimes called themselves. The grievances reflected the growth of both the religion and the hostility it had been generating among non-Mormons ever since its formal founding in upstate New York in 1830.

As the number of Smith's New York followers grew, so did ridicule and accusations of blasphemy. Responding to what he called a revelation, Smith led about 1,000 Mormons to Kirtland, Ohio, near Cleveland. But, beset by financial troubles and fearing a plot against him, Smith soon ordered another move, this time to Missouri. As the Mormons spread and began to prosper, however, their anti-slavery sentiments made them targets of pro-slavery mobs. After several clashes, in 1838 the governor or Missouri declared that the Mormons "must be exterminated or driven from the state." The state militia, along with vigilantes, forced Mormon families from their homes, driving the Saints across the Mississippi River into Illinois.

The Mormons bought a rundown Illinois river town, named it Nauvoo ("Beautiful Place" in Hebrew), and got a charter signed by a newfound friend, Stephen A. Douglas, then the youthful Illinois secretary of state. Douglas, like many other politicians, recognized the potential power of Mormon voters. He gave them what they wanted in the charter: ordinances passed by the Nauvoo City Council, for example, could violate or disregard state laws as long as they did not clash with the federal or state constitutions. And, importantly Nauvoo could have its own city militia. Smith gave himself the rank of lieutenant general, outfitted himself in a uniform, and took command of the 4,000-man Nauvoo Legion.

So, when he announced his candidacy for the presidency on January 29, 1844, his platform was entitled General Smith's Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. He would be running against Democrat James K. Polk, Whig Henry Clay, and James G. Birney, an abolitionist nominated by the small Liberty Party.

Smith launched his campaign with an order: "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."

Electioneering missionaries traveled to all twenty-six states and to the Wisconsin Territory. There was little overt violence. But there were worries about Mormon power.

The New York Herald noted that Smith, in a shameless exaggeration, claimed the backing of 200,000 to 500,000 Mormon voters. The newspaper wondered whether "they calculate that they can hold the balance of power and make whoever they please President. Well, if so, they may be worth looking after...."

In Nauvoo, Smith's bid for the presidency gave dissidents another reason to question the decisions of their leader. They were already whispered accusations that he had several wives and was introducing the doctrine of polygamy into his inner circle.

Some of the dissidents produced their own newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. In its first edition, on June 7, 1844, the Expositor proclaimed: "We are earnest­ly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith, and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms...."

The Expositor's first edition would be its last. Smith ordered the press destroyed. Anti-Mormon mobs roamed the streets in Nauvoo and nearby towns. On June 24, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, charged with incitement to riot and treason, surrendered and were taken to Carthage, the county seat about 20 miles southeast of Nauvoo. On June 27, they were shot to death by members of a mob that stormed the jail where they were held.

Thus, Joseph Smith became the first presidential candidate assassinated during an election campaign.


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