Campaigns/Elections

The Single Weirdest Fact About American Politics Is That Utah Is the Reddest State

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While Mitt Romney struggles with how to present his Mormonism to the public, it's a good time to remember the first Mormon to run for president. You may have heard of him: a fellow name of Joseph Smith. From a column Bill Kauffman wrote in 2004:

Q: Who was the first U.S. Presidential candidate to be assassinated?

The folks in the best position to win this toughest of all bar bets are, alas, usually absent from the bar. They are the Mormons, and the answer to this question is none other than Joseph Smith, "The Prophet," founder of their faith and independent candidate for the Presidency in 1844….

Smith set out his views in a curious eight-page document which Mormon missionaries distributed throughout the country. His platform blended pique and prophecy, the quotidian and the exotically idealistic. Angry that Congress had not responded to Mormon cries for help, he pledged to "reduce Congress at least one half" and cut members' pay.

Like the nascent Liberty Party, Smith took up the cause of abolition, which will surprise those who know Mormonism only as the faith that denied the priesthood to blacks until 1978. "Break the shackles from the poor black man," he pled, suggesting that slaveowners might be compensated by revenues from the sale of public lands.

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Sailing in the mainstream, Smith promised "more economy…less taxes" and a "judicious tariff," and lest the reader suspect that the Prophet had forgotten his own people, he called for the President to be granted "full power to send an army to suppress mobs," even over the objection of a state's governor.

What is most beguiling about the document, however, is Smith's view of crime and punishment: He was against both. "Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries," Smith urged, "blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more!" Try running on that platform in Utah today.

Smith opposed incarceration for all crimes but murder. Instead, miscreants ought to work on the roads or "any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue." Smith reminded those hardhearts who doubted that criminals might be reformed that "Love conquers all."

Insert Daniel Tavares joke here. The anti-prison plank wasn't actually as radical as it sounds today: Prisons themselves were a relatively recent invention in 1844, and they were closely associated with the same Yankee reformers who hated Mormons.

For more on Smith's presidential campaign, see this old issue of Dialogue.

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31 responses to “The Single Weirdest Fact About American Politics Is That Utah Is the Reddest State

  1. I read in the New York Times this morning how, last year, one in every 31 adults in the United States was in prison, in jail or on supervised release.

    Done right, a candidate calling for mass release of non-violent offenders could make serious political hay.

  2. Not really. Many or most of them can’t vote.

  3. That’s too bad the old polygamist didn’t stick around long enough to make the general election. I would have enjoyed destroying him like I did Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Lewis Cass. They were all going down in 1844, baby, because NOBODY COULD STOP THE POLK TRAIN!!! Tariffs, Mexicans, the English, I DESTROYED THEM ALL. Now where’s my goddamned monument?

  4. Sadly, America would have to wait until the year 2000 to get a President who received direct counsel from God Himself.

  5. That’s too bad the old polygamist didn’t stick around long enough to make the general election. I would have enjoyed destroying him like I did Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Lewis Cass. They were all going down in 1844, baby, because NOBODY COULD STOP THE POLK TRAIN!!! Tariffs, Mexicans, the English, I DESTROYED THEM ALL. Now where’s my goddamned monument?

    In four short years he met his every goal
    He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
    Made sure the tarriffs fell
    And made the English sell the Oregon territory
    He built an independent treasury
    Having done all this he sought no second term
    But precious few have mourned the passing of
    Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
    Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

  6. “Now where’s my goddamned monument?”

    Mr. President;

    I think there is a beautiful piece of Louisiana real estate named in your honor, Fort Polk. Rest in peace sir.

  7. Chris S. –

    But their relatives can. I saw Barney Frank speak at the local University a few years back about gay rights, and he pointed out that anti-gay rhetoric doesn’t play as well in (even red state) politics as racist rhetoric used to play primarily because as socially conservative as a person may be, they are likely to have at least one extended family member who is gay.

    Perhaps the one thing that cranky hicks hate more than “the gay scourge” is someone speaking ill of their family.

    Similarly, the large proportion of the criminal population in the US are non-violent offenders, and are part of someone’s family. Perhaps a similar logic could be made to apply if there was an effort to humanize criminals away from the stereotyped common image. Also, most people have never been victims of a crime, and so it is odd that so many people feel so strongly about how criminals should pay or rot in prison without having a personal stake in the situation.

  8. Dangerman obviously was not not licking the frog still… 🙂

    but dammit, I read “neck stump” into the final line… /kicks self in taint

  9. It’s a little known fact* that the vulgar word “poke” (as in “I gave his wife a good poking last night”) was originally spelled “Polk,” in reference to James K. Polk (who was apparently quite the Casanova).

    So in a way, the people of America honor President Polk more and more with every prom night, convention in Vegas, and office Christmas party.

    * Very little known. In fact, we are now the only ones who know it.

  10. (wait til people realize what “to Jake Boone” means!!!!!)

  11. Tangential to the topic –
    Assuming it’s genuine, not a cheap 21st century knock off, I wonder what the pictured campaign button is worth?

  12. Speaking of history, I wonder what affect polygamy had on the Mormon period and if that made it the reddest state?

  13. (wait til people realize what “to Jake Boone” means!!!!!)

    My name isn’t suggestive in the least.

    In any case, it sounds like you could get some interesting questions for Romney out of a comparison between his and Smith’s respective platforms.

  14. Joseph Smith’s disdain for prisons might have something to do with him spending a lot of time in prisons (in fact, he was assassinated by a mob while being held in a jail).

    Mormons used to be heavily Democratic, which may have had something to do with them originally being mostly dirt-poor immigrants.

    Lamar — Utah become the reddest state long after polygamy was abolished by the Church in 1890. It has, IMO, a lot more to do with Church members becoming much more wealthy, and, more recently, with having lots of kids (see my extract in the abstinence-only thread linking current political affiliation to fertility among whites –possibly an artifact of Roe v. Wade).

  15. In any case, it sounds like you could get some interesting questions for evasions from Romney out of a comparison between his and Smith’s respective platforms.

    Fixed, tacos mmmm.

  16. Assuming it’s genuine, not a cheap 21st century knock off, I wonder what the pictured campaign button is worth?

    Feels like a fairly funky font for 1844.

  17. If it’s a knockoff, it’s from the 20th century, not the 21st. I got it from the cover of Dialogue, Autumn 1968.

  18. Lamar,
    As Prolefeed said, Utah was actually very heavily Democratic (possibly due to things like Lincoln campaigning on the platform of abolishing the “twin pillars of barbarism: slavery and polygamy”, or stuff like sending armies to inva…er I mean “restore order”) during the 1800s and early 1900s. Enough so in fact that the church had to (IIRC) actually ask certain members to vote Republican, because otherwise the Republicans wouldn’t allow Utah into the Union.

    But the Democratic party of the 1800s and the Democratic party of 2007 are two entirely unrelated entities that have only a name in common.

    ~Jon

  19. “It’s a little known fact* that the vulgar word “poke” (as in “I gave his wife a good poking last night”) was originally spelled “Polk,” in reference to James K. Polk (who was apparently quite the Casanova).”

    Clinton is also a casanova. Maybe we can coin a sexual term for Clinton as in “he clintoned her with a cigar.

  20. Sadly, America would have to wait until the year 2000 to get a President who received direct counsel from God Himself.

    That might be technically correct. John F Kennedy, inaugurated in 1961, supposedly got his marching orders from the Pope.

    And Washington, kneeling at Valley Forge, could have been studying the terrain.

  21. The anti-prison plank wasn’t actually as radical as it sounds today:…

    Especially since there was substantial debate at the time on this issue of crime and punishment.

    The fairly newly-invented “penitentiary” represented a huge reform and improvement over all the previous regimens.

    And Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1847 in what was probably the most radical move since William Penn established the criminal code for Pensylvania with only murder and treason as capital crimes when England had something like 300 crimes that carried the death penalty.

    Many people believe that Smith read the radical literature of the time and incorporated much of it into doctrine. It took the more pragmatic Brigham Young to tone down the church’s more radical ideas and replace them with beliefs that appealed to more popular emotions (like the church’s racial policies – although he kept polygamy and practiced it enthusiastically).

  22. Isaac Bartram, many of us Michiganders are rightfully proud of that.
    No all, of course.

  23. Okay, explain to me how it’s weird that Utah is a red state?

  24. The fairly newly-invented “penitentiary” represented a huge reform and improvement over all the previous regimens.

    Well. An improvement in some ways, a deterioration in others.

  25. …did anyone else read Lamar’s comment at 1:28 and immediately think of this:
    http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_306.html

    ?

  26. You all would be interested to k now that the labor camp was supposedly a Marxist improvement over the penitentiary. They thought people who committed crimes were “alienated” from their labor and therefore should spend a few years laboring.

    As for the Mormons, they have weird beliefs. I mean, not like people who believe in guys rising from the dead, who believe that an angel talked to an illiterate Arab businessmen in a cave, or those who think Moses parted the Red Sea.

    I mean those are perfectly normal, rational beliefs. Not like those weird Mormons. /sarcasm

  27. oh well what can you expect? pretty much everything in relationship to government and politics is screwed up!! All the ideals and principles behind politics and government have been destroyed!!!

    lol
    check out this crazy funny video!! its all about how messed up the politics are to be come presidnet and who Bush is a cowboy and Dick is an ass…lol

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU2ZYdUgo3M

  28. Jesse Walker

    Point taken. The reformers meant well, though (I know, roads, paving etc). And I’m not to sure that the failure of the prenitentiary wasn’t more because the reformers didn’t reckon on how badly their successors would screw things up.

  29. I guess this is how the Republican party becomes a regional party, it spurns every partner that doesn’t fit their Southern definition of “conservative”, “Christian”, etc.

    I lived in Utah for a while, and was surprised how nonjudgmental Mormons were, and how such a normal group of people got such a weird reputation. I think the international experience of missionary work produces a very worldly, tolerant attitude to different peoples and cultures.

    But Utah’s not red simply because of the Mormons, a large percentage of lapsed Mormons and mountain men are Republican along the individualist, gun rights variety.

  30. Like Polk, Kennedy, and Clinton, Joseph Smith was banging every female in his immediate vicinity. He was Presidential material.

  31. I lived in Utah for a while, and was surprised how nonjudgmental Mormons were, and how such a normal group of people got such a weird reputation. I think the international experience of missionary work produces a very worldly, tolerant attitude to different peoples and cultures.

    I actually think it owes more to the fact that Mormons don’t believe that anyone but the most serious and purposeful of sinners go to hell for eternity. If the sinner won’t go to hell forever if they don’t repent, it takes a lot of the pressure off convincing people to change their behavior.

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