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.
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.