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Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
Joseph and his brother Hyrum were not idle observers of the political landscape. They both held offices of public trust. The Prophet Joseph Smith offered the world inspired principles in relation to effective leadership in government, politics, and the public square. The beliefs he espoused can help secure freedom and liberty for all people. With all the perplexing problems and political partisanship facing the nation, perhaps this would be a good time to take a look at what the Prophet Joseph Smith had to say.
Political Will and the Courage to Speak Out
After presenting to U.S. President Martin Van Buren hundreds of redress petitions from the Latter-day Saints who had been driven from their homes and lost all their property in Missouri in the 1830s, the Prophet Joseph Smith began to speak out regarding the lack of moral conviction among the politicians of his day: “On my way home I did not fail to proclaim the iniquity and insolence of Martin Van Buren, toward myself and an injured people, which will have its effect upon the public mind; and may he never be elected again to any office of trust or power, by which he may abuse the innocent and let the guilty go free.”(25)
Of the government officials he met, Joseph wrote in his journal:
“I arrived safely at Nauvoo, after a wearisome journey, through alternate snow and mud, having witnessed many vexatious movements in government officers, whose sole object should be the peace and prosperity and happiness of the whole people; but instead of this, I discovered that popular clamor and personal aggrandizement were the ruling principles of those in authority; and my heart faints within me when I see, by the visions of the Almighty, the end of this nation, if she continues to disregard the cries and petitions of her virtuous citizens, as she has done, and is now doing.”(26)
Observing the weak-willed politicians in his day strengthened Joseph’s resolve to stand up for the rights of all men and women, regardless of their religious affiliation: “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”(27)
Joseph noted that states’ rights were so much stronger than the national government in his day that the Constitution was unable to enforce some of its ideals. He said:
“I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution. . . . The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground. Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights, punish those mobs, states, or communities who interfere with the rights of the people on account of their religion. Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them.”(28)
Joseph boldly declared that he would never allow any minority group to be abused as the Mormons had been: “It is one of the first principles of my life, and one that I have cultivated from my childhood, having been taught it by my father, to allow every one the liberty of conscience. . . . In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights.”(29)
The loss of specific freedoms and rights is still an important issue in our day. Two decades ago, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has observed that the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of religion, expression, and assembly were already in peril:
“In this graduation season, many high-school administrators will be deciding whether to include prayer in their ceremonies. The issue is more and more a subject of debate. The new discussion reflects a growing pattern of hostility to religion in the U.S. In short, many understand the law today as being hostile rather than neutral toward religion-as forbidding all public prayers rather than simply prohibiting state-authored and state-required prayers in public schools. . . .Religion should have a place in the public life of our nation. To honor this principle with prayers in the graduation exercises of high-school students is to honor the religious plurality of our nation and the religious liberty it was founded to protect.”(30)
1844 Run for the Presidency
National politics were especially troubling to the Prophet Joseph. He was dismayed that the federal government seemed powerless to stop the injustices the Saints had suffered on the state and local levels. So, early in 1844, Joseph Smith sent letters to the five most prominent candidates being considered for the office of president of the United States (Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, and Henry Clay). He desired to know their stands on major issues of interest to the Mormons, such as slavery, as well as the power of the federal government to secure justice for citizens when local and state governments degenerate into mobocracy. He received replies from three of the five (Calhoun, Clay, and Cass), but none were satisfactory. Cass simply stated in his letter that he had no intention of running.
On January 29, 1844, an informal political caucus was held in the mayor’s office in Nauvoo where Willard Richards moved that an independent ticket be created, that Joseph Smith be nominated as candidate for president, “and that we use all honorable means in our power to secure his election.”(31) On January 31, Joseph accepted the nomination. The new party was called the “Reformed Party,” and a platform was written by Joseph Smith, William W. Phelps, and possibly John M. Bernhisel. The party’s platform was titled Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States,(32) and in February 1844 it was mailed to President John Tyler, members of his cabinet, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, and prominent newspaper editors.(33)
Two months later, at the April 9 general conference of the Church, Heber C. Kimball called for volunteers to launch Joseph Smith’s campaign and 244 people were appointed as “electioneers.”(34)
On May 17, at a convention held in Nauvoo, Joseph was officially nominated, with Sidney Rigdon as his running mate. Joseph said:
I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens, even those rights which the Constitution guarantees unto all her citizens alike. But this as a people we have been denied from the beginning. Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion; and no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief.
And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence.(35)
Joseph’s political platform was visionary and far-reaching. Several of his proposals have since been adopted. Among his most important were the following:
- He reviewed the noble sentiments about the founding of our nation as expressed by Benjamin Franklin, as well as the inaugural addresses of the early U.S. presidents, because the president was leading the country away from the basic concepts of the founders.
- He wanted to reduce the size of Congress by two-thirds, with one representative per million people, and also reduce congressional pay and power. “The farmer earns two dollars a day, and he lives honestly,” Joseph wrote.(36)
- He proposed a major prison reform. Prisoners would have to work to pay their debts to society. In addition, public-service sentences would be established for lesser crimes and turn penitentiaries into “seminaries of learning.” Part of Joseph’s prison-reform platform was later adopted when the “debtor’s prison” was done away with.
- He wanted to abolish slavery by 1850 by selling off public lands and using the money generated to purchase the freedom of all slaves. Slaves would be set free, slave owners would be compensated, and citizens would have land for their families. Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested a nearly identical plan ten years later and was hailed as a great humanitarian for doing so.
- He proposed honor as the standard for service in the armed forces. He wanted to abolish military courts-martial for desertion (which Abraham Lincoln also favored during the Civil War) but have deserters know their country would never trust them again.
- He pushed national and state governments to exercise greater economy. Joseph desired a strong national economy with less taxation and judicious tariffs to protect U.S. interests.
- He proposed building a dam at Keokuk, Iowa, to harness power from it. Construction on a dam at Keokuk began in 1910 and, when completed in 1913, was the largest electricity generating plant in the world.
- He wanted to create a national bank with branches in each state, and circulate a standard currency. Some aspects of the U.S. Federal Reserve system, established in 1917 (over seventy years after Joseph suggested it), approximate Joseph’s proposal.
- He wanted to repeal Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution, which allows governors to request federal intervention to suppress local violence, because governors may be mobbers themselves (as experienced by the Saints in Missouri and Illinois).
- He wanted to avoid entangling alliances with foreign powers.
- He proposed expanding the United States from coast to coast.
- He suggested having a president who is not a party man but president of the United States as a whole and responsive to the wishes of the majority of the people who hold the sovereign power of government.
Of Joseph’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government, Elder John A. Widtsoe said: “This campaign document is an intelligent, comprehensive, forward-looking statement of policies, worthy of a trained statesman. Many of the Prophet’s recommendations have been adopted in the progressive passage of the years. All of them are reasonable and sound. . . . The political utterances and practices of Joseph Smith point to him as a statesman-one from whom the statesmen of the day could win help. Looking back to his day, one cannot help marveling at the breadth of his vision and how sanely he dealt with the problems of the day. When he touched a matter, whatever its nature, Joseph Smith overtopped the crowd. He has not yet been recognized as he should have been, as a prophet-statesman. Everywhere he is revealed as one who did work beyond the ordinary powers of man. He was led by God.”(37)
On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith’s tragic assassination cut short his bid for the presidency. We are left to wonder what the socioeconomic impact of his ideas may have been had he lived.
Truly the Prophet Joseph Smith offered the world great principles in relation to effective leadership in government, politics, and the public square. The beliefs he espoused can help vouchsafe freedom and liberty for all people for those who have the political will to implement them. We have a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. Perhaps we should erect a “Statue of Responsibility”(39) on the West Coast to remind us, as Joseph Smith taught, that there is no freedom without responsible citizenship.
In an editorial published by the Prophet Joseph in 1842, he described the difference between the government of God and the governments created by men, and he encouraged us to reach for something higher and more humane:
“The government of the Almighty has always been very dissimilar to the governments of men, whether we refer to His religious government, or to the government of nations. The government of God has always tended to promote peace, unity, harmony, strength, and happiness; while that of man has been productive of confusion, disorder, weakness, and misery. . . . The greatest acts of the mighty men have been to depopulate nations and to overthrow kingdoms; and whilst they have exalted themselves and become glorious, it has been at the expense of the lives of the innocent, the blood of the oppressed, the moans of the widow, and the tears of the orphan. . . .
The great and wise of ancient days have failed in all their attempts to promote eternal power, peace and happiness. Their nations have crumbled to pieces; their thrones have been cast down in their turn, and their cities, and their mightiest works of art have been annihilated; or their dilapidated towers, or time-worn monuments have left us but feeble traces of their former magnificence and ancient grandeur. They proclaim as with a voice of thunder, those imperishable truths-that man’s strength is weakness, his wisdom is folly, his glory is his shame.
“Monarchial, aristocratical, and republican governments of their various kinds and grades, have, in their turn, been raised to dignity, and prostrated in the dust. The plans of the greatest politicians, the wisest senators, and most profound statesmen have been exploded; and the proceedings of the greatest chieftains, the bravest generals, and the wisest kings have fallen to the ground. Nation has succeeded nation, and we have inherited nothing but their folly. History records their puerile plans, their short-lived glory, their feeble intellect and their ignoble deeds.
“Have we increased in knowledge or intelligence? Where is there a man that can step forth and alter the destiny of nations and promote the happiness of the world? Or where is there a kingdom or nation that can promote the universal happiness of its own subjects, or even their general wellbeing? Our nation, which possesses greater resources than any other, is rent, from center to circumference, with party strife, political intrigues, and sectional interest; our counselors are panic stricken, our legislators are astonished, and our senators are confounded, our merchants are paralyzed, our tradesmen are disheartened, our mechanics out of employ, our farmers distressed, and our poor crying for bread, our banks are broken, our credit ruined, and our states overwhelmed in debt, yet we are, and have been in peace.
. . .
“It has been the design of Jehovah, from the commencement of the world, and is His purpose now, to regulate the affairs of the world in His own time, to stand as a head of the universe, and take the reins of government in His own hand. When that is done, judgment will be administered in righteousness; anarchy and confusion will be destroyed, and “nations will learn war no more. Other attempts to promote universal peace and happiness in the human family have proved abortive; every effort has failed; every plan and design has fallen to the ground; it needs the wisdom of God, the intelligence of God, and the power of God to accomplish this.
“The world has had a fair trial for six thousand years; the Lord will try the seventh thousand himself; ‘He whose right it is, will possess the kingdom, and reign until He has put all things under His feet;’ iniquity will hide its hoary head, Satan will be bound, and the works of darkness destroyed; righteousness will be put to the line, and judgment to the plummet, and “he that fears the Lord will alone be exalted in that day.”(38)
25 Smith, History of the Church, 4:89.
26 Smith, History of the Church, 4:89.
27 Smith, History of the Church, 5:498; punctuation modernized.
28 Smith, History of the Church, 6:56-57.
29 Smith, History of the Church, 6:56-57.
30 Dallin H. Oaks, “When ‘Freedom’ Becomes Religious Censorship,” Wall Street Journal, May 23, 1990.
31 Smith, History of the Church, 188.
32 This platform is reprinted in full in Smith, History of the Church, 6:197-209.
A brief descriptive summary of the pamphlet can also be found in the LDS
Church Education System institute manual, Church History in the Fulness of
Times, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
33 Smith, History of the Church, 6:224-26.
34 Smith, History of the Church, 325.
35 Smith, History of the Church, 6:210-11.
36 Smith, History of the Church, 6:204-5.
37 John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith-Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God (Salt Lake
City: Bookcraft, 1951), 219.
38 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 248-50, 252.
39 attributed to Victor Frankl, The Meaning of Love