Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is another opportunity to be reminded of the former president’s greatness.
Growing up, I assumed Abraham Lincoln would naturally want to pal around with another man I esteemed as “great”: Brigham Young. Both seemed to be tapped by destiny as The Right Person At the Right Time.
Young’s strong leadership saved Mormonism from dissolution just as Lincoln’s iron will held the nation together.
Surely the two of them would have tons to share. It’s easy to imagine the pair of teetotalers toasting each other’s success with tumblers of milk.
The historical record, however, dumps a sopping-wet blanket on such a cozy scenario.
Lincoln became a lawyer in the eastern part of Illinois at the state at the same time Mormons established themselves in the western part. Young helped settle Mormon refugees in Nauvoo while church founder Joseph Smith was imprisoned in Missouri.
In 1844 — the year Smith launched a quixotic run for president of the United States — Lincoln campaigned for the Whig candidate, Henry Clay.
Neither candidate was successful. Clay lost to James K. Polk, and Smith was assassinated by a mob of Illinoisans inflamed by reports of sexual predation.
When Young entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, Lincoln was a congressman aggressively disputing the morality and legality of President Polk’s war with Mexico. The war ended with Mexico ceding enormous territory in the West.
Ironically, this made the Mormons, who had self-deported out of the United States, once again American subjects.
When Lincoln became president in March, 1861, the news didn’t go over well in the Utah Territory. Young lumped Lincoln in with the “cursed scoundrels who sought our destruction from the beginning,” and faulted him for doing nothing to stop the persecution of the Saints in Illinois. Young went so far as to say that Lincoln assented to the killing of Mormons.
Lincoln’s first two appointees as governor of the territory suggest he didn’t feel entirely comfortable turning his back on the Mormons while his attention was focused on the rebellion in the South. Both governors were openly hostile to church leaders and made no bones about their doubts as to the loyalty of the Saints.
After Lincoln sent an army under the command of Patrick Connor to keep an eye on things, an insulted Young told Wilford Woodruff, “I do and always have supported the Constitution, but I am not in league with such Cursed scoundrels as Abe Lincoln.”
When an application for Utah to be admitted to the Union as a state was turned down, Mormons joked that they were the only ones trying to get into the Union while everyone else was getting out.
Lincoln signed an anti-polygamy bill in 1862, which further hurt his standing in Utah. Yet when he chose to do nothing to enforce the law and his third pick as territorial governor proved to be respectful of the Mormons and their leaders, the ice began to thaw. Lincoln reportedly told an emissary to “tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.”
This approach sat well with the Mormons, whose 19th century motto was, “Mind Your Own Business.”
Speculation about how things might have been different had Lincoln lived usually revolve around Reconstruction and the South, but I wonder what it would have meant for Utah and the Mormons.
The Republican Party was founded with the stated goal of ending the “twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.” The Republicans running Congress surely would have hectored Lincoln to make good on the pledge.
If Lincoln had turned his full attention to sizing up Brigham Young as a possible adversary, what would he have seen and what would he have done? It’s worth thinking about.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.