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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney signs autographs after taping an episode of the "Late Show with David Letterman," in New York, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Republican Party started out anti-Mormon

The party that now has the allegiance of the vast majority of Mormons once was the faith’s committed political enemy.

First Published Feb 27 2012 08:00 pm • Last Updated May 30 2012 02:35 pm

Washington » The founders of the Republican Party saw Mormons as their enemies.

And the first Mormon leaders didn’t have much nice to say about the GOP, either.

At a glance

Editor’s note » About this series

This story is part of an occasional series on Mormonism and its intersection with politics — a subject The Tribune believes is topical given the high-profile presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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You would never know it now — one recent poll showed three-quarters of LDS faithful lean toward the GOP — but the two groups had an acrimonious start, fueled largely by the early Mormon practice of polygamy.

As Mitt Romney presses his bid for the Republican nomination for president, lost on many Americans is how his Mormon faith played an important role as foil in the early days of the Grand Old Party — and how its first candidates catapulted to power in part by whipping up anti-Mormon sentiments.

"If you like irony, you’ve got to love history," says Utah historian Will Bagley. "Polygamy made Mormons into a national punching bag during the 1850s."

The Republican Party launched in 1854 as an anti-slavery party and quickly seized on growing concern with Mormons in the Utah Territory taking on multiple wives.

The GOP’s first party platform in 1856 took direct aim at polygamy, placing it in the same sinister frame as slavery in the hope of cultivating the votes of Christians wary of the spread of these dual threats to the republic.

"It is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — polygamy, and slavery," the party declared as it emerged on the national stage for the first time.

Later on, Republicans used their congressional power to wipe away any secular power Mormon leaders had in the Utah Territory and were the main backers of a law that disincorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LDS Church leaders, for their part, harbored ill will toward the Republican Party, urging followers to back the Democrats.

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"We call upon you to stand firm to the principles of our religion in the coming contest for president," read a letter from LDS Church President Brigham Young and other leaders as published in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, on Nov. 20, 1856. "Our duty is plain. There are two principal parties in the country — one is for us, the other against us."

The relationship between Mormons and Republicans eventually flipped — morphing into the current-day landslide of LDS support for the conservative party. But things got a lot worse in the relationship before they got better.

Polygamy as slavery » San Francisco lawyer John W. Wills claimed credit in an 1890 letter to the Historical Society of California for coining the phrase "twin relics of barbarism" in reference to polygamy and slavery.

Wills says there was some hesitancy by a few GOP delegates to pair the two institutions, in part because some felt that slavery already included the practice of polygamy. But Wills kept the language intact.

"The rapturous enthusiasm with which the resolution was received by the convention," Wills wrote, "was the first convincing evidence that the committee had acted wisely in determining to preserve it in its original form."

Of course, Republicans weren’t alone in vilifying Mormons.

Sen. Stephen Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, said in one of his campaign speeches in 1857 that he feared Mormons wanted statehood for Utah so they could use it as an "invincible shield" to protect their "crime, debauchery and infamy."

If rumors of Mormon troubles are true, then "the Mormon inhabitants of Utah, as a community, are outlaws and alien enemies, unfit to exercise the right of self-government," Douglas said, according to a New York Times account of his speech at the time.

After Republican Abraham Lincoln won the White House in 1860 and the Civil War ended slavery, the GOP soon found that polygamy was one concern that still resonated with Americans. Political cartoons of the time included polygamy as one of the GOP’s go-to issues to energize voters. Republicans over the next several decades targeted the LDS Church over polygamy and suspicions that Mormons were attempting to form their own sovereign country in the Mountain West.

The fight was driven often by members of Congress from Vermont, coincidentally the birthplace of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.

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