The bulk of federal action against Mormon polygamy took place in Congress and in the courts where it was subject to public scrutiny, won public support, and permitted the Mormons an opportunity to defend their rights within the constitutional system. One major offensive against polygamy, however, took place largely outside of public view and even beyond the borders of the United States. This semi-secret war against Mormon activity remained in effect far longer than any of the oppressive legal measures of the 1880s, and was still obstructing the spread of Mormonism well after the First World War.
When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws early in 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States. In the words of a Chicago editor, â€œMr. Hayes is a very vigorous Methodist, and his church associates have urged upon him the necessity of his crowning the glory of his reign by abolishing the monster polygamy. Mrs. Hayes is also cordially enlisted in the scheme.â€
One member of the Hayes cabinet who was also deeply â€œenlisted in the schemeâ€ was Secretary of State William M. Evarts. Evarts, Boston-born and New York-raised, was a lawyer and a politician with wide experience. He had been dispatched to England to stop Britainâ€™s trade with the Confederacy during the Civil War, had prosecuted Jefferson Davis for treason and had defended Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial.
In August of 1879, Evarts chose his newest battle â€“ a plan to enlist foreign nations in the campaign against polygamy by hindering Mormon proselyting, harassing missionaries, and preventing converts from emigrating to the United States. In presenting his plan to the Hayes cabinet, Evarts said:
â€œ[L]arge numbers of immigrants come to our shores every year from the various countries of Europe for the avowed purpose of joining the Mormon community at Salt Lake, in the Territory of Utah …
â€œThe system of polygamy, which is prevalent in the community of Utah, is largely based upon and promoted by these accessions from Europe, drawn mainly from the ignorant classes, who are easily influenced by the double appeal to their passions and their poverty …
â€œ[T]he bands and organizations which are got together in foreign lands as recruits cannot be regarded as otherwise than a deliberate and systematic attempt to bring persons to the United States with the intent of violating their laws and committing crimes …
â€œ[E]very consideration … should … prevent [American soil] from becoming a resort or refuge for the crowds of misguided men and women whose offenses against morality and decency would be intolerable in the land from whence they come.â€
With this preamble, Evarts defined Mormonism as a criminal enterprise, its missionaries as operatives of an ill-intentioned immigration scheme, and its converts as gullible recruits to the harems and work gangs of an oppressive Mormon hierarchy. He reduced the so-called â€œMormon Problemâ€ to a police action against organized crime. While battle was being waged against Mormon polygamy on American soil, the doors to America would be slammed shut against further Mormon immigration. Better yet, Mormon missionaries abroad would be prevented from ever recruiting immigrants to come knocking at Americaâ€™s doors.
With the approval of Hayes, Evarts drafted a circular to the diplomatic officers of the United States. Such officers were to approach foreign ministers and present the view of Mormonism as organized crime. If foreign governments could be coaxed so far, they were to prevent the sailing of Mormon converts from European ports. Every foreign action against Mormon converts and missionaries was to receive the encouragement of diplomats. Every sailing of Mormon converts was to be protested officially.
Evartsâ€™ circular was widely reported. Predictably, the Salt Lake Tribune heralded the action as â€œa movement which meets the approbation of all law-abiding citizens.â€ An eastern Presbyterian organ was cheered by news â€œthat something decisive is about to be done by the Government in relation to the Mormon iniquities which have been such a foul blot on the land.â€ The New York Times, while sympathizing with the desire to remove an â€œoffending ulcerâ€ from the body politic, cautiously noted that there were legal obstacles to the plan. Some eastern papers condemned the plan as â€œhopelessâ€ and â€œun-republican.â€ The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Herald both professed disbelief that Evarts had proposed such a scheme, or that the journalists were serious in reporting it â€“ â€œdifficult to believe,â€ â€œabsurd to suppose,â€ and â€œafflicted with temporary insanityâ€ marked Mormondomâ€™s response to the report.
The first foreign response came from London: The Times agreed that â€œthe gross superstition [of Mormonism] should be speedily dissipated, but we do not see the way to direct interference.â€ English Mormons were all monogamists, and therefore had broken no anti-bigamy laws of either England or the United States. No British Parliament would ever abridge the rights of British citizens by interfering with their free movement through the ports of their own nation. Declared the Times: â€œMen and women may believe in polygamy as much as they please, but … they must be actual bigamists … before they can be treated as offenders. … How can they be treated as criminals when they have not committed a crime, and may not even intend to? … Mr. Evartsâ€™ scheme … will be a failure.â€
The Evarts plan was dead on arrival.
Or was it?
(To be continued: Part 2, Action against immigration; Part 3, Action against missionaries abroad)