Secretary of State William M. Evarts informed American diplomatic officers overseas of the Hayes Administrationâ€™s policy to discourage Mormon emigration from Europe to the United States. Public discussion in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reluctantly concluded that the policy was unenforceable, because the policy would require European governments to assume future criminal guilt on the part of converts who had, as yet, broken no law. Editors widely concluded that the Evarts circular could have no practical effect.
Nevertheless, the circular had been sent to American diplomatic officers, who, in the absence of official retraction, quietly incorporated Evartsâ€™ directive into the machinery of government. In the methodical, formal manner of the diplomatic service, American ambassadors and consuls made discreet inquiries, approached foreign ministers, and filed their reports with Washington.
The British home secretary courteously declined to interfere with the freedom of conscience or movement of British subjects. He did, however, consent to publish a notice alerting potential emigrants of the anti-bigamy laws and penalties of the United States. Such a notice did appear, said one Mormon elder, â€œin a corner of the leading papers, among the lost dogs, cats and other personal items, giving us the solemn intelligence that if we break the laws of the United States, we will be punished.â€ The Belgian minister published a similar notice in the official government newspaper, but his formally worded statement could not mask his clear refusal to let American demands govern the thoughts and actions of Belgian citizens. Swiss and Danish officials sympathized with the aims of the American government, but thought their own nationsâ€™ laws would not allow them to restrict emigration.
American officers in Paris and Rome assured Evarts that the citizens of those countries were too enlightened to become victims of Mormonism. They also provided amazingly detailed histories of Mormon proselyting efforts in both countries, demonstrating a well-established habit of noting Mormon activity.
The minister of foreign affairs for the Austrian empire instructed that stateâ€™s police agencies to keep a strict watch for â€œattempts at recruiting by agents sent by the sect of the Mormonsâ€ and report all such activity to higher authority. The Dutch government promised to do â€œwhatever could be found practicable to prevent proselyting by Mormons among the people of the Netherlands.â€ Sweden would enlist the aid of every parish pastor to hinder proselyting and prevent â€œthe Mormon agents and emissaries from seducing from their homes the men and women of Sweden and Norway.â€
The courteous, formulaic language reporting such contacts makes it difficult to judge the initial reactions of individual governments. However, none â€“ not even Great Britain â€“ rejected the plan out of hand; most expressed a willingness to assist the United States as local law permitted, without making specific promises. At the very least, we know that all of the most productive fields of Mormon proselyting â€“ Britain, Scandinavia, and the area of the Swiss-German Mission â€“ as well as a number of other European nations, were contacted by American diplomats regarding the Evarts plan.
The first known anti-Mormon action taken in response to the Evarts circular occurred in 1883, when the American consul to Switzerland cabled Washington that a shipload of Swiss paupers was being imported to the United States by Mormon missionaries â€“ â€œpoor, degraded creatures,â€ he called them, â€œmost of them women. … Polygamy can probably never be exterminated in Utah while its harems can be freely recruited from the dregs of European society.â€ This exciting news was forwarded to New York City, and emigration officers there prepared for a close examination when the steamer Nevada landed its passengers at the end of May. Far from being paupers, the New York Times reported, the 184 Swiss and Germans aboard carried about $5,000 in cash with them. Reported that paper:
Commissioner Taintor spent some time walking about among the Mormon immigrants, and conversed with several of them through an interpreter. He paid particular attention to the people from Switzerland, and subsequently said that there was nothing… to justify any objections to their landing[.] … nothing in the appearance or conduct of the immigrants to indicate that they were imbecile or depraved. The party was made up principally of families, and the parents and children as a rule, looked healthy. Nearly all of them were comfortably clad, and many of the children showed bright and intelligent faces. It was noticeable that most of the Mormon immigrants were clean. More than one-third of them were children, from 2 to 12 years old; not quite one-half of the remainder were able-bodied and active married women. There were no particularly attractive women in the party, but with few exceptions they appeared to be rugged and thrifty.
The American consul arrived at New York a few days later and defended himself with a claim that the emigration inspectors had been duped by shrewd Mormon missionaries who had only temporarily furnished the emigrants with money to prevent the appearance of pauperism.
Because restricting Mormon emigration required European countries to violate their own laws regarding the free movement of their citizens, this part of Evartsâ€™ circular was largely ignored. Restricting the proselyting activities of Mormon missionaries in foreign countries was a different matter, and serious actions against missionaries can be connected directly to Evartsâ€™ circular.
To be continued: Part 3, Actions against missionaries