Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chester Arthur and Polygamy

Polygamy as practiced by the Mormon Church in the 19th century was a divisive issue in the United States. Only slavery created more controversy. American Presidents repeatedly railed against polygamy both during campaign season but also during official speeches.

Chester Arthur was no exception. In fact, he attacked polygamy in all four of his State of the Union Addresses! Here are some excerpts:

From the 1881 State of the Union Address, "For many years the Executive, in his annual message to Congress; has urged the necessity of stringent legislation for the suppression of polygamy in the Territories, and especially in the Territory of Utah. The existing statute for the punishment of this odious crime, so revolting to the moral and religious sense of Christendom, has been persistently and contemptuously violated ever since its enactment. Indeed, in spite of commendable efforts on the part of the authorities who represent the United States in that Territory, the law has in very rare instances been enforced, and, for a cause to which reference will presently be made, is practically a dead letter."

"The fact that adherents of the Mormon Church, which rests upon polygamy as its corner stone, have recently been peopling in large numbers Idaho, Arizona, and other of our Western Territories is well calculated to excite the liveliest interest and apprehension. It imposes upon Congress and the Executive the duty of arraying against this barbarous system all the power which under the Constitution and the law they can wield for its destruction."

From the 1882 State of the Union Address, " The results which have thus far attended the enforcement of the recent statute for the suppression of polygamy in the Territories are reported by the Secretary of the Interior. It is not probable that any additional legislation in this regard will be deemed desirable until the effect of existing laws shall be more closely observed and studied. "

"I congratulate you that the commissioners under whose supervision those laws have been put in operation are encouraged to believe that the evil at which they are aimed may be suppressed without resort to such radical measures as in some quarters have been thought indispensable for success. "

From the 1883 State of the Union Address, " This fact, however, affords little cause for congratulation, and I fear that it is far from indicating any real and substantial progress toward the extirpation of polygamy. All the members elect of the legislature are Mormons. There is grave reason to believe that they are in sympathy with the practices that this Government is seeking to suppress, and that its efforts in that regard will be more likely to encounter their opposition than to receive their encouragement and support. Even if this view should happily be erroneous, the law under which the commissioners have been acting should be made more effective by the incorporation of some such stringent amendments as they recommend, and as were included in bill No. 2238 on the Calendar of the Senate at its last session."

"I am convinced, however, that polygamy has become so strongly intrenched in the Territory of Utah that it is profitless to attack it with any but the stoutest weapons which constitutional legislation can fashion. I favor, therefore, the repeal of the act upon which the existing government depends, the assumption by the National Legislature of the entire political control of the Territory, and the establishment of a commission with such powers and duties as shall be delegated to it by law."

From the 1884 State of the Union Address, " It discloses the results of recent legislation looking to the prevention and punishment of polygamy in that Territory. I still believe that if that abominable practice can be suppressed by law it can only be by the most radical legislation consistent with the restraints of the Constitution. "

"I again recommend, therefore, that Congress assume absolute political control of the Territory of Utah and provide for the appointment of commissioners with such governmental powers as in its judgment may justly and wisely be put into their hands."

President Arthur was not the last president to address polygamy. Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland, and Teddy Roosevelt all had occasion to bring the issue up. However, Mormon sanctioned polygamy ended soon after Arthur left office. The fourth president of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto on 1890-SEP-24. It ended the solemnization of new plural marriages for an indefinite interval. Woodruff wrote, "And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land."

Polygamy has never gone away in the USA. Fundamentalist Mormons still practice it. Further, many in the growing American Islamic population practice polygamy as well. However, it is not now and likely never will be a major national issue again. It may be a coincidence but it certainly appears that President Arthur's strong attacks on polygamy and his determination to enforce federal anti-polygamy laws may well have been the beginning of the tipping point which led to Mormon abandonment of the practice a few short years after Arthur left office.

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