Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mormons and Politics, Round One: Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln (1 March 1840). Or, What Romney's Really Up Against


 I’ve thought long thoughts on the 1 March 1840 letter of Abraham Lincoln to John Todd Stuart (his senior law partner) in which Lincoln mentions Joseph Smith in a postscript. The postscript comprises several lines reflecting sundry input from friend Josh Speed, who must have been present when these last were penned:

“Speed says he wrote you what Jo. Smith said about you as he passed here. We will procure the names of some of his people here and send them to you before long.”

The Smith postscript has been noted in publications by a couple historians (and read by hundreds), but never satisfactorily explained. (Richard Bushman kindly acknowledges my bibliographic digging in his “Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln”: http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-smith-and-abraham-lincoln.)

The letter is famous for Lincoln’s first mention of Stephen Douglas, and opens a window onto the personalities of both men, yet young in the law, unmarried, and as fiery as Jackson, ambitious as Clay. Enter Jo. Smith: Postscript.

So what can be squeezed out of this sentence? Just for starters, it confirms the John Smith Diary entry for 1 March 1840 that shows the Prophet, returning from Washington, already back in Nauvoo, an entry which contradicts the 4 March arrival date given in History of the Church (for the diary, see Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 35, 47).

The worth of the document consists in how it reveals the willingness of Illinois politicians, from the first (compassion for driving and confinements aside), to make political hay out of any nod of gratitude made by the Prophet. And it shows just how fully the politicians saw the Prophet as sole voice of his scattered sheep: Joseph praised Stuart for his help in Washington, and Speed jumped at this praise as signal of full support at the ballot box.

The Smith postscript is remarkable because it gives the first instance of what would become a baffling pattern of favors given, gratitude expressed, votes expected, and elections topsy-turvy, all of which would sour Whigs and Democrats alike on the Mormons. Lincoln later moralized about the Mormons as the log the farmer had to plow around. Why? Joseph Smith would not, or could not, play the game—a matter inexplicable to the man of ratiocination, even as Douglas openly envied the absolute independent stance of the Prophet. No Illinois politician ever mourned the Mormon exodus. Here’s an early clue why.

Copyright 2011 by Val H. Sederholm


When I first read the letter, I wanted to find out whether anyone had written anything about it. As noted below, I found it mentioned only twice in print (one a mere footnote). Two mentions are more than sufficient; yet scholarship does lack one thing: Readership. All during 2005, the bicentennial of the Prophet's birth, I mused to myself: "Many Latter-day Saints might not know about this letter. It ought to be published in the Ensign or someplace where it can be seen by everyone."

The Prophet Joseph, much to the chagrin--and deep amusement--of his friends was popularly known as Joe or Jo or ol' Jo Smith. I note the "." in the Lincoln postscript: "Jo." "Jo." signals "Joseph" (I think), and not "Jo". Just me, but my awe for Lincoln is so great I'd like to imagine him speaking and writing of "Joseph Smith"--and here's evidence for it--although, knowing Lincoln, he probably did say "Jo". But, then, everybody stills calls Lincoln "Abe"--what goes around. . .

The autograph letter is now on auction at Swann Auction Galleries and has a $40,000 to $50, 000 value. Small scanned images of the letter are to be found on the auction's Web page. It is a bit difficult to say whether the "." really is to be found after the abbreviated "Jo". . . 

In all published articles and books on Joseph Smith and politics, prior to 2005, I find only two references to the letter: George U. Hubbard, "Abraham Lincoln as Seen by the Mormons," Utah Historical Quarterly 31 (Spring 1963), 93, and E. B. Long, Saints and the Union: Utah Territory during the Civil War (University of Illinois, 2001), 17 n. 13. Neither Hubbard nor Long attempt analysis of the letter. (I don't blame them: there's not much to analyze, other than to say Joseph Smith held John Todd Stuart in high regard.) The letter may be found in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln I: 206 (ed. Roy P. Basler).

More recently (2008), Gary Vitale has succinctly and wisely commented on the letter in his "Abraham Lincoln and the Mormons: Another Legacy of Limited Freedom," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 101 (Fall-Winter 2008).

Latter-day Saint Lincoln historian, Bryon C. Andreasen, mentions the letter in a presentation reported by R. Scott Lloyd, "World of Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Smith," LDS Church News (26 May 2009).

Richard L. Bushman, "Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln, in Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration (Provo, 2005), 89-108.