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Polygamy And Constitutional Conflict In Nineteenth Century America

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Since the beginning of modern American history, scholars have gone back and forth about whether politics, economics, morals, or religious bigotry motivated the nineteenth century attack on the Mormon Church. Overall it appears to point to a single conclusion; all of these sects were motivated by an anti-Mormonism movement.

In Chapter two of Hocker and Wilmot, they discuss the common misconception of negative views of conflict: “Anger is the only emotion in conflict interaction… the primary emotion associated with conflict is anger, or hostility. Instead, many emotions accompany conflict…Yet people often experience loneliness, sadness, anxiety, disappointment, and resentment, to name only a few other feelings.” This feeling of disappointment and sadness are a recurring theme in the conflict of Mormon polygamy in Utah.

On the most basic level, that moral outrage over the practice of polygamy lay at the root. Most nineteenth-century Americans, especially Protestants, believed that plural marriage undermined the foundations of America’s Christian Civilization. Sentimental Protestant women novelists initiated the attack on Mormonism while raising the consciousness of American society. These writers conditioned the popular mind to link polygamy with slavery and polygamous patriarchs with southern slaveholders. Their views led to the Republican denunciation of slavery and polygamy as relics of barbarism. Influenced by the novelists and their supporters, until the late 1880s most Americans perceived Mormon women as helpless slaves, unable to free themselves from bondage to horny patriarchs. Moreover, they believed that Mormon patriarchs held the entire society in thrall in part by keeping the population in ignorance through opposition to public education. Acting on these beliefs, politicians like George Edmunds launched a legal attack. Congress passed a series of laws; the courts began incarcerating polygamous men. This still happens today and is in fact what ultimately happened to Tom Green; the main character and Mormon fundamentalist in the documentary One Man, Three Wives, and Twenty Nine Children.

Historically, specifically in the 1880’s, anti-Mormons became convinced that the women supported the system. Congress then turned on the women by fashioning the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This law disenfranchised Utah’s women, disinherited their children, and forced them to testify against their husbands. Attacking the economic power of the LDS Church and the supposed ignorance of Utah’s people, the act also escheated the Church’s property for the benefit of the territorial schools. With the notable exception of the role played by women novelists, historians have known much of the basic story. George Edmunds and his colleagues turned to their understanding of state laws to create “a national law of religion, marriage, and economic structure… based on the shared wisdom of the states”. This legislation demolished the connections between faith, marriage, and property that had protected polygamous families. In essence, Congress and the Supreme Court revised American constitutional law by drawing “on state law to create a national vision, imposing on Utah many of the same rules and structures they believed guaranteed the flourishing of civilization, and Christianity, in their home states”.

This conflict still resonates today in Mormon communities in Utah. The issue of negative views of this conflict is most prominent feature: constitutional and moral conflict. Throughout the documentary Tom Green does not express anger with the law or authority, but rather a sense of disappointment and sadness. Green faced four charges of bigamy and, at a subsequent trial, one charge of child rape because his first wife was a mere thirteen years old when she became pregnant with her first child. His wives are not being prosecuted because they are considered victims. Tom explains that he married then legally divorced each woman to stay technically within the law. In the documentary, the wives call him their “spiritual husband.” Within the rise of the conflict, Tom argues that he is merely exercising his right to follow his own religious beliefs, and that his real crime was the discussion and explaining his polygamy to the public.

Green’s response and initial involvement in the constitutional and moral conflict of polygamy demonstrated a strategy that Lederach describes as the siphon strategy. On page 93 of the Moral Imagination, he describes it in as a social process in which “the siphon strategy raises this question: Who, if they are linked together and make the journey against social gravity, would have the capacity to pull the rest of the system/society along toward a desired change.” By actively using media attention and telling his version of the story. Green attempts to make out his side of the argument although it contradicts the law and societal morality, by expressing and emphasizing his freedom of religion and his right to practice (with consenting parties regardless of age).

Green most likely utilized this strategy because it was really the only way to justify his actions in the eyes of the constitution and to the public. His appeal of religious persecution, and how his so called “wives” were happy with the arrangement challenged social norms, and was ultimately his “journey against social gravity” and the “anti polygamy crusade” that isolates these individuals and communities. By doing this, Tom attempts to influence public opinion and therefore legal precedent and the constitution.

A third concept that can be applied to this conflict, which is relatively related to the siphon strategy is the idea of critical yeast. Lederach defines this as a pivotal moment that : “does not focus on producing large numbers of people. Critical yeast asks the question in reference to social change: Who within a given setting, if brought together, would have the capacity to make things grow toward the desired end? The focus is not on the number but on the quality of people brought together, who represent unique linkages across a wide variety of sectors and locations within the conflicted setting”. Tom Green was not appealing to the critical masses, but rather those who have the ability to impact change, such as the judge, jury, and community.

There can be no plausible denial of the relevance of the anti polygamy crusade for the formative questions of American constitutional development, and the perception of media coverage of Tom Green’s trial. Slavery, the women’s movement, antimonopoly, and the New Deal all adorn the architecture of the Mormon Church (which Green is a part of) and its contested place in American legal culture. Indeed, the only question that remains is how so many generations could pass between the time when anti polygamy politics dominated the constitutional question of the day and the fact that they did so once before. Perhaps it is a measure of the Mormon Church’s ability to assimilate itself within the legal and constitutional culture that once aimed to destroy it that Mormonism has ceased to provoke worries of an established religion undermining the contractual nature of marriage. Regardless of how the conflict has played out, it seems to be one in which Green has failed to emerge victorious.

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