The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America


Polygamy makes for fascinating social history and for best-selling potboilers as well. This study by Sarah Barringer Gordon, who teaches both law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, is the first attempt to write a full-length legal history of “the Principle.” It turns out that even in this dry-as-dust genre, polygamy fuels a very dynamic story indeed, one that reveals the rich malleability of the Constitution, the endless resourcefulness of determined guardians of public morality, and the resilience of a peculiar people committed to the practice of plural marriage.

In this story, Gordon traces how views and methods changed over the decades of conflict. The antipolygamist view of Mormon women was gradually transformed by the rhetorical arsenal of zealous crusaders: at first Mormon women are objects of pity and paternalistic federal intervention, then deluded collaborators, and finally indicted fornicators. Antipolygamist politicians and prosecutors changed their methods from righteous indignation to legal prohibition, adopted the strategies of criminal indictment and imprisonment, and eventually resorted to disfranchisement and confiscation of Church assets to destroy the “twin relic.” Mormon leaders evolved from belligerent and defiant Saints into constitutionally astute apologists before ending up as underground renegades living in basements and hidden rooms. And in one of many twists and turns, Thomas Jefferson was transformed in court opinions from an apostle of localism and individual rights into an apologist for federal action “against local deviance”.

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