Book Review | BYU Studies

Book Review

Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory
November 8, 2018
Book Review
Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory
Reviewer Jay H. Buckley,

This daily feature is an introduction to a full book review by Jay H. Buckley. To read the full text of this review, follow the link below.

During the 1850s, ideological and actual battles raged in Kansas and Utah territories over the notion of popular sovereignty, a principle wherein the voice of the people determined the territories' domestic and political institutions, outside of congressional or presidential influence. In Kansas, for example, politicians sought to remove the slavery question from national political discourse by making it a local decision. Contesting views over instituting slavery in Kansas resulted in the people drafting two competing constitutions in two different towns— one (Topeka) favoring freedom, the other (Lecompton) advocating slavery. This fundamental disagreement culminated in a series of violent clashes and guerrilla raids between the opposing forces in what was called "Bleeding Kansas." Instead of resolving the slavery question, however, the violence in Kansas revealed the flaws in the philosophy of local self-determination and brought the territorial issue of slavery's expansion into the center of national debate. While Kansas's role in the coming of the Civil War is quite well known, historians have generally not examined Utah's territorial experimentation through the lens of popular sovereignty.

Brent M. Rogers's excellent book Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory corrects this oversight, placing Utah Territory firmly at the center of the national debate over the extension of slavery into the territories. Rogers is a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers and an instructor of history and religious education at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. This book stemmed from his revised dissertation, which he completed at the University of Nebraska. Rogers's great strength in this thoroughly researched and balanced account is teasing out and analyzing the multifaceted opinions from the original documents to persuasively argue that Utah Territory emerged as a key battleground and hotbed of antebellum debate over popular sovereignty.