For President's Day, a national holiday in the United States, we bring you an extract of a speech by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, given on September 23, 2013, in Nauvoo, Illinois. For the full text, click here.
For both the state and federal governments, the great test of democracy was carrying out the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities. As James Madison acknowledged in the Federalist Papers:
"It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part... In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger."
Similar concerns were expressed by other founders, from Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. This danger, often referred to as the "tyranny of the majority," was even addressed by Abraham Lincoln in his first recorded speech. Speaking to a group of young men in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, Lincoln described how this feared tyranny had encroached into Illinois:
"I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is even now something of ill omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country—the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice... Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times... Whatever then their cause may be, it is common to the whole country."
Lincoln's audience would probably have heard these words as referring to actions such as those of the mobs that destroyed three different printing presses of Elijah Lovejoy at Alton, Illinois, between 1835 and 1837. This was a time when mob actions were common in this part of the frontier.
"[T]he innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes up, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down and disregarded. But all this, even, is not the full extent of the evil. By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country, seeing their property destroyed, their families insulted, and their lives endangered, their persons injured, and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better, become tired of and disgusted with a government that offers them no protection."
It was in this environment in the United States—the dynamic tension between federal and state governments and attempts to execute the will of the majority while protecting minorities—that Joseph Smith lived and guided The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during its earliest years. This was a period in which the high promises afforded by the United States Constitution were tested by the often violent actions of frontier people.