I love Brigham Young. I really do. He was a great man by just about every measure. My appreciation for his finer qualities, however, doesnâ€™t blind me to his weak spots.
One weak spot was his unwillingness â€“ perhaps it was inability â€“ to control his bluster and play a diplomatic game with politicians. Secure in his multiple roles among the Saints in Utah, he simply saw no need to consider how his words and actions played in Peoria.
John M. Bernhisel, Utahâ€™s non-voting delegate to Congress, was the consummate gentleman and diplomat. It fell to Bernhisel to mediate between his associates in Washington and his leader in Salt Lake City. Over and over, he respectfully suggested to Brigham that sermons meant only for the ears of Saints in Utah not be published in the Deseret News where they could be scrutinized and criticized by hostile Easterners. He urged Brigham to consider how his demands would be seen by presidents and cabinet members. When petitions and memorials forwarded by Brigham and the Utah Legislature were so inflammatory that they were more harmful than helpful, Bernhisel simply did not submit them to Congress.
In 1854, Bernhisel found it necessary to report to Brigham that mountaineer Jim Bridger had come to Washington, following his expulsion from Fort Bridger. Bridger had fled from his property in 1853 when a posse of Mormons led by Sheriff Bill Hickman had come to arrest him for selling liquor and weapons to the neighboring Indians. (The Utah Legislature, with jurisdiction over Fort Bridger, had recently outlawed those sales; Bridger, however, having had no input into the change in law, continued his longstanding practice of such sales.) Bridgerâ€™s account of the expulsion was, well, enhanced for his eastern audience. Wrote Bernhisel,
James Bridger arrived in Washington January 5th and is here still, telling marvelous stories about his being driven from his home in the mountains, where he had been for thirty years, his fort taken possession of, his property taken or confiscated … that a posse of one hundred and fifty men came to his fort last [year] to take him, that a member of the Church had made affidavit that the authorities of Utah or of the Church had sent a number of men to pursue him on the plains to murder him &c &c. … These gross exaggerations and misrepresentations are the cause of the attempt to curtail our boundaries, so that he will be without the jurisdiction of Utah.
I have been requested by members of Congress to write to the people of Utah, and say to them to avoid all difficulty if possible with mountaineers and all others not members of the Church, because everything of the kind redounded to our injury.
Brigham did not appreciate Bernhiselâ€™s advice. Even more, he did not appreciate the acceptance Congress accorded the claims of Jim Bridger. Brigham dictated a long reply to Bernhisel, his frustration mounting as he proceeded. I can almost hear his voice growing louder and louder:
[Y]ou wish me to keep you posted in such matters transpiring here as would be likely to create any stir there; and still again, you write that â€œI have been requested by members to Congress to write to the people of Utah, and say to them to avoid all difficulty if possible with mountaineers and all others not members of the Church, because every thing of the kind redounded to our injury.â€ Of course I shall, & do endeavor to keep you informed in all subjects which I deem of interest or importance, but it would pass the bounds of the most visionary dreams of men of sense to imagine that a man of Bridgerâ€™s appearance, ignorance, & folly, (to use no more plain, & strictly correct terms) could have any influence with the professed wise men of our nation, & if he has, it only goes to prove how many characters are at Washington who prefer lies to the truth, & what will you do about it?
In regard to â€œdifficulty with mountaineers &câ€. I defy the world to prove that we have not invariably used all persons within our borders with more courtesy, leniency, & forbearance … than any other people ever have under anything like similar circumstances …
Knowing this, & knowing the invariable loyalty of this people under those numerous trying scenes they have been called to pass through, & then comparing all this … with the excitement that can be raised among men who pride themselves upon their judgment … gives me perfect assurance that the wisdom of the wise men of our nation is folly. They would doubtless be pleased to have us allow horse thieves, adulterers, ravishers, delinquent tax payers, in short, law breakers of every grade roam at large in our midst, without so much as our saying why do ye so, & even bow & scrape to them, & invite them into our houses, & say to them you are good & true men, ay, gentlemen, for fear they might write, or run to Washington, & then, O, dear! â€œwhat a long tail our puss has got.â€
Please say to all who advocate such policy, â€œKiss my ass, damn you.â€
When you have finished laughing, please note that this wonderful phrase appears only in the rough draft of the letter. The letter as it went out, as it appears in the archived letterbooks, as you will find it everywhere but in the notes of oddballs like me who get our kicks from sifting through the lesser-used detritus of long-dead file clerks, replaces these words with the boring line, â€œPlease say to all who advocate such policy, that we cannot well prevent fools from exhibiting their folly.â€