There are a number of Mormon pamphlets and books that have achieved a kind of semi-canonical status within Mormon studies. Everyone agrees, for example, that Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology or John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement are key texts for understanding nineteenth Mormon thought. If any evidence is needed, both texts, I believe, are still in print. At the very least both have produced modern reprints. I have a proposed addition to the canon, George Q. Cannon’s A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court in the Case of Geo. Reynolds v. the United States.
For those unburdened by a legal background, Reynolds v. United States was the 1879 Supreme Court case in which the justices held that plural marriage was not protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Because it was the first case to ever construe the religion clauses directly, Reynolds is a fairly standard part of the con law cannon in American law schools. The case itself was pivotal in Mormon history, helping to usher in The Raid of the 1880s, which ultimately forced the church to abandon polygamy. Almost immediately after the case came down, however, George Q. Cannon, then Utah’s Territorial Delegate in Washington D.C., went to work in the Library of Congress, penning an elaborate response to the court’s reasoning. The result was The Review.
Cannon’s Review is in many ways a remarkable document. Coming out as it did between the time of the Reynolds decision and the Court’s disposition of the petition for rehearing, Cannon prepared it in a relatively short period no more than a few months during which time he was busy with other duties. Nevertheless it evidences a great deal of research and careful thought. Cannons sources range from Blackstone (three separate American editions were consulted) to Justinian and St. Ambrose. He may well have had help in preparing it, most likely from either Thomas Kane, his long time political ally and confidant, George Biddle, the Philadelphia attorney retained by the Church to argue the case before the justices, or Benjamin Sheeks, the Church’s local attorney in Salt Lake City. Regardless of whether or not Cannon had help, the pamphlet shows a surprising familiarity with American constitutional history, theoretical jurisprudence, and criminal law. In short, of the contemporary Mormon writings on the Reynolds decision, Cannon’s Review is far and away the most legally and philosophically sophisticated. It deserves a better place than it has received in the historical literature on late nineteenth Mormonism.