Understanding Thomas L. Kane

February 10, 2009 | 24 comments
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In Mormon country, Thomas L. Kane is remembered, if at all, as the nineteenth-century defender of the Latter-day Saints and the hero of the Utah War of 1857-58. Besides this association with the Mormons, Kane also distinguished himself as a Civil War officer and as a crusader for antislavery, women’s rights, and the downtrodden. As I thrashed around looking for a dissertation topic five years ago, I decided to write a biography of Kane.

Starting my research, I knew I had two things: excellent, untapped sources and an intriguing, quirky individual who had been important in his own day but has since been largely forgotten. While I was confident that Kane had a story to be told, I did not have at the outset a set of questions I knew that his life would answer.

The quality and volume of the sources proved both attractive and daunting. The majority of Kane’s papers, at BYU, had been available to researchers since 2001, and I was the first to systematically use this enormous collection (the register detailing it runs to 1200 pages). Extensive Kane papers are also at the American Philosophical Society, Yale, Stanford, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The sheer number of sources—several thousand documents in all—reassured me as I began. Surely I could find things of interest in this mountain of material! The sources, however, were not without their problems. In the front of her Civil War journal, his wife Elizabeth wrote, “To be burned unread if I die, unless Tom cares to read it. No one else. Mind! I will haunt any one who does!” After spending a night in the Kane Mansion—now a bed and breakfast in Kane, Pennsylvania—I was not comforted to find out that local lore held that the mansion was indeed haunted.

Besides possible hauntings, the volume of the sources and the diversity of Kane’s activities made the search for thematic unity difficult. He agitated to end the death penalty, for peace, for women’s rights, to establish inner-city schools, against slavery, and on behalf of the liberty of religious minorities. He was a lawyer, a Civil War General, and a large-scale land developer in northwestern Pennsylvania. Kane was also a man of both apparent and real contrasts and paradoxes: a peacemaker who became a general; an antislavery crusader who longed for the chivalrous world of the southern gentry; a cosmopolitan gentleman who spent his last 25 years in the rustic Alleghenies; a Jacksonian Democrat who became a Free Soiler and then a Republican; a devout Presbyterian who gravitated towards Auguste Comte’s “Religion of Humanity” and atheism before settling on an anti-denominational Christianity; an abolitionist who profoundly feared racial mixing; a diminutive, fragile, often depressed, and feminine-looking man who overcompensated through aggressive masculinity. After I presented a paper on Kane at the American Society for Church History, the commentator called Kane “inconsistent to the point of contradiction,” “idiosyncratic,” “enigmatic,” and “paradoxical.” I could only agree.

And yet, giving some leeway for the inconsistency we can expect from any human, I became convinced that there was an underlying unity to Kane’s actions which could illuminate nineteenth-century social reform. I settled on an approach which used Kane as a window onto like-minded social reformers who were historically important but have been often ignored by historians. Most histories of antebellum reform focus on reformers who combined evangelical religion and Whig Party politics to create a Christianized nation and culture.

By contrast, Kane represents reformers who combined Democratic Party politics, anti-evangelicalism, and romanticism. Because of its general support for southern slavery, the antebellum Democratic Party is often seen as intensely hostile to reform. However, it actually had a significant reform wing, driven by the party’s egalitarian impulses and more inclusive vision of American religious and ethnic pluralism. These Democratic reformers positioned themselves against the evangelical reformers of the Benevolent Empire. Finally, a romantic impulse impelled them to sympathize with those on the margins of society and to declare war on human suffering and poverty. An obituary, from which I’ve taken my title, labeled Kane’s philosophy as “liberty to the downtrodden.” Reformers like Kane contributed as much, if not more, to nineteenth-century reform as did their Whig, evangelical counterparts.

Kane’s reform sensibilities–the Democratic emphasis on liberty, his romantic sense of defending the downtrodden, and his personal aversion to evangelicalism–explain his long association with the Latter-day Saints, which lasted from 1846 until his death in 1883. For nearly forty years, he served as the Saints’ most trusted outside political adviser, wielding his influence and understanding of image-making on their behalf. He used his political connections to raise the Mormon Battalion, to help organize Utah Territory, to lobby for Utah statehood, to have Latter-day Saints and a few sympathetic outsiders appointed to territorial positions, and to block hostile legislation (especially anti-polygamy laws). He also sought to mold American public opinion of the Latter-day Saints, depicting Mormons as a persecuted religious minority rather than as fradulent and dangerous fanatics. Most crucially, Kane’s dramatic mediation between Mormons and government officials in 1858 brought a peaceful end to the Utah War, ensuring that the “Mormon Question” would be solved in the courts and Congress, not on the battlefield.

24 Responses to Understanding Thomas L. Kane

  1. Christopher on February 10, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the short introduction to Kane, Matt. I hope to get my hands on a copy of your book soon.

    I do have one question: What relationship existed between the reformers like Kane and the evangelical united front that usually gets all of the credit? Were they bitter foes with contrasting visions of how best to reform antebellum America? Was there ever cooperation between the two groups?

  2. Ben on February 10, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Wonderful post, Matt; I have only read your introduction and skimmed parts of your book, but Kane indeed seems like a fascinating individual.

    I especially like your presenting of antebellum Democrats as more complex than the one dimensional, slavery defending, and white supremacy narrative that we are often used to.

  3. Matt Grow on February 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Christopher: Kane and other Democratic reformers often saw themselves as directly opposed to the evangelical united front. Certainly, they often had contrasting views of the America they wanted to see. For instance, evangelicals saw Mormons as a target for reform–they wanted to free individuals from the clutches of the Mormon menace and to protect America from theocracy and polygamy. Kane also saw Mormons in the context of reform, but he wanted to protect the Mormons’ religious liberty from evangelical attempts to limit it.

    However, they did cooperate at times. For instance, both groups contributed a lot to antislavery, though often using different tactics and driven by distinct motivations. And in the late 1840s and early 1850s (before polygamy was publicly acknowledged), Kane did convince some evangelical reformers to sympathize with the Latter-day Saints.

  4. Ben Huff on February 10, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Wow, juicy stuff! I only heard he broke a rifle over someone’s head trying to get a meeting with Colonel Johnston.

  5. Brad Kramer on February 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Matt,
    Did you get a sense in your research as to the reliability of Hansen’s claim that Kane was a Council of 50 member during the trek West?

  6. Matt Grow on February 10, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Ben: And then he challenged Colonel Johnston to a duel. But that’s another story. . .

    Brad: While I think it’s a possibility, I saw no evidence that Kane was a member of the Council of 50. Kane was always hypercautious about accepting any sort of position from the Saints (turning down postitions such as territorial governor and representative) because he believed he would be much more effective at defending the Mormons if others saw him as an outsider. This reasoning, however, may not have applied to a secretive organization like the Council of 50.

  7. Christopher on February 10, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Thanks, Matt. That’s what I suspected about the kane brand of reformers and the EUF.

    Another question (and maybe this is all answered in your book): you stress in the post that Kane was inconsistent, paradoxical, and enigmatic. You also emphasize that kane was only one among many similar reformers in antebellum America. I’m curious as to whether those other reformers were as paradoxical as Kane?

  8. David G. on February 10, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks, Matt. How did pro-slavery Dems see reformers like Kane?

  9. Alison Moore Smith on February 11, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Interesting post, Matt. I like Elizabeth already!

  10. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Christopher: While Kane’s brand of reform was more widely shared, most of his eccentricities were his own. Nevertheless, many of the perceived paradoxes also described similar reformers–such as peace advocates plunging themselves into the Civil War and reformers changing their political party affiliations and religious identities.

    David: Antislavery Democrats were a substantial presence in the party during the 1830s and 1840s. In 1848, many of them abandoned the Democratic Party for the Free Soil movement. While many antislavery Democrats returned to their party in the early 1850s, it became increasingly difficult for them during that decade (especially after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854) and they were pushed to the margins of the Democratic Party. Even so, they weren’t forced from the party; Kane didn’t become a Republican until 1861, the first year of the war. These Democratic reformers who became Republican remained a distinct force within the Republican Party as well, driving much of the Liberal Republican movement of the early 1870s.

    Alison: Thanks! Elizabeth is a fascinating woman, every bit as interesting as her husband.

  11. Nate Oman on February 11, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Great stuff. I am looking forward to taking a look at your book at some point. I am facinated by what I think of as the crucial bridge in Mormon history between 1857 and 1872 or so, in which The Mormon Question was decisively moved from the battle field to the courts. It is worth remembering that as late as the 1860s, units of the Nauvoo Legion were called out to resist attempts to enforce federal law in Utah. Indeed, I think that it was touch-and-go until the beginning of the Reynolds litigation in the early 1870s. (Perhaps earlier, when Brigham Young made the decision not to call of the militia to resist McKean’s attempts to prosecute him…)

  12. Nate Oman on February 11, 2009 at 11:11 am

    A real question: What can you say about Kane’s attitudes toward radical Reconstruction and the divide within the Republicans between Radicals and Liberals? For example, did he support Horace Greely’s run for the presidency?

  13. M.K. Selander on February 11, 2009 at 11:19 am

    I look forward to the book, enjoyed the Pratt stuff as well. Hope Indiana is treating you and Alyssa well.

  14. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Nate: Very interesting point about the bridge between 1857 and 1872–I think you’re right that the Utah War didn’t decisively end the possibility of having the Mormon Question settled on the battlefield, though it made it much more unlikely. Kane was in the midst of almost all of the controversies between the Mormons and the nation during this era. For instance, he suggested that Brigham Young go into hiding rather than face McKean’s prosecution and lobbied President Grant to remove McKean from the bench. He then encouraged the Mormons to bring the Reynolds legislation and recruited a prominent Philadelphia attorney (George Biddle) to represent Reynolds.

    Kane sided with the Liberals against the Radical Republicans. Though he counted Ulysses S. Grant as a personal friend (and Grant visited him in Kane, Pennsylvania, while president), he supported Greeley in 1872. Greeley and Kane had been friends since the mid-1840s, and Greeley had helped in Kane’s campaign to improve the public opinion of the Mormons. The Liberal Republican movement was made up primarily of former Democrats who had become Republicans, like Kane. Kane supported them because he favored lenient terms for reconciliation with the South; desired civil service reform (a key issue for the Liberals after the corruption of Grant’s first term), as he distrusted the masses and believed in government by the “best men” of society (like himself); and agreed with their economic policies (basically classical liberalism). Finally, Kane also believed Greeley would be more sympathetic to the Mormons than Grant had been. Kane allowed Greeley to talk him into running for Congress on the Liberal Republican ticket, the only time he ran for public office, though he had numerous opportunities.

  15. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, M. K. We’re enjoying it here.

  16. Bill MacKinnon on February 11, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    This is a wonderful book…a “must”! Many of you have quite properly focused on Kane’s role in the reform movement both before and after the Civil War. But Matt Grow has provided a lot here for readers also interested in the history of Mormonism in Utah. I note that his publisher, Yale University Press, has made Matt’s book part of its prestigious Lamar Series in Western History. Howard R. Lamar — Yale’s former president and a recent recipient of MHA’s Thomas L. Kane Award — commented on the book’s dust jacket:” With graceful prose and mastery of the primary sources, Matthew J. Grow illuminates the story of Thomas L. Kane, one of the most complex and intense social reformers to hurdle into the wilderness of the American west. Grow’s superb account of Kane’s messianic mission to mediate the Utah War of 1857-58 alone warrants acquiring ‘ Liberty to the Downtrodden.’ ”
    I saw this book take shape over the five years that Matt mentioned, and I must tell you that the published work now before us is as impressive as the research and analytical effort that so caught my attention then.
    By the way, on Wednesday, March 11 Matt is giving the last in the 2008-09 series of Kane lectures at Special Collections, Lee Library, BYU (3:00). Anyone who can make it to Provo for that event is in for a treat.

  17. Nate Oman on February 11, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Matt: A follow up question. In 1874, there was a bill introduced by a Liberal Republican congressman from Missouri named Blair (a scion of the Montgomery Blair dynasty) that would have repealed the Morrill Act and legalized polygamy in the territories. The bill went no where, but even so it is a surprising little footnote on the anti-polygamy battles. Do you know if Kane had anything to do with its passage?

    Also, for what it is worth, I recently read the debates of the Cullom Bill, which was introduced in 1872 and would have essentially been a version of the Edmunds Bill only a decade earlier. The bill failed, but in the debates the possibility of armed Mormon resistance was repeatedly raised as a possiblity.

  18. Nate Oman on February 11, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    not “passage”; “introduction”

  19. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Bill: Thanks for the kind words. I’m going to talk some more in upcoming posts about Kane’s relationship with the Mormons and the Utah War.

    Nate: I don’t recall any specific Kane involvement in the 1874 bill. However, Kane did have connections with the Blair family so some participation is definitely possible. Also, that’s interesting about the 1872 debates. Sometimes, Kane raised the possibility of armed Mormon resistance to help defeat various pieces of legislation–I don’t think he thought such resistance was likely (especially by the early 1870s), but the argument was rhetorically useful.

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 11, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Buchanan was also a Pennsylvania Democrat, from Lancaster County. Did Kane have any relationship with him before the Utah War? Or afterward?

    When I visited Buchanan’s home, the docents who took us on a tour were totally unaware of the entire Utah War episode. They had never heard of it, although there is a brief mention of it in a biography that was on the premises.

  21. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Raymond: Great question. Thomas Kane’s father, John K. Kane, was a powerful figure in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, a nationally-known political strategist, and a federal district court judge. John Kane and James Buchanan had a long and complicated political history–they were leaders of different factions of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania and were often at odds, but seem to have respected each other. John Kane’s relationship with Buchanan opened the White House doors to Thomas when he decided to travel to Utah in an attempt to mediate the Utah War. Because of his family’s connections with Buchanan, Thomas Kane was uniquely positioned as the only American of prominence who could claim credibility with both the Buchanan administration and the Mormons. After the Utah War, Thomas Kane continued to lobby Buchanan on behalf of the Mormons.

  22. Bill MacKinnon on February 14, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Raymond (#20), part because of the long-standing unawareness of Buchanan’s Utah embroilment even at his own Lancaster mansion (“Wheatland”), the organizers of the National Buchanan Symposium that took place in Lancaster last September 19-20 included on the program one paper (mine) devoted to this subject amidst all of the others that dealt overwhelmingly with the secession crisis of 1860-61. The book of essays flowing from this conference, which will be published in 2010 by the University of Florida Press, will also include one piece about Buchanan and the Utah War. I’m not sure when you visited “Wheatland,” but as of late September 2008 the gift shop there should have been carrying copies of the special Winter 2008 issue of “Utah Historical Quarterly” devoted to the Utah War as well as a few copies of “At Sword’s Point.”

  23. Bill MacKinnon on February 14, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Re the Kane-Buchanan relationship, Matt has described it well, but I’d like to add one little nuance. In Thomas’s little-known attempt to intervene (at Brigham Young’s request) in March 1857 — nine months before his famous December visit to Buchanan — Kane was indignant that Buchanan had rebuffed his offer to visit the White House a few weeks after the inauguration and was livid over his belief that the Buchanan administration had shared his pro-Mormon lobbying letters with — gasp! — former Judge W.W. Drummond, who then cudgled Thomas over the head in patronizing fashion through letters to the editor of a New York newspaper. Dispirited by these events as well as by family and health problems, Kane withdrew from lobbying on the Mormons’ behalf (until the fall) after advising Brigham Young in the spring of 1857 that “We can place no reliance upon the President…Now Mr. Buchanan has not heart enough to save his friends from being thrown over to stop the mouths of a pack of Yankee editors.” At about the same time Kane told B.Y. that Buchanan was a “timorous man.”

  24. Matt Grow on February 14, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Bill: Thanks for the further clarifications. Very helpful.

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