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.