Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign has been an area of interest for several years now (particularly since the release of the Council of Fifty minutes), and Spencer W. McBride’s recently-published Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2021) is the latest in scholarship to be published on the subject. McBride recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for an interview where he offered some of his insights. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a short version with excerpts and some discussion), but the original interview can be found here for your reading pleasure.
When asked what catalyzed writing the book, McBride talked about his work with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He noted that: “I do not think that it was in Joseph Smith’s nature to be a political person. What these documents made clear is that circumstances and a desperation to protect the civil rights of Latter-day Saints forced him to engage in politics, and that engagement culminated in his presidential run.” He found the story of how that happened fascinating and “felt that the story of Smith’s campaign illuminates the plight of religious minorities in United States history and stands as a critique to celebratory narratives of American religious freedom.” This book gave him a chance to explore both aspects.
In the interview, Spencer McBride explored some of the circumstances that led Smith to desperation about civil rights. After the brutal treatment the Saints received in Missouri, they sought redress through the federal government. A part of that effort came when Joseph Smith went to Washington D.C. and met with the president of the United States. McBride explained his take on the Mormon edition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:
I think it reveals that Smith arrived in Washington DC in 1839 with a strong sense of American idealism.
He believed that if he set forth all the facts of the Saints persecution to the president and congress that they would clearly see the need for redress. But instead, he found the capital filled with politicians and policy decisions often based on political calculations. It was very disheartening for Smith.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed this meeting with Van Buren, Smith developed his political acumen. By the time he ran for president in 1844, his eyes were wide open to the political realities of partisan politics in the government of the United States.
He noted that this “meeting with President Martin Van Buren in the crowded parlor of the White House in 1839” was “a pivotal event in prolonging Smith’s political involvement and directing the nature of his policy positions in the years that followed.”
This affected Smith’s run for the presidency. McBride explained that, ultimately, “Joseph Smith ran for president to protect the lives and rights of the Latter-day Saints.”
For years, political leaders had failed to grant them redress for their lost property in Missouri. Then, in late 1843 and early 1844, it seemed that the persecutions they had experienced in Missouri would be repeated by their critics in Illinois.
After writing to five men believed to be candidates for president in 1844 and not one of them committed to help the Saints as president, Joseph Smith and other church leaders determined to run an independent candidate for president.
Smith was that candidate.
That being said, while “Smith was serious about his campaign,” McBride stated that “he was not a serious contender” in the presidential race. Even back then, “the two-party system was so established that it was virtually impossible for a candidate outside the Whig or Democratic parties to win.” Instead, the campaign’s primary impact would have been to put pressure on the major party candidates through “drawing votes from one party or another in tightly contested states, especially in Illinois.” Hence, it “appears that Joseph Smith and some of his campaign surrogates hoped that his candidacy could help inform the platforms and campaign platforms of the Whigs and Democrats, or maybe win some promises of aid from one or both of those parties’ respective candidates.”
For us today, the legacy of the Smith’s political involvement and the circumstances that led to it is represented in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ sensitivity about religious freedom. McBride mentioned that:
Many Americans today think that the inclusion of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights was the end of that story, but it only enshrined an ideal. It did not make universal religious freedom a reality. This book shows that achieving that ideal requires structural change in laws and policies as much as it requires the individual abandonment of prejudice. …
Joseph Smith’s history reveals his developing understanding of just how difficult it would be to successfully combat bigotry and bigots when they were protected and emboldened by laws and policy. In the case of the states’ rights doctrine, it was a philosophy of government that, on the surface, had nothing to do with religion.
But in its implementation, it had a detrimental effect on several religious minority groups, including the Latter-day Saints.
So, when we talk about the political obstacles to universal religious freedom in nineteenth-century America, we are not just talking about a list of discriminatory laws or public policies or philosophies of governance. We are also talking about the way Americans use seemingly neutral policies to enact or condone discrimination against minority groups.
This seems to be connected to the ongoing rhetoric in the Church about needing to preserve religious freedom.
For more on Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, including an interesting discussion about the candidates they asked to run as vice president, the role of the Council of Fifty in the campaign, and how Benjamin Park influenced the writing of this book, jump on over to the full interview, available here. For those who are wanting to stay around for some discussion, some potential questions to explore: To what extent do you believe (or not believe) that Latter-day Saints are in danger of losing religious freedom today? What do you find interesting about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign?