Compiled by Linda Thatcher
In July 1847 the Mormon pioneers began entering the Salt Lake Valley. After years of persecution in the Midwest they realized the advantages of self-government, but the land they had come to belonged to Mexico.
Victorious in the Mexican War, the United States set the terms of peace. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ceded a vast territory claimed by Mexico to the United States, including the land settled by the Mormons. LDS leaders began to plan their first statehood attempt.
Hoping to obtain statehood as soon as possible, leaders in Salt Lake City sent a message to “all the citizens of that portion of Upper California lying east of the Sierra Nevada mountains” to attend a constitutional convention beginning March 8, 1849, in Salt Lake City “to consider the political needs of the community.” The convention created a proposed state of Deseret that encompassed the entire Great Basin and east to the Continental Divide, including, besides the present state of Utah, most of present Nevada and Arizona and parts of southern California (with the port of San Diego), Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Idaho. On March 10 the constitution for Deseret was completed, and on March 12 officers for the proposed state were elected: Brigham Young, governor; Willard Richards, secretary; Newell K. Whitney, treasurer; and Heber Kimball, chief justice. Almon W. Babbitt was selected to represent the provisional state in Congress. Traveling to Washington, D.C., Babbitt procured the services of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas to present the documents to the Senate on December 27. The House of Representatives declined to seat Babbitt, and the Committee on Elections reported: “The admission of Mr. Babbitt would be a quasi recognition of the legal existence of the State of Deseret; and no act should be done by the House, which, even by implication, may give force and vitality to a political organization extra-constitutional and independent of the laws of the United States.” The committee recommended the adoption of a resolution stating that it was “inexpedient to admit Mr. Babbitt to a seat in the House as a Delegate from the ‘alleged State of Deseret.'”
One reason for the refusal of Congress to grant statehood to Deseret was the lack of 60,000 eligible voters required for admission as a state. Moreover, Congress objected to the huge size of the proposed state. On September 7, 1850, the Senate passed a bill providing for the organization of a Utah Territory (rejecting even the name Deseret and shrinking its presumptuous borders), and two days later the bill passed the House and was signed by Millard Fillmore on September 9. The Organic Act creating the territory formed the basis of government in Utah until statehood. On September 20 President Fillmore announced his list of territorial appointments, and the Senate confirmed them on September 30: Brigham Young, governor; Broughton D. Harris (Vermont), secretary; Seth M. Blair (Utah), U.S. attorney; Joseph L. Heywood (Utah), U.S. marshal; Joseph Buffington (Pennsylvania), chief justice, replaced by Lemuel G. Brandebury (Pennsylvania) when Buffington refused the honor; Perry E. Brocchus (Alabama), associate justice; Zerubbabel Snow (Ohio), associate justice.
LDS church authorities publicly acknowledged that the doctrine of plural marriage had been accepted as a divinely instituted obligation among some of the most faithful adherents of the Latter-day Saint religion. During the next 38 years, polygamy would prove to be the major stumbling block in attempts to gain statehood.
Encouraged by President Pierce’s willingness to allow Brigham Young to continue as the territorial governor, the Mormons began a second effort to achieve statehood. When the fifth territorial legislature convened in Fillmore (briefly the territorial capital) on December 10, 1855, it passed an act authorizing the election of delegates to a constitutional convention.
Soon after taking office in 1857, President Buchanan removed Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory and sent a 2,500-man military force to accompany the new governor, Alfred Cumming, thus precipitating the so-called Utah War. The troops wintered at Camp Scott, Wyoming. When they finally marched through Salt Lake City on June 26, 1858, they found it abandoned by the Mormons. The army proceeded to a site 40 miles southwest of the capital where they built Camp Floyd. Cumming assumed office unchallenged and made peace with the Mormons.
The third movement for statehood began in December 1861 when the territorial legislature convened and passed a bill calling for a constitutional convention. Gov. John W. Dawson, who had arrived in the territory on December 7, vetoed it, because the time between its passage and the date fixed for the election of delegates was too short. Dawson left Utah under controversial circumstances on December 31. At mass meetings on January 6, 1862, citizens elected delegates to a constitutional convention that met on January 20 in the county courthouse in Salt Lake City. By January 23 the 67 delegates had drawn up a constitution for a state still to be named Deseret. On June 9 Delegate Bernhisel presented the constitution to the House. This effort to achieve statehood also failed. More worrisome, though, was the passage a few days earlier, June 3, of the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act in the Senate. It prohibited polygamy in the territories and disincorporated the Mormon church. It was never effectively enforced.
In January 1867 the legislature petitioned Congress to repeal the Morrill Act and, in the words of LDS historian Andrew Jenson, “prayed for admission into the Union as a State.” Neither objective was achieved.
Completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, on May 10 ended Utah’s isolation and ushered in an era of increased Mormon-gentile hostility.
Gentiles and dissident Mormons organized the Liberal party in Utah in February 1870. Until the formation of national parties in the territory the Liberal party and the People’s party of the Mormons would frame political debate in Utah along religious lines.
A new attempt to achieve statehood began on January 31, 1872, when the legislature passed a joint resolution calling for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. The convention opened on February 19 in City Hall in Salt Lake City, and by March 2 had adopted a constitution and framed yet another memorial to Congress asking for the admission of Deseret into the Union. On April 2 the constitution was presented to Congress and referred to a committee that reported it adversely. Meanwhile, on March 18 the election provided for in the constitution was held. It was ratified by 25,160 votes in favor and 365 against—all for naught. It would be ten years before Utah made another serious drive for statehood.
On June 23, 1874, the Poland Act passed both houses of Congress. It became the legal basis for prosecuting Mormon polygamists throughout the ensuing decade. The act gave district courts, controlled by federal appointees, jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases and limited the probate courts, controlled by Mormons, to cases involving estates, guardianships, or divorce.
George Reynolds, who had agreed to be the subject of a test case of the constitutionality of federal laws against polygamy, found his conviction upheld on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Morrison Waite issued the unanimous decision on January 6 which upheld the Morrill Act making the practice of plural marriage a criminal offense.
On February 16, 1882, the U.S. Senate passed the Edmunds Act, and it was approved in the House on March 14 and soon signed by Chester A. Arthur. It made the offense of unlawful cohabitation much easier to prove than polygamy misdemeanor and made it illegal for polygamists or cohabitants to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries. It also provided for a five-man Utah Commission appointed by the president to supervise all aspects of the electoral process in Utah Territory. Against this background Utahns nevertheless decided to mount another statehood drive. A constitutional convention authorized by the legislature met during April 10–27, 1882, in Salt Lake City and framed a constitution for Utah, abandoning the name Deseret and retooling the document. On May 22 the constitution was ratified by a vote of the people. Although a delegation was dispatched to Washington with the new constitution to present to Congress, no action was taken on the matter until February 23, 1883, when it was introduced in the Senate; a statehood bill was later introduced in the House, but both bills were referred to committees where they were quickly put on hold.
As federal officials in Utah increased their pursuit and prosecution of polygamists under provisions of the Edmunds Act, many were imprisoned and others went into hiding on the “underground” or into exile in Mexico or elsewhere. On Saturday, May 2, 1885, Mormons held a mass meeting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to protest the heavy hand of federal authorities. Those in attendance framed a “Declaration of Grievances and Protest” and chose a delegation to carry the document to the president. Similar mass meetings were held in other cities and towns throughout the territory. On May 13 the delegation from Utah, John T. Caine, John W. Taylor, and John Q. Cannon, presented the declaration to President Cleveland.
Although the Edmunds-Tucker bill was passed by the U.S. Senate on January 12, 1886, it was stalled by Democrats in the House as various amendments to it were considered. When finally approved by both houses in February 1887 and sent to President Cleveland, he allowed it to become law without his signature. Among other things, this act provided that LDS church property in excess of $50,000 would be forfeited to the United States and abolished woman suffrage in the territory. This discouraging news seemed to galvanize Mormons in Utah to continue their pursuit of statehood, but with a somewhat different proposal. On June 30, 1887, another constitutional convention met in Salt Lake City and by July 7 had hammered out a constitution that declared bigamy and polygamy “incompatible with a republican form of government” and made both activities misdemeanors. On August 1 the new constitution was ratified by Utah voters. Many doubted the sincerity of its provisions against polygamy, and newspapers across the country editorialized against statehood based on such flimsy evidence of a turnaround of affairs in Utah. The new constitution was not automatically set aside by Congress, which held hearings on it in 1888, but ultimately it too failed to achieve the desired result for Utah. With the Mormon hierarchy determined to retain polygamy as a tenet and a practice, some members of Congress began agitating for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban the practice.
On September 24, 1890, LDS President Wilford Woodruff drafted the text of a momentous announcement. After conferring with other church leaders, he issued what has since been called the Woodruff Manifesto to the Associated Press on September 25. Woodruff’s key sentence stated: “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” It was published in many newspapers across the country, and, though some doubted its authenticity or sincerity, it signaled a major shift of direction in church doctrine and practice and cleared the path toward statehood.
Permanent formation of national parties occurred in Utah in 1891. On May 29 the officers of the People’s party met in Salt Lake City and voted to disband the party and advised the members to join one of the two major national political parties. On July 6 the Democrats held their convention and nominated a slate of candidates for Salt Lake County offices. On July 8 the Republicans met and nominated their first county ticket. The two parties met several times during July to effect their organization and to field legislative candidates for the August 3 election. Democrats and Liberals won most of the offices. The Liberal party did not disband until December 18, 1893.
Congress passed the Enabling Act, which set forth the steps Utah must take to achieve statehood. It was signed by President Cleveland on July 16, 1894. On November 6 voters elected 107 delegates to a constitutional convention to be held in Salt Lake City the following year.
On March 4, 1895, the delegates met in the new Salt Lake City and County Building and framed Utah’s constitution. In accordance with provisions of the Enabling Act, it “forever” banned the practice of polygamy. The delegates represented a mix of Mormons and non-Mormons from a wide range of backgrounds. They completed their work on May 6 and signed the engrossed document on May 8. At the general election on November 5, 1895, the new constitution was ratified, and state officials and state legislators were elected.
On January 4, 1896, President Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state on an equal footing with the other states of the Union. The long battle for statehood was won, and most Utahns joined in jubilant celebrations held throughout the new 45th state. On January 6 state officials were inaugurated at impressive ceremonies held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.