Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mormons and Presidents: Polk- Taylor

# 11 James K. Polk (1845-1849)

Polk is a president of greater historical significance then his current relative obscurity might indicate. This is mainly in regards to the role he played in expanding the boarders of the United States through the Mexican-American War, a conflict into which the Latter-day Saints would become mildly involved, but which would have a great impact on, by bringing what would become Utah territory under U.S. control.

As mentioned before Joseph Smith was a candidate for the Presidency in 1844, having decided to run for the office after finding none of the early anticipated candidates to be sufficiently aligned with the Church’s intrests. Smith died in June of 1844 after the emergence of Polk as a ‘dark horse’ candidate at the Democratic National Convention. Interestingly Polk embraced several of the same political positions that had been central to the late prophets platform, including annexation of Texas and Oregon, and support for a strong national bank. This might explain why LDS voters favored Polk that November, helping him to win Illinois nine electoral votes by a 54% margin to Henry Clay’s 42%. Before Smith’s death there had been rumors that he would be willing to withdraw from the race and support Polk in exchange for a position of political patronage.

In office the president resisted the entireties of several prominent Illinois politicians to exert federal pressure in speeding the Mormons departure from the state. He must have felt some sympathy for the persecuted people as he is recorded to have given a $10 donation to there aid, and his wife attended a benefit dinner for the beleaguered pioneers in the summer of 1847. But Polk’s concern for the Mormons was tied not just to a sense of compassion and his recorded firm support for the exercise of religious freedom. The president was also concerned that the Mormons could complicate his plans for western expansion by either attempting to form their own independent state, or aligning with a forging power such as England. As a consequence of this the president authorized the enlistment of a ‘Mormon Battalion’ to serve in the war with Mexico, hoping to ensure loyalty through government service. This idea appears to have originated in full or in part from a Colonel Thomas L. Kane, a prominent Missourian and friend of the Mormons, who had the ear of the president. Kane felt this action would foster a sense of joint interest with the Saints and U.S. government, as well as providing the Mormons with some much needed funds from the solders wages. Ultimately the Mormon battalion saw no combat (save an encounter with a bull), but did complete the longest overland march in U.S. military history. After their discharge in California several of the solders found temporary work at Sutters Mill, and were present for the discovery of gold in 1848.

# 12 Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Mexican War hero General Zachary Taylor, a political novice, was elected President of the United States in 1848. One of Taylor’s main political concerns was in halting the spread of slavery into the western territories, this despite his being a Virginian and slaveholder himself. The president worried that the recently admitted slave state of Texas, owing to its incredible size, might in time be divided into multiple slave states. To counter-act this possibility Taylor hopped to admit to the union a huge non-slave state encompassing California and most of the other territory gained from Mexico, all with the intent of then splitting the new state in two as a greater counter-wight to Texan power. This plain however was not to be, owing first to a lack of support among California’s emerging political establishment, who didn’t want to be yoked, even temporarily, with the Mormons of Deseret (1). Secondly, by 1850 Taylor had become unfavorably disposed towards the Mormons, owing to the negative reports he had received concerning the Church’s practice of polygamy, as well as charges of disloyalty. The Church’s representatives in D.C., John M. Bernhisel and Almon W. Babbitt, confirmed Taylor’s hostel views of the Mormons after a meeting with the President, not to long before his death from food poisoning (2).

1. The names the Mormons gave their unofficial state, from a Book of Mormon word meaning ‘honeybee’ and signifying thrift and industry.

2. Taylor died from spoiled food consumed at a Independence Day picnic. Tests conducted on the exhumed corpse several years ago found no indication that the poisoning was intentional.

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