The Republican Party platform of 1856 was founded to eradicate the “twin relics of barbarism: slavery & polygamy.” Why would they link the two together? Dr. Sally Gordon explains a political reason to tie the two together that you may not be aware of.
Twin Relics of Barbarism
GT: It’s so funny that Mormons are so Republican, because the Republican Party was founded on what? Why don’t you tell us?
Sally: Well, the Republican Party was founded, honestly, by the collapse of the second party system over slavery. The Whig party virtually disappeared, and the Democrats flourished. The Republican Party was formed to try to begin to articulate some kind of pushback against the Democrats, and they were unsuccessful at first. They were formed in significant ways to begin to try to take control of what was a vastly expanding slave empire, moving west all the time. Slavery grew and grew and grew. Almost $2 out of every $3 were made through the South. It was rich. It was powerful. It was growing, and very aggressive.
GT: So, there were the twin relics or barbarism, right?
GT: What were those?
Sally: That was the first presidential party platform of the Republican Party. [The Republican Party] dedicated itself to eradicating the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery in the territories. There was a real question about what Congress could do in the territories. It was not clear that they could ban either. So, it was wishful thinking. One of the reasons that there’s some connection between polygamy and slavery and traditional societies, they often were practiced side by side. But one reason that you can see as a political reason for including polygamy, even though it was just such a tiny group of people, is that it was immediately and uniformly unpopular. So, if you linked slavery to polygamy, maybe you could drag it down, slavery, a little bit and make it a little less popular.
GT: Oh, that’s interesting.
Sally: Right, even the southerners didn’t defend polygamy. So, that, I think, was expeditious in that sense.
GT:. That’s why they linked those together was to pull down slavery?
Sally: Well, I think it had–there’s never one single reason for a political act. It’s more like a sausage, but you can definitely see polygamy– Buchanan sent the army out to Utah, because he and other Democrats were deeply worried that having a Mormon majority approving of polygamy in a territory made popular sovereignty look really bad.
GT:. States rights.
Sally: Exactly, and even Stephen Douglas, THE states’ rights Popular Sovereignty guy, supported sending the army to Utah.
GT: The same Stephen Douglas as in Lincoln-Douglas debates, right?
Sally: Yes, exactly.
Were you surpised to hear why the 1856 Republican Party linked slavery & polygamy together? What are your thoughts?
What are the legal complications of polygamy? Kody Brown recently filed a lawsuit to make polygamy law legal. While interracial marriage and even gay marriage are easily accomodated in U.S. law, Dr. Sally Gordon says polygamy law is much more complicated because it does not involve 2 people any longer. We’ll talk more about the legal complications of polygamy.
Legal Complications of polygamy
GT: Well, so there was a case within the last five years. Kody Brown brought a case, because when Utah became a state, of course, the federal government said, “You’ve got to ban polygamy.” So, we’re the only state in the union that specifically bans polygamy. I know there was a case where, I want to say a federal judge struck it down, but then another one reinstated it. Can you give us more details on that?
Sally: Sure, I’d be happy to. But I think one of the things to remember is that–and I think that the Latter-day Saints often say, “Our religion is based on family.” But it’s also true to say that marriage is the foundation of most of our social structure, and many, many, thousands of laws are built around marriage. [There are] all kinds of [laws:] employment, benefits of all kinds, just deep, deep protections for marriage, thousands and thousands and thousands of laws. When you got married, Rick, you probably didn’t feel all those laws settling on your head. But they were. I promise you; they were. I tell my law students, “Just be careful. Because you can get in voluntarily, but you can’t get out voluntarily. You have to go to the government. You can’t just walk away.”
Sally: Marriage is very important, highly regulated, and deeply valuable to the society. When, for example, we think about interracial marriage beginning in the 1960s, with the Supreme Court saying it’s unconstitutional to maintain what are called miscegenation statutes, meaning statutes that ban interracial marriage, it was easy to fold those people into the system. Because everything is built for two people. It’s easy. In that sense, same sex marriage is easy, too. It’s the same system. The divorce works the same. Inheritance works the same. All those benefits, Social Security, everything fits with two people. If you’re going to bust that open, that’s a much, much bigger change than the two big constitutional changes we’ve seen in marriage: interracial marriage and same sex marriage. Those aren’t complicated as a matter of the functioning of bureaucracy at state or federal levels. So, that’s one thing I just want to say.
GT: That’s interesting.
Sally: Yeah. So, it’s very, very difficult. I will say that even in a case that was decided shortly after World War II, that involved something called the Mann Act, which was passed in 1910. It forbade bringing women across state lines for immoral purposes. It was often called the White Slavery Act. It was to try to prevent people [from] bringing, say Chinese women to the U.S. to become prostitutes, or women from Europe to become prostitutes. But a case was brought against a Mormon man in in the mid 1940s, for crossing state lines with two women, both of whom he had sexual relationships with. They were married to each other. The question became, would this count as transporting women across state lines for an immoral purpose? The Supreme Court said yes.
Sally: Yes, they did. Justice William Douglas, who was a bit of a cowboy himself [said yes.] But, there was a very thoughtful dissent by the Catholic justice, Frank Murphy, who said, “This is one well-recognized form of marriage around the world.”
What do you think of the legal complications of polygamy? Do you support legalization, decriminalization, or neither?
Kody Brown is the polygamist and star of the tv show Sister Wives. He sued the state of Utah to remove the polygamy prohibition in the Utah Constitution. Kody Brown’s polygamy case won at the federal level, but lost on appeal. Dr. Sally Gordon tells us more about the judge’s reasoning, and why the judge said the 1890 Reynolds decision would be reversed if it happened today.
Sally: The district court said Reynolds would not be decided the same way today, and the 10th circuit reversed. So, that’s a trial level federal court, and then the intermediate level., It’s called the Court of Appeals. There are various circuits. This is the 10th one. I live in Philadelphia, that’s the third one. So the 10th one reversed, and that held up. It did not go to the Supreme Court. My guess is the justices would love not to have to decide a case like that. But I didn’t talk to them about it.
GT: Did they tried to send it to the Supreme Court?
Sally: Yeah, I think there was a cert petition. It’s years ago now, but I’m pretty [sure.]
GT:. The Supreme Court said we don’t want to deal with this.
Sally: Well, they just deny the cert petition.
Sally: So, there are many, many, many thousands of cases that they don’t hear. Honestly, the cases that they do hear, there’s either a great moment: you’re trying to subpoena stuff from the President. That’s pretty important. Or there’s a developing line of cases where the circuits, meaning those 3rd and 10th, and 5th and 7th and 1st, are starting to disagree with each other, so that we have conflicting rules out in the country. And it needs to have the Supreme Court step in and resolve it. So, that’s another [reason.] Or there’s original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court, when two states sue each other. They start right there. [It’s] the lawyers equivalent of judgment, up there with THE court. It is THE court. It is the gorilla. You call in the big boys when you go there. So, one thing: I do think there’s been substantial movement in marriage. There has not been a commitment to pushing past that boundary of two. My own sense is that there are a group of people who want to do that and call it marriage and a larger group, if I’m right, although we don’t really have great numbers, but a larger group of people who want to be polyamorous and live in communities that maybe are explicitly not marital and are not exclusive in those ways.
We get into further details. What are your thoughts on the Kody Brown case?
My libertarian tendencies used to steer me into a “live and let live” mentality with respect to polygamy. It wasn’t for me, but who was I to stop others from practicing? As a TBM, I felt like if the government prohibits polygamy today, they might prohibit my Mormonism tomorrow.
But as I researched Church history I discovered that there was (and is) do much more to polygamy than the free exercise of religion. Without getting into details lets just acknowledge that it is abusive and wrecks lives. So now I’m 100% against the practice and the modern day versions of it that I’ve seen are mostly repulsive too. I suppose a big part of my conversion against it is also that I’m totally convinced God has nothing to do with it.
I don’t think being weird should be illegal. You do you. But your rights end when someone else’s are infringed and polygamy negatively affects the rights of virtually everyone it touches.
It is always revealing to delve into family genealogy and histories. Unfortunately, my ancestors practiced abusive polygamy in Salt Lake City and Cache Valley. Their oft repeated histories tell of men abandoning their first wives and children for younger versions. It wasn’t until I read Todd Compton’s book “In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith” that I understood how women in polygamous relationships are typically nothing more than chattel or property to be used and discarded. Compton’s book is very well researched and eye opening – well worth taking the time to read. Nauvoo polygamy in particular was pure evil.
Kody Brown is nothing more than an extension of the JS and BY modus operandi: Keep adding younger wives, exploit existing wives and disregard the older children (especially the boys). Most Mormons conveniently ignore the abuses of polygamy that endure to the present.
Watching “Under the Banner of Heaven” last night served as a forceful reminder of the lives ruined by polygamy. Brenda Lafferty paid dearly for interfering with Ron and Dan’s polygamy plans. Absolutely infuriating to realize that Mormon women to this day remain second class citizens – often unwittingly. My only solace is realizing that my daughters have left the Church. Teaching correct principles works – sometimes.
Polygamy and slavery are practically the same thing. Both are morally repugnant institutions that depend on manipulation, coercion and exploitation. They both treat entire classes of people as property. Both keep their victims in a form of bondage. Both require very lopsided and abusive power structures. And both have apologists who, even though they may reject these evils today, will hold up past practices of them as “honorable”. Like slavery, polygamy is wrong and always has been. But as with slavery, it is an important (though shameful) part of our history and we need to acknowledge it and its effects on our current cultural landscape. Unfortunately today, the State of Utah is extremely reluctant to prosecute polygamists and tends to keep a “hands-off” relationship with them. The LDS Church (which has a lot of political clout in Utah) does not want to have to confront the issue in public and acknowledge it’s own skeletons in the closet.
Kody Brown is a reality TV buffoon, and I don’t think his situation represents the vast majority of Mormon-heritage polygamy. I imagine the truth is much darker.
Polygamy – multiple spouses
Polygyny – multiple wives
Polyandry – multiple husbands
Consider another attempted LDS 19th-century practice that ran afoul of the courts: the Law of Consecration. An early attempt was made to have people actually deed land to the LDS bishop, then have some of it deeded back to that person or family by the bishop. But when push came to shove, the courts would not uphold those deeds. That is, the new deeds (and the attendant right to the property) was not recognized. If the grants and deeds were not recognized, then the original owner could reclaim his original property. And sometimes did. The system was simply unworkable under US law at the time. I know, ironic that courts were quite happy to uphold slavery (property rights in other human beings).
For polygamy, just consider divorce. In traditional couples marriage, if H and W divorce, courts often have a tough time adjudicating property, support, and custody arrangements. Imagine there was H, W1, W2, and W3. If W1 divorces, the court would have to consider the claims of W2 and W3 against the assets and income of H and maybe W1, as well as the claims of W1 against H and possibly W2 and W3. The challenge would be considerably more complex than standard divorce. Legally and administratively, plural marriage in the 21st century is simply unworkable as an institution, even if it can limp along (or even prosper!) as a group lifestyle for this or that particular set of consenting adults for a few years.
Since no US government much cares if a whole group of people live together in sin, or whether romantic relationships are sufficiently respectful and egalitarian, it seems odd to object to plural marriage on grounds of public morals; otherwise the main objection seems to be financial complication. If polygamy tends to be regressive as a practical matter, one could say the same of many forms of legal marriage–such as child marriage, which is legal (with the consent of parents or a judge) in several US states. Some feminist writers hold *all* heterosexual marriage to be based on an inherent power imbalance.
BTW “polyamory” does not denote a marriage relationship; terms for that would be “plural marriage” or “group marriage.” Sociologically speaking, such arrangements are completely different from polygamy–their practitioners tend to be less religious, and the resulting groupings less stable. (Whether this is because of lack of societal support, or because the participants tend to be more marginal or nonconformist, is difficult to say.)
Some reformers have proposed eliminating government recognition of marriage entirely (including conservatives who opposed gay marriage), so that everything is a matter of contract law. This raises the question of what sort of provisions a marriage contract might contain, that would be legally enforceable. (You can’t sell yourself into slavery, for example.) A related issue was “Marriage Plus,” an optional form of super-marriage offered by Louisiana which did not permit no-fault divorce. It failed to catch on.
Interesting “choice of laws” problems arise from polygamy and immigration, since it is possible to marry polygamously in one country, then move to another where polygamy is illegal. Several European countries recognize polygamous marriages entered into in African or Middle Eastern countries where this was legal, although no US state does.
Polyandry and polygyny are both practiced in Bhutan to some extent, although increasingly difficult to register. The usual arrangement is for someone to marry a group of sisters, or a group of brothers–perhaps out of poverty, or to avoid dividing land holdings, or because some of the men have to travel for long periods. Some Bhutanese are embarrassed by such practices, and there have been proposals to phase them out (especially polygyny). Bhutan’s fourth king married four sisters, while the fifth (and current) king is monogamous, although perhaps not perfectly so.
A few cultures do not seem to have the concept of marriage at all. The most famous example is the Mosuo in Yunnan, who traditionally live in matrilineal family units in which the men go out at night and climb through the windows of their lovers, and children are closer to their paternal uncles than their fathers. Apparently the Red Guards disapproved, and conducted raids in which they would write down the names of everybody found sleeping together, and register them as married!
Since Bhutan also has the custom of “night hunting” (climbing through windows), I speculate that this type of matrilineal social arrangement was once much more widespread, but was out-competed militarily by groups practicing patrilineality and traditional marriage.
Marriage (like slavery, or hierarchical civilized society in general) has some similarities with the domestication of animals, from which it is distinguished mainly by its potential in binding together extended families into an alliance.
“Legally and administratively, plural marriage in the 21st century is simply unworkable as an institution”
If 2,000+ counties, tribes, cities and individuals can all collectively sue Purdue Pharma for a few billion dollars, I don’t see why it is somehow impossible to arrange a marriage contract that involves 3 parties. I’m no lawyer, but if Dow Chemical and DuPont can merge into a single company that does $86B in sales annually, and then split up into three companies shortly thereafter, then Riley, Jessie and Emerson can all get married and divorced and figure out a way to decide who gets the couch. Will it be more complicated than a marriage with only 2 people? Absolutely. Is this some sort of wizardry that the US legal system is incapable of handling? No. Are there other effects this would have when it comes to government benefits, taxes, health insurance, etc? Loads, I’m sure. But something tells me that the lawyers would just love to create more papers to sign, and the bureaucrats would love to create more forms to fill out.
*Please don’t interpret this comment as a defense of plural marriage. I just find the “marriage contract between more than 2 people is impossible” argument to be underwhelming. These issues are completely solvable, if we as a society wanted to solve them. (And again, I am not arguing that we should, only that we could.)