In Unpopular Sovereignty Brent M. Rogers takes a refreshing look at the actions of the federal government in Utah in the 1850s, but in a much broader and more significant context than usual. As he emphasizes, the federal government's management of early Utah can and should be seen as part of the nation's broader territorial policy to establish national sovereignty, republican government, control over Indian affairs, and infrastructural development in the West. (p. 292) Federal activity in Utah was not only an effort to end Mormon theocratic government but also an important part of the national debate over popular sovereignty, Indian policy, and solidifying federal control over all western territories. Utah's role in these national affairs has too often been overlooked. Rogers remedies that, and, in the process, provides a brilliant examination of the complex issues relating to sovereignty and territorial government. After Utah became a territory, the Mormons smarted at the idea of federal control and began claiming the right to self-government and statehood. However, Americans were scandalized by Church control of all things political, by polygamy, and by Mormon Indian policy. They saw the Mormons as a threat to liberty that must be checked. The governing Democratic party believed in popular sovereignty, but the Mormons held that their choice to be governed by church leaders was, in fact, popular sovereignty. Americans saw this as antirepublican and subversive, which meant that the federal government must not only eliminate polygamy but also establish genuine republican government in Utah. Also, since Utah was strategically located on a major route to California, including the projected route for the transcontinental railroad, the government had to curb Mormon power to solidify federal control of these routes. Rogers's handling of the multiple issues involved is superb, especially as he integrates what happened in Utah with broader American territorial history. Among the issues were the periodic quartering of military contingents in Utah, which antagonized the Mormons in several ways; the competing philosophies between Mormons and federal agents over Indian policy; plural marriage; and the Utah War and its consequences. The Utah expedition of 1857 was designed to help solidify federal control, eliminate theocratic government, create true popular sovereignty, and wrestle Indian affairs from the Mormons. In addition, the troops were to facilitate transportation, commerce, and communication. Relating this to the larger scene, Rogers observes that “by 1858, the U.S. military presence in New Mexico and Utah was becoming more conspicuous and effective and added to the strength already present in Oregon, Washington, and California” (p. 240). Republicans came to power in 1861 and soon passed laws that effectively ended popular sovereignty in all the territories. One, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, criminalized polygamy. By then, “the federal government had developed its rightful role as legislator and was implementing, if imperfectly, its strategy for sustaining national sovereignty in the western territories and its authority over Utah” (p. 271). Unpopular Sovereignty is an important, well-researched study that historians of American politics, and of the West in particular, should welcome. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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