29 March 2009

Benjamin Franklin Hall

Letter to the Editor of the New York Tribune from Benjamin Franklin Hall (1882)

I do not suppose that anything the late President Fillmore or the late Brigham Young thought or said about methods tried for suppressing polygamy in Utah will have much influence with the present Congress; but I presume a brief disclosure of the opinions of both of those men before they died will do no harm to anyone, in or out of Congress. It is possible that they may do some good, so I benture to relate what theu were and when and how they were expressed.

Meeting with Millard Fillmore

I was in the City of Washington, employed in compiling the official opinions of the Attorneys-General from the formation of the National Goverment, pursuant to an act of Congress, at the time or times of the passage and approval of the several so-called Compromise Measures of 1850, and was personally cognizant of most of the proceedings relating to their passage and approval. Enjoying his confidence as much, I presume, as any Whig in this his native county (the Whig Party being intact before the era of Silver Grays), President Fillmore frequently expressed to me his private opinions respectibng each of those measures befiore he approved them. He seemed to have no misgivings about any of those five measures, except the one erecting a part of ancient California into a separate Territory, to be called Utah; but he had serious scruples of conscience and judgment respecting that. As the "Joe Smith Fraud" was perpetrated in this state, and had left foul tracks in its entire course from this state to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and to what had been called "Alta California," and as there were then only a very few inhabitants there except polygamists, he was naturally apprehensivce that the erection of such a people into a government, even if it were to be a temporary one, would lead to public scandal and trouble. he did me the honor to ask my private opinion whether it were best for him, in view of all the circumstances attending the passage, of those measures, to sign the Utah bill. I told him plainly that in my opinion his apprehensions of scandal and trouble were warranted by the scandal and trouble the Mormons had created in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, and that were I in his place I would decline to approve the bill, and send it back to Congress with his reasons. But his just apprehensions were countervailed and removed by Mr. Clay, who was his Gamaliel in politics, so that he signed the bill on the 9th of September, 1850, simultaneously with his signing the bill admitting California as a state and the bill erecting New Mexico into a territory. He obtained the opinion of his Attorney-General before signing the Fugitive Slave Act, which delayed his approval of that to the 20th.

And then, to the surprise of everyone to whom he had imparted his fears of scandal and trouble, he indorsed the infamy by appointing Brigham Young, the so-styled President of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, to the executive office of the new Territory of Utah. That appointment launched the worst form of domestic tyranny, as well as polygamy, in Utah, and gave it character in Europe. An evil star ruled President Fillmore then and thenceforward to the end of his term.

After the death of his wife and daughter, he came to Cayuga County, the scene of his boyhood, a sad and sorrowful man, to seek consolation among his former friends. Many of them gave him a frigid welcome on account of his recreancy to the principles of the party which elected him. But while I disliked that and his treatment of Mr. Seward's friends, of whom I was one, as greatly as anybody here, I had no heart to withhold from him my sympathy in his bereavement, and did not. I called upon his at his hotel often, invited him to my house and to my pew in St. Peter's Church, and accompanied him to Moravia and Aurora, where he was born and where he studied grammar and the law. During that quiet visit, he conversed with me and others very freely respecting his official action concerning the Utah act and his appointment of Brigham Young, and several times mentioned them as his "great mistakes." As he was in deep affliction, I forbore to talk with him about them any more than common civility required, as it was quite enough for the occasion and for my satisfaction to learn from his lips that he was conscious that his course in respect to Utah and the Mormons had been unwise and productive of a series of flagrant political and social wrongs. He forbore to characterize any of the acts of the Mormons as crimes, but seemed to be satisfied with styling them public scandals and wrongs. He said his worst fears of the Mormon Government had been verified by time, and that the evil, so far as he could discern, was utterly remediless, except by repealing the organic act and blotting the territory from the map. It is of little moment to mention it, but, to complete the reminiscence, I will add that I concurred with him in the opinion, and that I have entertained it ever since.

President Fillmore went to Europe soon after that conversation, became a candidate for re-election, was defeated, and became a recluse at his home in Buffalo. I met him once or twice in that city, but had no conversation with him about any public affairs, except about raising troops to put down the late Rebellion.

Meeting with Brigham Young

On the 25th of February 1861, Congress erected out of the west part of Nebraska and Kansas, the north part of New Mexico, and the east part of Utah, the Territory of Colorado; and soon after the inauguration of President Lincoln, in the following March, I was appointed Chief Justice of that terriroty, and went there and established its judiciary. I found a very few polygamists in the territory, two or three slave-owners, with a dozen or more slaves, and several hundred Seceders or Rebels. But they concluded to go away to places more congenial to them soon after the governor and judges made them understand by executive orders and judicial proceedings that they "must obey without debate." Less than a hundred indictments, arrests and imprisonments without trials and convictions did the business, and brought the chaos, as the lawyers styled it, into peaceful order. The second year of our administration, my court was orderly as any here in New York.

I never had any official relations with the people of the adjoining Territory of Utah, but I was in the way of hearing of constant difficulties over there between the executive and the federal judges on the one hand and the Mormons on the other. Their nature was frequently described to me by the officersof the territory who came to advise with me, and one by Brigham Young himself, whom I visited in the autumn of 1863 at the request of President Lincoln. Under the idea that it was their bounden duty, even in war times, to issue warrants almost every day against Brigham Young for bigamy, because the Chicago convention which nominated Lincoln in 1860 had classed polygamy with slavery and denounced them as "twin relics of barbarism," the judges, or some of them, provoked him and the Mormons to such a degree that Salt Lake City was convulsed and kept in a state of mutiny all the while, and the officers, when the President was occupied every moment with the war, and could not listen to the complaints of the officers of Utah or of any other territory, were sending constant appeals to him for instant relief to enable them to fight that "twin," just as if that "twin" was more formidable and dangerous than the other. As Mr. Lincoln felt, as he wrote me, "that one was was enough at one time, and that it was best to bear with the Utah 'twin' until the Southern 'twin' was disposed of," he sent me a confidential letter by the hand of an army paymaster asking me to go over to Utah and put a stop to the trouble there if I could. Secretary Seward had told him that Young once lived here in Auburn, that I knew him personally, and that he thought it likely Young would receive me with more favor than he would an utter stranger. I acted upon the hint, and dropped in upon him in the character of a former friend. I sent him my card after my arrival at Salt Lake City, and he responded to the courtesy by calling upon me and invited me to dinner. I accepted his invitation, dined with him and rode with him several times about the city, and once out to Camp Floyd, where United States troops were in garrison to be ready for any emergency which might occur. He said he was glad to have them there to purchase and pay, as they did, for his provisions and provender. They made him a home market for all they consumed.

I stopped there two days, and long enough to gather from him his reasons for inventing polygamy, for making it a church ordinance, and for intrenching the ordinance in his so-called Endowment House so securely that the federal courts with juries could not reach it. In the course of our conversations I ventured to ask him if he were not afraid of being broken up by Congress in the manner they were broken up at Nauvoo by the legislature of Illinois. He very promptly replied that he was not, and gave his reason why. He said that no Gentiles were displaced by the repeal of the act incorporating the City of Nauvoo, but that all the federal officers of Utah were Gentiles, and would be displaced and deprived of their salaries and living by a repeal of the organic act of the territory. He admitted the power of Congress to do so, or to divide or annex the territory to some other territory or state, and that such a measure would tend to weaken them and impair their abiliy to proselytize and recruit their ranks in Europe; but he stoutly asserted his confidence that it would never be done, at least while he lived and retained his reason. I found the judges to be quite as consistent in their line of policy as Brigham Young was in his, and I reported the facts to President Lincoln. It is sufficient to say here that he stopped the war against that "twin" until the other was subdued.

Brigham Young was a remarkably ingenious and far-seeing man in everything relating to his means of resisting the federal courts. He understood the nature and rules of evidence, and the contingencies of a verdict where twelve jurors are required to agree, as well as the most experienced nisi-prius lawyer in the land. As long as his health held out, he defeated all attempts to convict him. When his health failed, he succumbed a little, and died, I believe, in the nominal custody of the marshall.

A conviction of another Mormon has been had since his death; but the Supreme Court at Washington has reversed the judgment for insufficient evidence. The situation is no better than it was twenty years ago. As the lawyers say, polygamy is in status quo.

It seems to me, therefore, that Congress is forced to the alternative iof leaving the evil to the efficacy of time and further anti-Mormon forces there, in the shape of railways and Protestant schools and churches, or of repealing the organic act, annexing the domain to the adjacent states and territories, and of declaring polygamists to be criminals and incapable of voting and holding office-- the very remedy suggested by the President who launched the evil, and the only one which Brigham Young in his lifetime feared.


A clipping of this letter-to-the-editor of the New York Tribune may be found in a volume of pamphlets on Mormonism in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library at Madison, Wisconsin.