Sometimes art imitates life in ways that stay with us longer than reality. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is an iconic film that even those who have not seen it have heard about. It’s a classic. A legend. Yet the phrase means something completely different to a member of the LDS Church who knows a real life story of a Mr. Smith that went to Washington.
You probably don’t know much about Mormons, or their history–unless you are one, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, as they’ve been called since almost the same year as their founding, are as important to the history of the United States and its Westward expansion as the Louisiana Purchase. The Mormon story is so deeply steeped in Americanisms that it’s no wonder they are, as a people, so patriotic, and at the same time, they were so vilely treated by Americans at their founding, they should be as bitter and demanding of reparations as any native tribe.
America began as an experiment in religious tolerance and it was never an easy go for any group outside their own enclave. Quakers had little use for Puritans, Methodists had little use for Lutherans, and no one much liked the Catholics in the early years of the United States. But each of those religions was founded elsewhere and had to be brought to the colonies to gain the chance to worship freely, even if they were still nudged into little sections of the newly budding country. It took a young boy of little means to bring America its first homegrown religious success–Joseph Smith Jr.
But it wasn’t easy.
Whether or not you believe anything the young Joseph Smith said about his spiritual experiences, what he did was historical. He took a small group of believers and fed them on ideas that claimed the essence of this restored gospel (ie Mormonism). This was only possible through the divine inspiration of the Founding Fathers and the liberty that the United States of America uniquely offered at the time. Even as the small band of believers was driven by prejudice and intolerance from New York to Ohio, their faith in the countries Founders was strong. They believed they could build a home for their faith in their own promised land when they moved to Missouri. Thousands of Mormons moved to Jackson County Missouri, and tensions grew between members of the church (most were staunch abolitionists) and the same factions that later tore Missouri apart during the Civil War.
The locals in Missouri, alarmed at the political, economic and organization power of the Mormons, terrorized the new converts in ways that are familiar to anyone who has studied Civil Rights History. Mormons were prevented from voting. Their lands and firearms were illegally confiscated. Several dozen Mormons were murdered at Haun’s Mill. The conflicts and prejudiced reports convinced Governor Boggs to write Missouri Executive Order 44, also known as the “Extermination Order.” In it was the directive that: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace… ”
Driven out of their legally owned promised land and pursued to death with the power of government, even as many native tribes were, the Mormons under the leadership of Joseph Smith still believed in the power of America. They retreated to an infested swampland in Illinois, optimistically naming it: Nauvoo (beautiful/fair in Hebrew) and Joseph Smith went to Washington to petition the government for redress.
When this Mr. Smith went to Washington, he was just as disappointed in the reaction of his President as Jimmy Stewart’s character was with his fellow Representatives. Unable to get support from President Van Buren, Mr. Smith–that is Joseph Smith–turned to Congress. But things were far too dicey in the country to risk a rift with the South. Missouri was considered the South. Putting politics above the rights of a minority group, President Van Buren rebuffed Mr. Smith and the Congress did little better.
This experience could have embittered Joseph, and rightfully so, but his response to it was, like the modern movement of the Tea Party, indignant personal involvement in the problems that plagued Washington, DC. He decided to run for President.
Joseph went to work immediately on his Presidential Platform. In General Smith’s Views he wrote: “The Declaration of Independence ‘holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;’ but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin.” As for how to end slavery, he concluded that Congress “pay every man a reasonable price for his slaves out of the surplus revenue arising from the sale of public lands, and from the deduction of pay from members of Congress.” He proposed a cut in pay for Congress by half (from four dollars to two dollars), forming a national bank, annexing Oregon and Texas and expanding to California if Native Americans gave their consent.
On February 24, 1844 he printed 1500 copies of his platform and had them mailed to the President, his cabinet, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the Congress and editors of important newspapers. In April, May, and June, he campaigned, and cause a great deal of concern to many when his views were welcomed more widely than anyone could have anticipated. An active propaganda campaign against Mr. Smith angered him and brought him to confront a newspaper publisher on his misinformation. This conflict led to Joseph Smiths arrest and imprisonment in Carthage Jail where he martyred by the some of the same men that had driven the Mormons from Missouri.
As to why Joseph Smith ran for President, here’s what he said about it: “I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens, even those rights which the Constitution guarantees unto all her citizens alike. But this as a people we have been denied from the beginning. Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion; and no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief. And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence.” Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:210–11.
Invoking his trust in the Constitution to the very end of his life, Joseph Smith and Mormons show a faith in the Constitution that the people in the United States had not earned. God and the divine right to liberty the Mormons believed in at their founding, and still, by and large, believe in today gave them a unique perspective on American History, the Constitution and our national heritage.
Sometimes art imitates life, it’s true, but sometimes life is even more interesting than the art it inspired. Think about that the next time you’re watching Jimmy Stewart take on Washington.