“Was Joseph Smith a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States?” Ensign, Sept. 1973, 21–22
James B. Allen
Assistant Church Historian
A. To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this question, primarily because Joseph Smith’s full intentions are not clear from the sources available, and the issue is still a matter of debate even among Church historians. Allow me to summarize a few facts, suggest some of the arguments, then state my own opinion.
On January 29, 1844, Joseph Smith, the Council of the Twelve, and a few other individuals met in Nauvoo and decided to support Joseph Smith as an independent candidate for the presidency of the United States. The Prophet soon wrote his View of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. A nationwide campaign got underway, and at the April conference of the Church a call was issued for volunteers to “preach the Gospel and electioneer.” On May 17 a convention was held in Nauvoo at which Joseph was officially nominated, with Sidney Rigdon as his running mate. But the Prophet was so deluged with other problems that he did not personally pursue the campaign trail, although many missionaries did so in his behalf. On June 27, 1844, his tragic assassination cut short any further plans he may have had.
The election campaign of 1844 was complex, for divisive sectional issues, such as slavery, as well as the broader issues of economic depression and American expansion, were fragmenting both major parties. For Joseph Smith, national politics were especially frustrating. Since 1839 he had been pursuing a losing effort to get the federal government to respond to Mormon appeals for relief from their tragedies in Missouri. Having been driven from the state by mobs, having had their property confiscated, and having been unable to obtain redress from the state, the Saints had appealed to the federal government to intervene and somehow force the state of Missouri to honor and protect their rights. “States’ rights,” however, was a sensitive issue at the time, especially among Southerners, and there was strong public feeling that the federal government had no constitutional authority to intervene in the affairs of any state.
To the former U.S. president, Martin Van Buren, the issue was loaded with political danger, and for that reason he told the Saints as early as 1839 that he sympathized with them but could do nothing for them. Joseph Smith, dismayed at the injustices the Saints had experienced, could not accept the principle that the federal government had no power to protect victims of mob violence, and he began to advocate a constitutional interpretation that would demand the necessary intervention.
The issue had become so paramount to the Prophet by 1844 that he found himself unable to support any of the leading candidates for the presidency.
I doubt that we can say that Joseph Smith, in running for the presidency, was attempting to circulate strictly “gospel” views, for in none of his own statements did he imply that he was speaking for the Church or by the power of revelation. He often made it clear that his political views were personal, and on one occasion he even went so far as to state that he had never asked the Lord for a revelation on politics and did not intend to do so.
In his campaign document he proposed his own solutions to the major problems of the day, and one of those problems was law and order. He proposed that the president be given full power to send an army to suppress mobs within a state. Under the Constitution the government could intervene in cases of “domestic violence” only at the request of the state legislature or governor (Article IV, Section 4). This provision the Prophet dubbed as “that relic of folly,” for the governor himself might be a mobster.
Did the Prophet really want to become president, and did he seriously believe he could be elected? The traditional view is that he entertained no such thoughts. Rather, he was primarily interested in giving his own people an acceptable alternative as well as avoiding further partisan political involvement in Illinois. Evidence for this perspective is seen in the following:
1. Joseph Smith said on March 7, 1844, that he cared little for the presidential chair, would rather be lieutenant-general of the Nauvoo Legion, and even feared the idea that he might be elected.
2. At the same time that he was involved in the election, he was also actively developing plans for the removal of the Church from Illinois to the West, and he could not devote full attention to both tasks.
3. The Prophet was certainly astute enough to realize that a minor candidate such as himself, running with no national image or support, had no chance of winning such a political contest. The best he could hope for would be to so publicize himself and his views that it would create greater awareness of the Latter-day Saint cause.
4. After the campaign began, he took little part in it.
In recent years some writers have suggested that Joseph Smith was more serious in his quest for the presidency, and they have used the following evidence to support their ideas:
1. On February 8, 1844, after his political platform was read for the first time in public, the Prophet made the following statement:
“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. … Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time … 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 the innocent.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 6, pp. 210–11.) This seems to be the declaration of a serious contender.
2. The Prophet’s campaign was placed under the direction of the influential (though not well known) Council of Fifty, which included most of the General Authorities of the Church. All available elders were sent out both to preach the gospel and to campaign. Some 340 missionaries, all carrying the Prophet’s political tract, were sent to all 26 states and the Territory of Iowa.
3. Since Joseph Smith believed in a divine destiny for America, it would not be unreasonable for him to believe that the Lord might also cause him to be elected president, say some observers. To the harassed but faithful Saints, it may have seemed a logical step toward the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
Both positions sound convincing, and there are shades of opinion in between, yet all are based on circumstantial evidence and subjective reasoning, with little direct information from Joseph Smith himself as to his ultimate intent. All this, it seems to me, strongly suggests that we must avoid dogmatic, “either-or” approaches on such historical issues, and leave the door ajar for differing points of view.
For what it is worth, my own opinion is that Joseph Smith’s candidacy was more than an alternative vote for the Saints. He was serious in his dislike for the doctrine of states’ rights and was clearly unable to support any candidate who could not agree with his views regarding the power of the federal government in protecting the rights of persecuted minorities.
But although he was serious in attempting to influence public opinion by using every possible means to promote his own political views, it seems unrealistic to suppose that Joseph Smith seriously thought he would actually become president. If and when I ever meet the Prophet, however, I am prepared not to be surprised if I find my view is wrong.