“Joseph Smith’s 1844 Campaign for United States President,” Church History Topics
“Joseph Smith’s 1844 Campaign for United States President”
Joseph Smith declared his candidacy for president of the United States in February 1844. Joseph personally and the Saints more generally had experienced several years of harassment and persecution both in Missouri and in Illinois. Joseph had written to five men expected to be candidates for the presidency in the election of 1844, asking each man what he would do to protect the citizenship rights of the Latter-day Saints if he were elected. Three of the men responded, but none of them promised to help the Saints. As a result, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles nominated Joseph Smith to be a candidate. He accepted the nomination and proceeded to develop a political campaign. In describing his reasons for accepting the nomination, Joseph Smith stated publicly, “I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on any wise 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.”1
Joseph’s campaign platform was summarized in a pamphlet titled General Smith’s Views on the Power and Policy of Government. Empowering the federal government to protect the rights of religious minorities was at the heart of his campaign, but he took public positions on a host of controversial issues. His platform included a call for the closure of the country’s growing prison system, decreasing the size of the House of Representatives, chartering a new national bank, and promoting national expansion conditioned upon receiving the consent of American Indians. Joseph also called for the abolition of slavery in the United States by the government using revenues generated from the sale of federal lands in the western United States to purchase the freedom of enslaved men and women.2
Church leaders recognized the power of print media to spread their message through the country, so they printed and distributed thousands of copies of Joseph Smith’s campaign pamphlet. In New York City, Church leaders started a newspaper called the Prophet, which was dedicated to covering Joseph’s candidacy and compared his policy positions to the other candidates in the race. In addition to printed campaign messaging, over 300 Church members served electioneering missions throughout the country.
President John Tyler’s failure to gain his party’s nomination meant there was no incumbent, so the 1844 presidential race was wide open. However, it was unlikely that a candidate running outside the two-party system could win the race. Some thought that the campaign was not a serious attempt to elect Joseph Smith, but rather an undertaking designed to raise public awareness of the plight of the Latter-day Saints amid rising persecution in a country that boasted about its exceptional level of freedom. While the Saints acknowledged that even an unsuccessful presidential campaign could raise such beneficial awareness, Church leaders insisted that they intended to elect him. They selected electors from each state, an action that served virtually no public relations function but, rather, would serve to translate popular votes into electoral votes should the campaign succeed in gaining enough support in any of the 24 states that then comprised the United States. Church leaders apparently believed that Joseph Smith could win if it were God’s will, but they did not necessarily believe that he would win. Accordingly, they pursued other plans to relieve the Saints of the pressures and persecutions they felt, including petitioning the United States Congress to make the city of Nauvoo a federal territory, asking Congress to make Joseph a general in the United States Army, and exploring the possibility of leaving the United States altogether. Joseph’s campaign for the presidency was, therefore, one of several potential avenues Church leaders explored to bring the Saints the peace and protection necessary for them to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.3