“Nauvoo Expositor,” Church History Topics
On Friday, June 7, 1844, dissenters from the Church published the one and only issue of an opposition newspaper they called the Nauvoo Expositor. The publishers were a former First Counselor in the First Presidency, William Law; Law’s brother, Wilson; Charles Ivins; Charles and Robert Foster; and Francis and Chauncey Higbee.1 The dissenters, several of whom had been recently excommunicated, published the Expositor to stir up controversy over practices and teachings with which they strongly disagreed. Using inflammatory language, they voiced their discontent with the practice of plural marriage, Joseph Smith’s teachings on the nature of God from his recent King Follett sermon, and his mixing of religious and civic authority in Nauvoo.2
On Saturday, June 8, and the following Monday, June 10, the Nauvoo City Council convened to determine a course of action. There were multiple reasons the council felt the need to act. Most significantly, the Saints had experienced violence in Missouri and Ohio and, with tension mounting in Illinois, the council members were concerned about the Expositor’s potential to incite further violence against both the Saints and the owners of the press.3 Additionally, in the honor culture of 19th-century America, men were expected to respond to public attacks on their character, a social norm that made it difficult to let offenses pass.4
With the sanction of the city council, Joseph Smith ordered a marshal, with the assistance of the Nauvoo Legion, to destroy the printing press. On Monday evening, June 10, the marshal and his posse of approximately 100 men removed the press, scattered the type, and burned the remaining copies of the newspaper.
The Nauvoo City Council had reason to believe their actions were legal. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits government interference with the press, applied only to the federal government, not state and local governments, until after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. During the council meetings, Joseph Smith cited both American legal precedent and William Blackstone’s commentary (an influential treatise on common law), interpreting these sources as allowing the destruction of the Expositor on the grounds that it was a public nuisance—something that posed a danger to the safety and welfare of society. While the destruction of a press was somewhat unusual in 19th-century America, there were many instances, both before and after this time, of local and state governments suppressing unpopular presses. As late as 1929, a state supreme court approved the closure of a press considered a “nuisance” (though this was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court). Scholars have concluded that the Nauvoo City Council acted legally to destroy copies of the newspaper but may have exceeded its authority by destroying the press itself.5
The destruction of the Expositor fanned the flames of controversy. In neighboring Warsaw, Illinois, a leading anti-Mormon newspaper editor named Thomas Sharp seized this opportunity to mobilize Hancock County citizens against the Saints.6 Trying to prevent a civil war, Illinois governor Thomas Ford reviewed the Nauvoo City Council’s legal justifications for suppressing the newspaper and decided that Joseph Smith needed to stand trial in Carthage, the county seat, on the charge of “riot.”
Though he accepted Ford’s promise of protection and submitted to arrest, Joseph Smith never stood trial to defend his actions as mayor. A mob stormed Carthage Jail and murdered him and his brother Hyrum.