Events

“Mormons vs. Democracy” and “The History of the Erie Canal”

Fall 2018 History Colloquium Series Double-header

A pair of ex-Columbians made their triumphant return to campus to kick off Homecoming weekend with an October 19 history colloquium twin-bill, with Sam Houston State University Assistant Professor of History and former Kinder Postdoc Ben Park backed up by Providence College Assistant Professor and MU History Ph.D. Steven Carl Smith.

History Department Homecoming

“It was a gloomy day in Nauvoo, Illinois.” So began Prof. Ben Park’s talk on “The Mormons vs. Democracy on the Banks of the Mississippi River.” Following expulsion from Missouri, the Mormon community, led at the time by Joseph Smith, found itself in an existential stand-off of sorts with democratic order. From the perspective of those who had just re-settled in Nauvoo, the political and physical violence they faced in Missouri marked an egregious trampling of minority rights. From the perspective of Missourians and many others in the nation, though, everything from their communal system of finance, to their hierarchical social and religious structures, to their radical theology indicated Mormons’ corruption of democratic practices and democratic mores.

In providing an overview of his new book project, Democracy’s Discontent: A Story of Politics, Polygamy, and Power in Mormon Nauvoo (forthcoming in 2019 from W.W. Norton/Liveright), Prof. Park focused on three explanatory themes regarding how Mormon leadership responded to what they understandably saw as democracy writ large’s unmitigated failure to protect the community’s rights and liberties.

Electoral: Mobilized around and directed by the prophetic authority of church leaders, the Mormon community in Illinois turned to bloc voting in the wake of expulsion from Missouri, delivering significant electoral allegiance (and sometimes success) to state and national candidates who came to Nauvoo with convincing promises of political protection. This strategy, however, did little to sway their opponents, who claimed that sectarian bargains violated democratic processes and that re-locating modes of expression from the individual to the collective violated traditional notions of religious freedom.

Legal: In an innovation with close ties to Joseph Smith’s alleged attempted assassination of former Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs—who issued Executive Order 44 while in office, which called for Mormons to “be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace”—Mormons used habeas corpus as a mechanism for protecting liberties, expanding its jurisdictional purview so to be able to try cases that originally occurred outside of the city or state in Nauvoo, on the grounds that doing so was the only means of ensuring a fair trial by peers, given the pervasive anti-Mormon sentiment of the time and in the region.

Political: Internally, the Mormons of Nauvoo turned to aristarchy, or “rule by the wisest,” forming the Council of 50 under the premises that rule of the people only works when the people rule in righteousness and that God’s rule should thus dictate—and, if necessary, circumscribe—the parameters of democratic participation. While many outside the community were outraged by the irony of a theocratic council claiming to embody a commitment to democracy, this was not the only moment in the 19th century when individual liberty was understood as being bound by the context of God, rather than protected by federal force. As Prof. Park pointed out, both John Brown and the Grimke sisters appealed to divine order over federal law in advancing the causes of abolition and equality for women, respectively.

And as he noted in ending his talk, the violent ire that the Mormons faced in Missouri soon spilled across the river into Illinois, where their neighbors came to find in Nauvoo a rejection of any semblance of tenable political order and created the vigilante Committee of Safety, responsible for the assassination of Joseph Smith, to preserve democracy in the state.

[Intermission]

Some 20 years earlier and 1,000 miles east, another former governor, New York’s DeWitt Clinton, boarded the Seneca Chief in Buffalo and pushed off down the Erie Canal for Manhattan. For Clinton, who was publicly heralded as the father of the Canal, the steamer trip, which culminated in casks filled with Lake Erie being poured into New York Harbor, was a victory lap of sorts. As Prof. Steven Carl Smith noted in introducing the key players in his talk on “Politics in the Margins,” for Elkanah Watson, though, the spectacle of DeWitt Clinton marrying the two bodies of water was little more than a “splendid fraud.”

Watson’s bitterness was rooted in a competing, if also largely ignored, paternal claim. A traveling northeastern merchant who observed and reveled in the commercial boon of England’s canal systems, Watson, the record shows, lobbied George Washington for similar infrastructure in New York’s Mohawk Valley long before Clinton began working within state government to secure funding for and oversee construction of the Erie Canal. At the center of Prof. Smith’s talk was not so much Watson’s ire at being overlooked and un-sung but rather what he transformed this ire into: a mixed media alternate history. For example, Prof. Smith described how Watson affixed pamphlets and newspaper clippings that lauded him as essential to the Canal’s existence onto the pages of his yearly almanacs, creating a homemade, collagic archive that told a counter-narrative to the one in which Clinton starred.

And he annotated Cadwallader Colden’s pro-Clinton history of the Erie Canal with similar intention. In the margins, one will find acerbic notes concerning historical accuracy; one will find patronizing rants about language patterns that “support” Watson’s claim that Clinton actually ghost wrote the celebratory account of his formative role in the Canal’s construction; and one will find repeated references by Watson to where his conspicuous absence from the history should be noted (or, alternately, where his presence in the history should be felt). As was the case with his re-upholstered almanacs, a second material text was inscribed upon another, literally, in some cases, writing over the original. And as Prof. Smith argued in wrapping up his talk, an interesting question of audience arises from Watson’s creations. As his marginalia became more voluminous, he ceased to be a reader and became an author, engaged in conversation not so much with Colden but instead with future archivists who might fashion from his notes a corrected history.

 

Benjamin E. Park received his B.A. in English and History from Brigham Young, his MSc in Theology in History from University of Edinburgh, and his MPhil in Political Thought and PhD in History from University of Cambridge. After a two-year stint as the inaugural Kinder Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in Political History, he accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State. His first book, American Nationalisms: Conceiving Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833, was recently published by Cambridge University Press, and his scholarly articles have appeared in academic journals including Journal of the Early Republic, Early American Studies, Journal of American Studies, Journal of Mormon History, American Nineteenth Century History, and Journal of Religion and Society. His public writing has appeared in Newsweek and the Washington Post, among many other places, and he currently serves on the executive board for the Mormon History Association and as an associate editor of Mormon Studies Review. His research focuses on the intersections between religion, culture, and politics in America, and he is currently at work on two projects, one an analysis of the Transcendentalists’ political theology and another a narrative of the Mormon city of Nauvoo as a moment of democratic crisis.

 

Steven Carl Smith is an historian of Revolutionary and early National America, with research and teaching interests in media, politics, and urban history. His first book, An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic, published in June 2017 by the Pennsylvania State University Press as part of the Penn State Series in the History of the Book, traces the development of Manhattan’s publishing trade from the end of the Revolution to the age of Jackson. Named the 2012 Malkin New Scholar by the Bibliographical Society of America, he is formerly the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Early American Literature & Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies. He has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the New York Public Library, the New York State Archives, the New York State Library, and the New York Historical Association, and he has published in Journal of the Early Republic and Literature in the Early American Republic, among many other places. Prof. Smith received his Ph.D. in History from Mizzou, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Providence College.