A bizarre political moment in Utah's long trek towards statehood exposes the tension between politics and religion in the Deseret.
In 1872, delegates met at the Salt Lake City Hall to create a new state called Deseret out of the old Utah Territory. The fourth attempt in a string of failed constitutional conventions going all the way back to 1849, this latest meeting was organized by the territorial legislature over a veto by Governor George Woods. No doubt some Mormon legislators took pleasure in countermanding Woods, a Missourian who brazenly opposed the practice of polygamy. But, as it turns out, the governor’s opposition to the convention seems to have had the weight of law on it side.
Since their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, members of the LDS Church had dominated many of the territory’s elected offices, while the governors and judges appointed by Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson and Grant tended to be non-Mormons. This divide created plenty of political tension. To LDS leaders, statehood seemed like the only way keep the region they had settled from being controlled by Gentile outsiders. It’s no wonder then, that the list of representatives to the 1872 convention reads like a “Who’s Who” of the territory’s most influential Mormons. LDS apostle Lorenzo Snow was voted the convention’s president, while several of his colleagues in the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, including Orson Pratt, George Q, Cannon, and Charles C. Rich, served as delegates.
Was their plan legitimate? Governor Woods said no. In a letter printed in the Deseret News, the governor made it clear that only Congress, not territories, could legally make states, and then only through an enabling act. Undaunted, the legislature went ahead with their plan, sending representatives to Washington to ask Congress for statehood. But their petition was rejected. The people of Utah would have to wait another 24 years to have their state.
Image: The Deseret Stone, The Deseret Stone used in the construction of the Washington Monument. The stone was donated by the territory in 1853 to represent the provincial state. Courtesy of National Park Service.
See news reports about the convention in the following editions of the Deseret News: January 31, 1872; February 7, 1872; February 14, 1872; and February 21, 1872. Also see David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998), 292-294.