If Mitt Romney becomes the Republican Party presidential nominee and unseats President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, he will be the first Mormon president, but he is far from being the first serious Mormon candidate for president.
Romney’s father, the one-time Michigan governor George Romney, was briefly the front-runner for the 1968 Republican nomination that eventually went to Richard Nixon; Utah congressman Mo Udall competed for the 1976 Democratic nomination that went to Jimmy Carter; and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made a minor showing in 2000 when the Republican nomination went, of course, to George W. Bush.
In fact, to find the first Mormon candidate for president, you have to go back to the candidacy of Joseph Smith himself, the founder of the faith and husband, by some counts, to thirty different women (imagine the competition for the title of “First Lady” if he had won).
Smith, who claimed to have been visited by an angel of God who led him to the discovery of sacred gold-plated texts that became The “Book of Mormon,” ran an unorthodox campaign for president back in 1844, promoting a platform that went roughly this way: Make America a one-party state. Reduce Congress in size by two-thirds, allowing two senators per state, but just one House member per million people. Reduce Congressional salaries to two dollars plus room and board. (After all, he wrote, “that is more than the farmer gets and he lives honestly.”) Turn the jails into “seminaries of learning.” Re-establish the national bank. Make prisoners work on building roads or on any project “where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue; and become more enlightened…” Oh, and free the slaves.
Long before he decided to run for president, the Mormon prophet had established a political life. Violently expelled from Missouri where the governor had issued an executive order authorizing the “extermination” or forced removal of the Mormon community, Smith and his followers settled in the rural town of Commerce, Illinois, and renamed it Nauvoo (Hebrew for “beautiful spot”). There, despite professed admiration for the Constitution as having been “divinely inspired,” he established himself as something of a supreme ruler. Indeed, Nauvoo was more like an independent theocracy than a republic, with Smith himself serving as mayor, chief judge, and major general of a private town militia.
Smith’s inspiration for seeking the presidency was the experience in Missouri. He had resented his community’s treatment there and petitioned President Martin Van Buren to intercede on the Mormons’ behalf. Van Buren declined. But the Mormon leader did have strong opinions on national issues as well and he published them under the title, “General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.” On the hottest topic of that election year, for instance, he agreed with the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, James K. Polk, that the federal government should annex Texas, then an independent republic situated between the U.S. and Mexico.
Smith’s campaign was alternately cynical and idealistic. “We have had democratic presidents; Whig presidents; a pseudo democratic Whig president,” he proclaimed, “and now it is time to have a president of the United States.” But it was his campaign for abolition that surprised some of his followers. The Book of Mormon is not kind to the African race and not until the 1970s did the church even allow African Americans to serve as priests. Smith’s views were more generous. “[T]he Declaration of Independence ‘holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’” wrote Smith, approvingly, “but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.”
Smith would not survive the campaign. Resentment among non-Mormons living in or near Nauvoo and a schism within the Mormon leadership itself led to his assassination on June 27, 1844. The mob was responding to Smith’s decision to unleash his followers to destroy the presses of a local newspaper that had reported on the church’s practice of polygamy, which Smith had hoped to keep secret.
It was an 1878 Supreme Court decision that ultimately forced the church to abandon the practice of polygamy. In Reynolds v. United States, the justices unanimously asserted a distinction between belief and practice, between opinion and conduct, when it ruled that the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited the practice of “plural marriage” in any U.S. territory (Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in 1862), withstood the standards of the First Amendment, even though the plaintiff, George Reynolds, had argued that it was his religious “duty” as a Mormon to marry more than one woman. Following that, the Mormon Church leadership declared in 1890 that its followers should “refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land.”
By the mid-twentieth century, the Mormon faith had settled into a more traditional profile. Still, the church’s fantastic origins and racist history have dogged any Mormon looking to occupy national office, and if Gov. Romney’s popularity grows and he becomes the Republican nominee, we can expect that his Mormon roots will continue to be debated.
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.