“Almost from the beginning, in spite of Brigham Young’s determination to shake the dust of the United States from his feet and leave the mobocrats and Gentiles far behind, Mormon and Gentile were mixed in Salt Lake Valley. The wilderness to which the Saints fled betrayed them. One blow, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, put them back in the country they had fled from. Another, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, threw them squarely in the path of empire, and from that moment until the end of the century two ways of life clashed in the stronghold of the Saints.” -Wallace Stegner, 1942
On July 24, 1849, Mormons in Salt Lake City declared their independence on the two-year anniversary of the city’s founding. On that morning, the Saints celebrated with cannon fire and hymns. Women held banners reading “Hail to the Chieftain” as church president Brigham Young marched into the city. In addition to reciting the Declaration of Independence, Young raised a blue and white sixty-four-foot-long flag his wives had hastily crafted to inaugurate their new, independent state, which they called Deseret, meaning “honeybee” according to the Book of Mormon.
The short-lived State of Deseret encompassed modern-day Utah and Nevada, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California, reaching to the coast so Deseret could have a seaport. But Brigham Young was not the only colonist in the newly annexed southwest territories.
Decades earlier, the military explorer Zebulon Pike lauded the region in northern Mexico for its abundance of resources, and his portrayal lasted in settler imagination. In the 1820s and 1830s, US settlers encroached upon northern Mexico, partly to expand Southern plantation economies into the west, despite the fact that the 1821 Mexican Constitution outlawed slavery. In 1836, a militant alliance of pro-slavery settlers established a rogue republic in northern Mexico, accomplishing what Aaron Burr had been accused of planning to do decades earlier. In 1837, the US formally recognized this Republic of Texas, and in 1846 decided to annex northern Mexico altogether, initiating the Mexican-American War.
Meanwhile, the 1848 Gold Rush motivated settler expansion even further west, but unlike in Texas, California’s territorial leaders opposed slavery, excluding it in their 1849 State Constitution. The US frontier was an ideological wilderness more than a literal one. In Congress, the decision to grant statehood to territories was almost entirely about the expansion of slavery, so the desert between Texas and California could tip the region’s political balance.
It was into this desert that Brigham Young led the Latter-Day Saints, fleeing the Midwest following the 1844 assassination of the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith. Under Young, the early Mormons colonized the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, which for them became an American Zion that, unlike Texas and California, the US did not move to recognize.
Deseret fused state and religion by absorbing the latter into the former. Dale Morgan argues that the Mormons “elaborated their ecclesiastical machinery into a political government; Brigham Young, president of the church, was governor; Herbert C. Kimball, first counselor, was chief justice of the Supreme Court” (34), such that political offices were filled exclusively by church leaders. Morgan makes careful note of how Deseret differed from other territorial governments. In Deseret, “except for the governor. . . no provision was made for remunerating officeholders. Officials served at their own expense” (34). In one moment, Young established a state in which he was simultaneously governor, church president, and the only public official who would be paid.
As such, Young was in a position to explain to his congregants on Sunday what was best for them, then on Monday wait for officeholders to draft laws reflecting what he suggested was best for them the previous day. Furthermore, the constitution was not democratically decided upon. Before the July 24 celebration, “Mormon leaders quickly wrote a state constitution [and] fabricated the results of a constitutional convention purportedly held the previous March” (Turner 197). The makeshift Constitution was dictated to, rather than ratified by, those who would celebrate it.
The State of Deseret became an apparatus of LDS leadership, rather than a separate entity. If the Saints acted as an ideologically interested party, then Deseret foreshadowed the party-state alliances that shaped so many twentieth century totalitarian governments.
The Church’s control was indeed far-reaching. In Deseret, land “might be privately held, but water and timber were held in common and allocated by church authorities. The church leadership ordained the founding of towns and farms” (Limerick 283). Deseret’s leadership rapidly and efficiently compartmentalized both land and people, creating something similar to the monarchical commonwealth that Thomas Hobbes describes in his political treatise Leviathan, in which citizens willingly rescind their rights to a single ruler with absolute authority over them for their own collective protection.
Or, at least, it was almost this way. Wallace Stegner suggests that Deseret’s Constitution was actually an appeal to bypass statehood procedures. Young did not want to be part of the US; he even stated that he was “prophet enough to prophesy the downfall of the Government” that had driven him out. The hastily drafted Constitution was a territorial performance for the federal government in the hopes that they would leave Deseret out of its debates over statehood and slavery. However, Deseret had always been engaged in this debate.
After Deseret disbanded, Young delivered a fiery speech in 1852 defending slavery not for economic reasons (plantations could not thrive in the desert), but to separate people on the basis of race. Mormons believed that Africans were the descendants of Cain, and had been cursed by God to a life of servitude. Race is foregrounded in Mormon doctrine. Believing they are God’s chosen people, early Mormons “imagined a chosen identity for themselves” linked directly to ancient Israel (Reeve 38-39). This doctrine of “believing blood” led Mormons to identify with a religious heritage, such that by 1860, “Brigham Young most fully enunciated an Anglo-Saxon-Israelite identity for the Saints” (Reeve 40). Had Deseret lasted, it would definitely have become a slave state for exclusively religious reasons, tipping the balance against the nation’s abolitionists.
Had Deseret lasted.
In the Compromise of 1850, California became a free state, Texas lost territorial New Mexico, and Deseret was shrunk to the Utah Territory. Brigham Young remained governor until 1858, when Utah almost started a civil war and he stepped down as another compromise. During the actual Civil War two years later, Young briefly recommenced the State of Deseret, believing the Union would dissolve in a divine apocalypse. Although this did not happen, the rigidity of Deseret’s laws, its fusion of state and religion, had a lasting influence over the west.
And yet, Brigham Young believed that he was destined by God to spread his family westward to the coast, ordered the extermination of Native Americans in the land he claimed, and built cities in the arid desert. He was the embodiment of Manifest Destiny, more than Texan ranchers or California’s gold miners, and as such, he demonstrated for the Union the violence inherent in westward expansion, the apocalyptic frenzy of its only logical conclusion. Maybe that’s why Utah was not granted statehood until nineteen years after Young’s death.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penguin Books, 1976.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.
Morgan, J. Dale. The State of Deseret. Utah State University Press, 1987.
Reeve., W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Stegner, Wallace. Mormon Country. Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1942.
Turner, John G. Brigham Young. Harvard University Press, 2012.