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When Joseph Smith Ran for President


We know that Mitt Romney is running for President, but he's by no means the first Mormon to do so. In fact, the tradition extends all the way to 1844, when Mormon founder Joseph Smith ran. This morning at Columbia University's conference on Mormonism and American politics, historian Richard Bushman said that far from having a fully fleshed out platform, Smith ran primarily as a protest candidate.

In one sense Smith's very candidacy was ironic. He and other early Mormons believed that the end of the world was coming imminently, so why would earthly governments matter at all?

Bushman said that for Smith, it was a matter of justice. He had appealed repeatedly to state and local leaders for redress of wrongs -- the Mormons had been driven out of Missouri, losing their property, land, and sometimes even their lives -- but no state leaders were willing to help. He took his case to national leaders like Henry Clay and James Calhoun, but also to no avail. So he announced his campaign for the presidency under the name "General Joseph Smith" and disseminated his platform to members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and anyone who would listen.

Other than calling for the abolition of slavery, it wasn't a very detailed platform. Smith called for "harmony" and seemed to believe that if people were treated fairly, and their rights were respected under the law, they would all get along. “His contribution was a prophetic vision, not a blueprint for change," Bushman explained.

Learning more about Smith's candidacy reminded of the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show in the backyard!" movies. Smith's candidacy has a certain youthful exuberance tempered by obvious inexperience.  One of the questions that arose in the Q&A pointed to the inexperience part -- it's not at all clear that Smith even got on the ballot in states other than Illinois, or that he cared. His candidacy was more about drawing attention to injustice, to Mormons and to slaves, than it was a realistic fight for political power.


Photo credit: Conference poster used with permission of the Columbia University Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.

Topics: Politics, Election
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: abolitionism, columbia university conference on mormonism and american politics, columbia university institute for religion, culture, and public life, general joseph smith, joseph smith, joseph smith's campaign for the presidency 1844, nauvoo legion, nauvoo, illinois, richard bushman


  1. Dr. Bushman is being a bit disingenuous.

    At a about the same time he launched his presidential candidacy, Joseph Smith founded the Kingdom of God (a.k.a. the Council of Fifty) with the express purpose to establish a formal government structure that would, eventually, take control of the world—and had himself anointed as King of the World! Not coincidentally, campaign preparations were usually discussed within this forum and not in Church venues, and such meetings were neither few nor taken trivially.

    In 1844, Joseph Smith was the mayor of a virtual city-state within Illinois and commanded the largest militia (holding the second highest military rank) in the United States. Bloc voting had, for the previous 5 years, allowed him the balance of electoral power in state politics. He believed he spoke and acted for God on earth. Historian Klaus Hansen expressed this historical context thusly:

    “But was it unreasonable for a man who knew that he was carrying out the will of the Lord to believe that God could establish the kingdom in Nauvoo, if He wished, by causing Joseph Smith to be elected President of the United States? Viewed from hindsight, this seems a desperate alternative. But to Mormons in 1844 the situation looked somewhat different… it is much more reasonable to argue that in an effort to be able to take his cue from the Lord through the natural events of history, the Mormon prophet prepared for all eventualities with equal intensity.” (Quest for Empire, Michigan State University Press, 1967, pp. 77-78)

    As a professional historian, and especially as a biographer of Joseph Smith, Bushman must know better than he’s letting on.

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