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Almon Babbitt and Early Utah Politics: A Portfolio of Documents

Transcribed and annotated by Bruce Worthen

deseretThis web supplement is divided into three parts. The first section contains transcripts of letters, minutes of meetings, and official documents from 1849 to 1852 regarding political matters in early Utah. In the second section are pictures and short biographies of some of the Dramatis Personæ in the political drama surrounding Brigham Young’s provocative statements about President Zachary Taylor. Finally, political cartoons from 1848 illustrate the background in which Almon Babbitt and John Bernhisel operated.

 

Transcripts

Statement of Robert Campbell, October 19, 1849

This statement shows how far Almon Babbitt was willing to go to make himself indispensable to the Mormons. Robert Campbell, who was a secretary working in Brigham Young’s office, travelled with Babbitt to Washington and heard him state that no legislation for the Mormons could pass the Congress without his consent and signature.

19 Oct. 1849

Statement of Robert Campbell

I Robert Campbell do most solemnly swear and affirm in the Presence of God and Angels that I heard A. W. Babbitt say that no memorial pertaining to this interest of this people, Alias Mormons could pass the Congress of the U. S. without his consent, for this reason that Stephan A. Douglas[,] Augustus C. Dodge and others had sworn or pledged their Sacred Honor to him that they would use all of their influence against any measure that should come before them in Congress pertaining to the people called “Latter day Saints[”] unless it should come up with his consent [and] advise them of the same in writing bearing his signature or approval. And further that President Young knew that he could not get along without him in relation to Governmental affairs hence his appointment to return to Washington City as our Representative.

Source: “Statement by Robert Campbell,” October 19, 1849, box 74, fd. 1, Brigham Young Office Files, CR 1234/1, LDS Church History Department, Salt Lake City, Utah.

**

John Bernhisel to Thomas Kane, January 17, 1850

In this letter, Bernhisel told Kane about Babbitt’s visit to President Zachary Taylor. According to Bernhisel, Babbitt was only interested in “drawing party lines” and “making political capital.” Taylor had avoided explosives issues like slavery during the campaign by saying he would leave domestic issues to Congress. His desire to suspend consideration of a government for the Great Basin in light of William Smith’s letter, which was deeply critical of Brigham Young and the Utah-based Mormons, would hand the Democrats a weapon to contradict Taylor’s “hands off” policy toward domestic issues. Apparently Babbitt is only concerned with doing a favor for the Democratic Party and not with how Taylor may wish to hurt the Mormons.

January 17, 1850

Dear Sir:

Business is progressing very slowly in Congress, and the probability is that our application will not be disposed of until July or August though there is scarcely a ray of hope of our being admitted as a State, the prospect of obtaining a territorial government is far from being discouraging; and an influential Senator ([Truman] Smith) has given me encouragement to hope that we may be authorized to elect our own officers.

When I had the pleasure of seeing you in Philadelphia you expressed a want of confidence in the wisdom, prudence and discretion of Babbitt to manage the business at hand. I will relate an instance. A report has been in circulation to a limited extent that the President had, among other things, remarked that he would veto any bill which may be passed for the benefit of the Mormons; and I have reason to believe that it is not without some foundation in truth. On Friday Babbitt called at my room, and stated that Mr. Fritz Warren was to present him to the President at 12 o’clock, that he designed to inquire of him whether he had used the language attributed to him, and that if he had, we might as well abandon our application for a government.  I enjoined him not to say a word to the President on the subject. On Saturday evening I happened to meet him again, when he informed me that he and Warren had spoken to the President in relation to the report. After a little reflection I was so deeply impressed with the impropriety of his course that I called at his room after he had retired, and entreated him to be silent on this subject, and again in the Capitol on Monday morning, and remarked that if he were not, he would entirely blast our prospects here, assuring him at the same time, that there would be no difficulty in that quarter.  That there will be no difficulty in that quarter I believe on what I regard as excellent authority. Babbitt spoke of drawing party lines, making political capital &c. He however promised to drop this matter, and has desired Warren to do so too. The latest intelligence from Deseret is quite cheering; the crops are abundant, coal and iron have been discovered, health of the people good &c. Senator Smith informed me the other evening, that he had just received a letter from his friend Gen. [John] Wilson who had spent some time in the valley, enroute for California, that he spoke in the most flattering terms of our people, that he had really used strong language.  He also observed that he had written to the President, enclosing Gen. Wilson’s letter, and when he returned it, he would publish it, with some remarks of his own.  I shall send you a copy.  Please to consider what I have said in relation to Babbitt, Warren and the President as confidential.

Col Thomas L. Kane                                       Truly & Respectfully Yours,

John M. Bernhisel

Source: John Bernhisel to Thomas Kane, January 17, 1850, box 16, fd. 4, series 3, Thomas L. Kane and Elizabeth W. Kane Collection, VMSS 792, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

**

Almon Babbitt to Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1850

The day after his confrontation with Bernhisel over meeting with the president, Babbitt wrote an angry letter to Wilford Woodruff, trying to reestablish himself as an indispensable representative to Congress for the Mormons. He claimed to have information that Taylor and his administration “are anything but friendly to our interests,” and to have powerful friends in Washington who can help, but provided no further details.

Washington Jan 16th, 1850

Dear Sir:

I occasionally see Dr. Bernhisel who informs me that he is in correspondence with you and he is desired to make your respects to me for so much of your good opinion. I am very thankful, but I must & will be plain with you & all my friends, I do think there has been a wanton neglect of communicating with me and to me from time to time.  It was expected that Mr. [Orson] Hyde would accompany me to Washington & that he through his influence would Raise money for O[liver]. Cowdery to accompany me also who I am sure I could have used to advantage here. Such was his instruction from the valley. But I must say instead of these [duties?] I have not so much as Received a letter from him or anyone having influence in the church. There may be a cause for all this which I will not be [illegible]. I have received letters from various individuals informing me of various Items of news from the valley yet have Received nothing from the leading men. All may be Right. But I cannot help my doubts, they are forced upon me. My situation here is anything but a disirable one. To meet such charges as strong William Smith & others are bringing to bear in the Sennate & House of Reps, & Elsewhere is any thing But pleasant. If during the contest that I have here with men in high places I could from time to time Receive the Condolence of friends, it would cause some of the burdens to Rest more easy. But what time does not unfold to me Eternity will so I will trust in him in whose cause I am Engaged.

Congress is yet unorganized. It therefore [is] almost unsafe to give an opinion what they will do in Relation to our Interest, yet I hazard nothing in saying that the Executive & his Cabinet are any thing but friendly to our Interests. I know this from a personal interview with the President & speak advisedly; I have very strong friends here who will stand by me untill our Interests are obtained.

I will not Enter into a detail as to what is transpiring for you no doubt get the changes in the papers & what is wanting the Dr. no doubt suplys [supplies]. But be assured wither I have the aid & comfort of my friends or not, nothing shall be wanting on my part to promote the general welfare of our common cause,

and be assured of my Esteem

and friendship

A. W. Babbitt

Woodruff

Bridgeport

Mass.

Source: Almon Babbitt to Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1850, box 6, fd. 18, Wilford Woodruff Papers, MS 1352, CHL.

**

Almon Babbitt to Wilford Woodruff, January 26, 1850

Babbitt penned a more diplomatic letter ten days later suggesting that his outburst was a misunderstanding. Still worried about being replaced, he made several attempts to discredit Bernhisel. He also continued to disparage Zachary Taylor’s delay in creating a government for the Great Basin.

Washington Jan 26th 1850

Dear Sir

Yours of the 21[st] Inst. was duly Received & in Reply I think that some apology is due from me to you for the spirit of my last communication. The circumstances under which I wrote were these.  I am considered here an out side Mormon by the Members of Congress and cannot therefore say much as to the faith of the Mormon Church.  I only represent their political organization. When the attacks were made on our operations here by William Smith and others I felt then the want of the operations which was assigned to friend Hyde & yourself. About the time that I wrote you Old Zach [Taylor] delivered his special message to Congress in which he Recommended the depriving of any government to our people. I was out of Patience and felt like charging someone with neglect, you being the nearest of course was the first in my mind. Again Dr. Bernhisel frequently told me that he was Receiving letters from you & the day you wrote me he told me that he had just Received a Letter from Orson Hyde but at no time told me one word in his letters. I came to the conclusion that the Dr. was the confidential agent here & that I was only used for purposes to suit the occasion; there is no misunderstanding between the Dr. & myself yet he is a man so differently constituted from myself, keeps himself so secluded & is so secretive that he would create suspission [suspicion] in the mind of an angel. However the very day that I Received your letter friend [Joseph L.] Heywood arrived here & brought me a large number of communication[s] also from the north the south the east & the west the mail brought me communications untill I cried Enough. Friend Heywood will Remain with me untill Mr. [Edwin D.] Woolley arrives. He will then come on to Boston. Wooley is in Ohio at his Brothers.

Things in Congress also Look some what more favorable than they did when I last wrote you. The special message is not favorable. Bernhisel and I think his plans will be defeated. The [w]hole South, the Free Soil Whigs & the Democrats are opposed to his plans. Friend Heywood will be able to give you my plans & feelings in full when you see him.

You will please excuse my last hasty Letter to you & be assured of my high Esteem & friendship.

My Respect to your good Lady

and as ever I Remain your

obedient servant

A. W. Babbitt

 

Wilford Woodruff Esq.

Cambridgeport

Mass.

Source: Almon Babbitt to Wilford Woodruff, January 26, 1850, box 6, fd. 18, Woodruff Papers.

**

John Bernhisel to Brigham Young, March 21, 1850

According to this extract from a fifty-page letter, Senator Truman Smith reportedly assured Bernhisel that Zachary Taylor would not interfere with the creation of a government for the Mormons but that the matter “is entirely in the breast of Congress.” Babbitt learned about this letter and its content and felt it threatened his position as the indispensable representative of the Mormons.

 

Washington City March 21, 1850

President Brigham Young,

Dear Brother

[Bernhisel provides a detailed report of his activities since leaving Salt Lake City. In the middle of this lengthy letter he gives an account of meeting with Zachary Taylor.]

On the 21st of December I was presented to the President by the Hon. Truman Smith of the United States Senate having previously sent in my letter of introduction from Ex-Governor Young of New York. The president is rough enough, though he does not appear to be very ready; he is an exceedingly plain man in the fullest sense of the term, in person and in intellect; but he enjoys what in my estimation is far better the reputation of being a man of strict honesty and sterling integrity. He is a mere military man, and appears to be entirely out of his element; he made a few inquiries relative to the Valley. Having stated to him the object of my visit to Washington, he said “that is entirely in the breast of Congress.” Since my first interview with him, he has been somewhat prejudice against us by the slanderous reports in circulation, but that there will be no difficulty in that quarter, I believe upon what I regard so excellent authority.

[Bernhisel continues with over thirty more pages of detail on his activities in Washington and then closes:]

With Sentiments of Great respect,

I am yours fraternally,

John M. Bernhisel

Source: John Bernhisel to Brigham Young, March 21, 1850, box 60, fd. 9, Brigham Young Office Files.

**

Almon Babbitt to Brigham Young, July 7, 1850

Almon Babbitt, clearly worried about Dr. Bernhisel’s rising influence, tried to demonstrate to Young that he had political influence and inside knowledge that Bernhisel lacked. Babbitt made the incendiary charge that Taylor had confided to him that he considered the Mormons to be a “pack of outlaws” and deserved the violent persecution they received in Illinois and Missouri. Nothing could have angered Brigham Young more. The fact that Zachary Taylor died two days after the date of this letter was a sign to Young of divine retribution.

House of Rep Washington D. C. July 7th, 1850

Dear Sir:

My last letter was sent by the hands of my old friend Snyder which you have no doubt received before this time by him. I send a file of the Congressional Globe and also this report which will give you an insight to matters & things in the center & soul of our republic. My friend Dr. Bernhisel I understand, sent you a letter of some 50 pages although he said nothing to me about it or any other matter. Yet I deduce from the fact of [the] length, that the communication sent by him privately must have been in detail. I will not at this time undertake any discussion for fear that we have not seen & perceived things alike. I will write this letter & send on a file of the Globe which will give you the official information up to this time.

From a close reading of these you will find that we are in glorious conversations & it is in my mind exceeding doubtful whether the 32 congress even meets; you will learn from the President’s messages that he is not our friend this I know for myself beyond a doubt he did say before 20 members of congress that he should veto any bill passed, state or territorial, for the Mormons. That they were a pack of outlaws & had been driven out of 2 states & were not fit for self-government. I went to him in person with Col Warren & charged those sayings upon him & he owned that he had so said & tried to reason with me on the absurdity of the Mormons trying for a government. . . .

Source: Almon Babbitt to Brigham Young, July 7, 1850, box 21, fd. 18, Brigham Young Office Files.

**

Thomas L. Kane to Brigham Young, September 24, 1850

Thomas Kane sent this confidential letter to Brigham Young about Babbitt’s conduct in Washington. Young followed Kane’s advice and chose Bernhisel instead of Babbitt as the delegate of the territory of Utah to Congress. Nonetheless, Young gave credence to Babbitt’s statements that Taylor opposed the Mormons and called them a “pack of outlaws” because the president had died unexpectedly.

Private

Philadelphia, September 24, 1850.

My friends,

[After discussing some other matters of business, Kane says:]

I have just returned from Washington, when I was called immediately after my return from Newport, to use my influence with Mr. Fillmore in favor of the nominations for Utah. Dr. Bernhisel promised me to give you the details of this as well as your other affairs of the same kind, and I have only therefore to give weight to his statements by expressing my regret that your interests should have suffered by the improper conduct of Mr. A. W. Babbitt. It was incumbent upon me before this occurrence, to advise you against again returning Mr. Babbitt as your Delegate. Until Deseret is admitted into the Union, I would not be thought exacting as to the qualifications of her representative, but he should at least be of correct deportment, discreet, and of good report, that those who point to him and say “there goes a Mormon,” may find marked approval of his religion. The Delegate, as sort of an Ambassador, is commonly taken as the specimen man of his constituency; if he cannot do good, if he is either ashamed of his religion or a shame to it, he can do much harm. In politics too, if he cannot pursue a wise neutrality, (which at least during the present strange confusion of party lines I strongly counsel) he should in all events be a man whose instincts will teach him to be trusty supporter of his single party and nice in his choice of the associates that belong to it. Otherwise, he will have personal influence with neither party, and gain not strength but only dependency from the relations he cultivates. A particular reason for the detention of Mr. Babbitt you will find in the fact that his conduct has lost for him the confidence of both parties. The Democrats joined with the Whigs in the personal disrespect which was shown him in the House.

Source: Thomas L. Kane to Brigham Young, September 24, 1850, box 11, fd. 4, series 9, Leonard Arrington Collection, LJAHA COL 1, Special Collections and Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University.

**

Almon Babbitt to Brigham Young, December 16, 1852

Babbitt returned to Washington where he attempted to get a political appointment for himself. He made a clumsy attempt again to discredit Bernhisel and suggest himself as a replacement. His statement that it is better to have a Delegate “who is drunk half the time” but does something worthwhile when he is sober is particularly telling. Babbitt did not get Bernhisel’s job, but he later received an appointment to be Secretary of Utah Territory where he made life miserable for Brigham Young.

Philadelphia December 16, 1852

Dear Sir:

[After some preliminary news about the incoming administration of Franklin Pierce, Babbitt says:]

My position has been such during the presidential campaign that I may hold some small influence within the incoming administration. I would therefore desire to know if there is anything touching the Territory of Utah that I can serve you or the people in.

I had an interview with Douglas a few days since he expressed a wish to aide in any measure that would promote the interests of the citizens of the Territory of Utah. He also expresses astonishment that the present Delegate has laid no matter of interest before Congress touching Utah & said that although he was chairman of the committee on territories that the Delegate never called upon him to assist in any matter on things touching Utah. I will be at Washington during most of the winter & may be in your country during next season. The latter depends on circumstances.

I would however suggest that the selection of your next delegate to Congress be one that has nerve enough to present the positions & wishes of his constituency and rise in his place and defend the rights of the people who sent him. Even if he was drunk half the time let him do something when he is sober.

[Babbitt goes on for several more paragraphs in a similar fashion before closing.]

Source: Almon Babbitt to Brigham Young, December 16, 1852, box 22, fd. 12, Brigham Young Office Files.

***

Biographies

Truman Smith

02_Truman-Smith-LOC

Truman Smith was effectively the national chair of the Whig Party in 1848. He had been involved in recruiting candidates for state and national offices and managed to get Zachary Taylor the nomination for president over the former Kentucky senator Henry Clay. Smith encouraged General Zachary Taylor to avoid most of the difficult questions of the day by insisting that Congress would handle domestic affairs during his presidency. The strategy worked, and Taylor won the election. He offered Smith any cabinet post he wanted, but he decided to become a senator instead. Smith had strong feelings about the Mormons and felt they had been unjustly treated. He thought highly of Bernhisel and praised him on the Senate floor. He also helped Bernhisel discredit William Smith. Most importantly, he assured Bernhisel that President Taylor would not stand in the way of plans for a government for the Great Basin—Almon Babbitt’s statements notwithstanding.

**

Stephan A. Douglas

02_Douglas_BradyPhotograph

Stephen A. Douglas was a Democrat and a powerful U.S. Senator from Illinois. His political career included being a judge in southern Illinois when the Mormons were headquartered in Nauvoo. He did many favors for Joseph Smith to earn the Mormon vote. In the process he came to know Almon Babbitt who represented Nauvoo in the Illinois legislature. He was instrumental in getting Babbitt appointed to the post of Secretary of Utah Territory. In June 1857, building to the lead up of the so-called Utah War, Douglas denounced the Mormons as traitors to the country and recommended the repeal of the territorial government of Utah.

**

Dr. John Milton Bernhisel

02_Older-Bernhisel

Bernhisel became a Mormon in New York City when he was about forty years old. He moved to Nauvoo in 1843, lived in the home of Joseph Smith, and became like a member of the family. Bernhisel was a personal advisor to Smith on political matters. He followed Brigham Young to the Great Basin in 1848. When Almon Babbitt proved to be an unreliable political representative, Young turned to Bernhisel, who served five terms as the congressional delegate for the Utah Territory. He was highly respected in the nation’s capitol and effective in bridging the differences between the Mormons and the federal government.

**

William Smith

02_William-Smith

William Smith was the youngest brother of Joseph Smith, Jr. He had frequent conflicts with Brigham Young after his brother’s death. After begin excommunicated by Young, Smith moved to Covington, Kentucky, where he started his own church. He sent a letter to Congress in December of 1849 accusing Young of treason. This alarmed Zachary Taylor and members of Congress. The combination of Bernhisel’s credibility and Smith’s erratic behavior helped to discredit Smith’s accusations. Smith’s influence came to an end when Isaac Sheen, one of his chief lieutenants, declared that Smith was not telling the truth about the Salt Lake Mormons and even suggested that he might be insane.

**

Perry Brocchus

02_Perry-Brocchus-1851

Perry Brocchus was a lawyer and newspaper editor with influence in the Democratic Party. He earned a patronage position as an associate justice for the territory of Utah because of his party loyalty. He and the other officials were shocked at the hostility that the Mormons displayed toward them. They were not aware of the anger of Brigham Young and his followers felt against the federal government for refusing to intervene in the persecution the Mormons endured in Illinois and Missouri. Brocchus and three other officials left Utah and wrote a report about their experiences, including Brigham Young’s statements about Zachary Taylor. Brocchus resigned his position, but President Pierce appointed him to a similar position in New Mexico Territory where he served as a federal judge for fourteen years.

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Political Cartoons

The John Donkey

03_TheJohn-DonkeyV1-2_donkey

The John Donkey was a satirical magazine that skewered self-important politicians who dressed the part of gentlemen but were, as the picture on the left would suggest, really jackasses. John Donkey was the mascot and chief correspondent of the publication who supposedly covered the Mexican-American War for the paper and later ran for president. John Donkey was particularly incisive about Zachary Taylor and his ability to run for the presidency on a campaign of standing for everything and nothing at the same time.

**

The Ass between Two Bundles of Hay

03_TheJohn-DonkeyV1-2

This cartoon of March 18, 1848, shows the choice facing the Whig Party. Henry Clay was well known but had run for president before. Zachary Taylor was new to politics and his appeal was that he was a celebrated military hero whose positions on the issues of the day, including slavery, were unknown. This cartoon appeared before Taylor actually won the nomination.

**

The Modern Pandora

03_TheJohn-DonkeyV1-2_Pandora

This cartoon entitled “The Modern Pandora” reflects the dilemma Zachary Taylor faced upon becoming the nominee of the Whig Party. He deftly avoided the most controversial issues including slavery with ambiguous statements and his declaration that domestic issues belonged to Congress. Once he became president, that position became more difficult to sustain.

**

The Whig Platform

03_TheJohn-DonkeyV1-2_WhigPlatform

This cartoon lampoons the Whigs who managed to avoid all the major issues of the day by being all things to all people. The Democrats were frustrated by their inability to pin any potentially unpopular position on Zachary Taylor who insisted that Congress and not the president decided the great domestic issues of the day such as slavery. Almon Babbitt mostly likely saw Taylor’s private request to Congressional leaders to suspend legislation for the Mormons as a way to show that the president was, in fact, engaged in domestic issues and to force him to talk about slavery and the Wilmot Proviso.