American Democracy Nearly Failed in its Early Decades. It’s Important to Remember Why.

By Benjamin E. Park | August 24, 2021

The ruins of the Mormon Temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, are depicted in a nineteenth-century print. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

After detailing how he was called a racial expletive and physically assaulted while defending the U.S. Capitol on January 6, police officer Harry Dunn asked a poignant question: “Is this America?”

The congressional committee that heard his remarks in person, and the general public who listened to them at home, likely wished they could answer the question in the negative. But the grisly details of how Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the nation’s governing halls and threatened elected officials demonstrated that they could no longer merely dismiss the notion that violence was rooted inside their democratic culture.

Americans in the twenty-first century pride themselves on living in a country that prioritizes democratic ideals over physical coercion. These myths go back all the way to the nation’s founding. The American Revolution, traditional narratives dictate, was centered on ideas of equality; the French Revolution, by contrast, was supposedly tethered to violence. Democracy was meant to initiate a society free from tyranny, a political order that allowed all diverging groups to be represented.

Yet history reveals a much more complicated story. Democracy did not eliminate ideological differences but heightened them; religious freedom did not decrease spiritual competition but amplified it. Nor did the new governing system assure personal conscience, as was expected. Instead, those in the majority were able to introduce an establishment-by-proxy, enabling them to coerce those who challenged accepted order, either through words or force. Alexis de Tocqueville captured this dynamic, which he called the “tyranny of the majority.”

Democratic rule is taken for granted today, but it was originally instituted as an experiment. And within a few generations of the nation’s creation, there was evidence the experiment was failing. For many in early America, “the voice” of the people was often more terrifying than it was reassuring.

Understanding how the system of democracy nearly failed in its early decades helps us better appreciate its eventual success, even if its lasting legacies remain contested. And there were few places where the democratic system came closer to collapsing into violence than the boom-and-bust city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s.

Only a decade after he founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons, Joseph Smith and his thousands of followers had already been forced to evacuate settlements in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Missouri. The latter removal was due to a state-sanctioned mob and a governor who declared the Mormons nuisances who must either be exterminated or driven from the state. In each of these conflicts, “the voice” of the people had determined the Mormons didn’t belong.

The residents of Illinois, only two decades removed from achieving statehood, were at first anxious to welcome the beleaguered sect. They believed they could model a type of inclusive democracy in which even the heretical Mormons could find a place.

Yet just as Nauvoo’s size quickly swelled—at its height, it boasted at least 12,000 residents, larger than any other city in the state, including Chicago—so too did its controversies. Joseph Smith and his followers, due to a decade’s worth of experiences, did not trust existing systems and traditions, and therefore tried to pave their own path. Pure democracy, they believed, had only resulted in violence and oppression, and they were ready to find a new route.

Mormons quickly learned that the best way to capitalize on their numbers was to pool their votes behind a single candidate. They invited aspiring politicians to pledge their support to the fledgling faith, and in return would promise thousands of votes that assuredly would determine contested races. (Politicians, trying to navigate a political context in which both parties were nearly evenly divided, readily took them up on the offer.) Nauvoo’s municipal court, tired of witnessing hostile authorities outside the faith determine their future, passed laws that strengthened local control over its residents. And the city council, anxious to defend their rights at all costs, raised a military legion that boasted several thousand armed men.

The Mormons were determined not to be removed again without a fight.

While those inside Nauvoo viewed these measures as necessary to preserve their liberties, many outside saw them as direct threats to the democratic system itself. Bloc voting at the direction of an ecclesiastical leader seemed to subvert America’s commitment to the individual conscience; local judicial supremacy corrupted the rule of law; and religiously controlled militias endangered domestic peace.

And when rumors swirled that Joseph Smith introduced another controversial practice, the doctrine of one man being married to multiple women, aghast observers worried the entire city was becoming a cesspool of debauchery. Something had to be done, even if outside proper channels.

The saints struck first. Publicly, Joseph Smith declared himself a candidate for the American presidency as a last-ditch effort to save the republic; privately, he was appointed prophet, priest, and king over a secretive theocratic council that participants believed would overturn all governments and take over the world. The voice of the people was to be replaced by the voice of God, filtered through priesthood leaders.

Then, when a group of dissenters threatened to expose all of Nauvoo’s political and polygamous secrets, Smith ordered their printing press destroyed and then declared martial law.

State authorities, worried the crisis could spin out of control, stepped in and arrested the Mormon prophet and held him in the county jail.

But that was not enough for Smith’s opponents. They, too, no longer trusted the democratic system, as it turned out to be too slow and encumbered to bring swift justice. Instead, they formed a mob, marched on the jail, and killed Mormonism’s founder in cold blood. But they refused to fit the stereotype of an unruly mob. Calling themselves a “Committee of Safety,” a name drawn from the extralegal activities during the revolutionary era, they drafted a manifesto defending their actions as ethically justified and politically necessary. Murdering Joseph Smith was necessary to preserve social order. This reasoning was then reaffirmed the next year when the ringleaders were found not guilty on the basis that they should not be punished for fulfilling the popular will.

The conflict between Nauvoo and its neighbors did not end there. The next 18 months were filled with escalating violence, as both sides no longer relied on state and federal authorities to protect their safety. Vigilante militias roamed the county, attacking outlying settlements. Some feared they were on the verge of a civil war. Finally, the state formed a commission, chaired by aspiring senator Stephen A. Douglass, to study the crisis and determine a solution. Their conclusion: The Mormons had to leave the state entirely. “The voice” of the people had dictated that the Latter-day Saints no longer belonged in the United States.

Six months later, around 15,000 citizens then marched westward into what was then Mexican territory, leaving behind a nation they believed was both unwilling and unable to preserve their rights. Though their new settlement was soon found within American boundaries due to the end of the U.S.-Mexico War, and decades later admitted as the state of Utah, the Mormons initially envisioned a theocratic empire found on the outside of the United States, a check against America’s manifest destiny.

Nor was the Nauvoo crisis the only violent episode that challenged Illinois’s democratic order. The previous decade featured the Black Hawk War, where the state forcibly removed Sauk, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos peoples. The next decade brought the Civil War, as the inability to solve the question of slavery resulted in death on a scale the nation has not seen before or since. That Abraham Lincoln participated both conflicts—he presided over a company in the former, and the entire union in the latter—may give context for how he became one of America’s most poignant democratic theorists.

Optimistic narratives of American history have successfully papered over these violent episodes in an effort to celebrate the triumph of equality, religious liberty, and democracy. But the reality is that majoritarian voices have often outshouted and, at times, physically punished those on the margins. Following the Civil War, vigilante groups in the South, notably the Ku Klux Klan, enforced white supremacy among the new emancipated populations through intimidation and violence, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century. What made Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent form of resistance so powerful was that it confronted centuries of the opposite.

The January 6, 2021, insurrection was not so much an exception to America’s long democratic tradition as it was a continuation. To assume that our political order has always allowed the peaceful transfer of power and harmonious assimilation of divergent interests is to erase much of the nation’s history. The concept of democracy might be taken for granted today, but it was an open question for many who have found themselves on the outside of the mainstream. And for both the Mormons who built Nauvoo, as well as the neighbors who made them evacuate it, democracy teetered on its last legs, an experiment gone awry.

To fully understand America’s democratic tradition, then, including how we got to this moment of yet another political crisis, we must not only highlight its defenders, but also its discontents.

Benjamin E. Park teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University. His book Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier, which won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association, was just released in paperback.

© 2011 Religion & Politics