Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made history this year as the first Mormon running for president on the ticket of a major political party. Gov. Romney, however, is not the first Mormon to ever run for our country’s highest office. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, ran for president as an independent candidate in 1844, in a race that was eventually won by Democrat James Polk over Henry Clay of the Whig Party. (Smith himself was assassinated by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois five months prior to the election.)
Although they share a devotion to their faith, Gov. Romney and Smith do not have much more than that in common. Most notable is their diametrically opposed views regarding the role of the federal government in society and in people’s lives.
The gap between Gov. Romney’s stance on the federal government and that of his religion’s founder is quite large: Gov. Romney believes that the federal government encourages dependency, is too big, and is less trustworthy than the free market—according to many, such conservative views seem consistent with his Mormon faith. But Joseph Smith held a much more positive view of the federal government. He believed it should protect individual liberty, strengthen the economy, promote justice and equality, and provide for all Americans.
We look first at Gov. Romney’s position before comparing that stance with Joseph Smith’s.
Gov. Romney’s distrust of the federal government
In a speech after winning the Wisconsin primary this past April, Gov. Romney said, “Free enterprise has done more to lift people out of poverty, to help build a strong middle class, to help educate our kids, and to make our lives better than all the programs of government combined.” Gov. Romney criticized President Barack Obama’s so-called government-centered society and was dismissive of community organizers such as President Obama, who turn to the government for help solving problems in their communities.
In addition to claiming that government programs stand in the way of economic opportunity, Gov. Romney says the government infringes on individual liberty by “thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams.” Based on these views, Gov. Romney wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—also known as Obamacare—and drastically cut government programs such as nutrition assistance and family planning. He believes that free enterprise combined with private charity will provide Americans with the services they need.
Gov. Romney’s distrust of government can clearly be seen in a video unearthed last month by Mother Jones, in which he told donors in a private meeting that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims and that the government has “a responsibility to take care of them.” Gov. Romney went on to say that these 47 percent think they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
When questioned about his comments, Gov. Romney said, “The president believes in what I’ve described as a government-centered society where government plays a larger and larger role, provides for more and more of the needs of individuals, and I happen to believe instead in a free enterprise, free individual society where people pursuing their dreams are able to employ one another, build enterprises, build the strongest economy in the world.”
This encapsulates Gov. Romney’s belief that a strong federal government harms both individual liberty and economic opportunity. While he has since apologized for these remarks, they are in fact consistent with his belief that government programs should be cut and that the people who deserve admiration and respect are those who do not rely on government assistance.
These views, however, make for a stark contrast with those of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith’s belief in a strong federal government
Joseph Smith believed that a robust federal government was necessary for economic stability, national security, and individual liberty. In his campaign platform, Smith emphasized the role that government could play in helping improve people’s lives. He advocated expanding and strengthening the federal government in three ways:
- Economically through rechartering the national bank
- Geopolitically through the annexation of Texas
- Morally through the protection of civil liberties and the abolition of slavery
Smith was the only candidate running for president in 1844 who supported both a national bank and the annexation of Texas, two measures that would have strengthened the federal government. Smith’s support for a national bank is particularly striking because in the 19th century this represented the ultimate example of a powerful federal government. The charter for the previous national bank had expired in 1836 after a heated political battle. Smith argued that a national bank would provide economic stability and promote “more equality throughout the cities, towns, and country, [which] would make less distinction among the people.
As for Smith’s position on Texas, he favored annexation in order for the United States to gain geopolitical power over the British, who were trying to increase their presence in North America. Expanding the country fit in with Smith’s belief that America’s God-given destiny was to “let the union spread from the east to the west sea.”
Smith also advocated radically reforming state prisons so that convicts, instead of being incarcerated or executed, would complete public works projects such as building roads. He wanted the federal government to have the power to send in troops to put down state mobs, a position he arrived at because of the mob violence Mormons had experienced in Missouri in 1838.
Experiences with mob violence further formed Smith’s understanding of the role the federal government should play in protecting its citizens. In 1839 Smith travelled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Martin Van Buren and members of Congress and ask for protection for Mormons. Similar to abolitionists in the 1850s and civil rights activists a full century later, Joseph Smith saw the federal government as essential to protecting the liberty and safety of its citizens from harm inflicted at the state level.
Smith’s campaign platform and his own petition to President Van Buren reveal a man who believed the federal government had a key role in protecting individual liberty. This philosophy was motivated in part by Smith’s religious beliefs, which held that the Constitution was a divinely inspired sacred text and that America’s government had divine power. The Doctrine and Covenants—an important religious text that Mormons believe was revealed to Joseph Smith by God—recounts God “establish[ing] the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men,” whom God protected in order to create the United States. Smith believed there was a difference between the federal Constitution, which was divinely inspired, and the laws of individual states, which were created by men without God’s influence and were therefore prone to error.
Joseph Smith’s opposition to slavery
One of the most interesting manifestations of Smith’s progovernment ideology was his staunch opposition to slavery. The Mormon Church has had a complicated history with race relations, largely due to a policy existing from 1849 until 1978 that barred African Americans from being ordained to the Mormon priesthood. But in the 1844 campaign, Smith spoke out against slavery more vehemently than either of his two opponents.
Smith supported a plan that would have led to the abolition of slavery by 1850. In the decades before the Civil War, most politicians were too concerned with winning elections to oppose slavery and avoided taking a firm stand on such a politically contentious issue. But Smith proposed to end slavery by selling federal land and using the money to fund antislavery efforts.
Smith’s deep opposition to slavery and the racial hierarchy it created led him to criticize the United States for violating the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by holding “two or three millions of people … as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” He advised slaveholders who joined the Mormon Church to move to a free state, set their slaves free, and “educate them and give them equal rights.”
While Joseph Smith understood that the federal government has a part to play in protecting the human rights and dignity of all Americans, Gov. Romney disagrees. In issues ranging from immigration to health care to marriage equality, Gov. Romney does not follow the progressive lead set by his religion’s founder. He has opposed the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented youth with a path to U.S. citizenship if they complete a college degree or serve in the military; he wants states to be responsible for providing health care; and he supports a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Unlike Joseph Smith, who proposed federal legislation that would help correct a shameful inequality in America, Gov. Romney has consistently opposed legislation that would correct contemporary inequalities and injustices.
Furthermore, Smith’s willingness to speak out on issues of race stands in contrast to Gov. Romney’s silence regarding the racial history of his church. Smith shows that the Mormon Church’s early history is not shameful when it comes to racial issues—and that it could provide Gov. Romney an educational opportunity to discuss issues of race, religion, and America.
During a campaign speech in 1844, one of Joseph Smith’s closest friends said, “He is not a Northern man with Southern principles, not a Southern man with Northern principles … He is an Independent man with American principles, and he has both knowledge and disposition to govern for the benefit and protection of ALL.”
Smith’s forceful belief that the federal government exists to protect, defend, and provide for all Americans stands in stark contrast to Gov. Romney’s view of the government as unwieldy, ineffective, and even dangerous. One wonders what Smith, the first Mormon to run for president more than 150 years ago, would say about his current successor.
Eliza Blanchard is an Intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.