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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Brigham Legalized Slavery?

Let's just be frank, by modern standards Brigham Young was a racist. However, essentially everyone in that time was by modern standards and there is good reason to believe he probably was less racist than Abraham Lincoln and most other figures of his time. Critics generally point to his statements in the journal of discourses and the fact that Utah legalized slavery under his rule to play up Young as essentially the Mormon version of the KKK grand dragon. Unfortunately, these people are ignorant of history and the more complex nature of Young's racial views and the politics of the time.

The Latter Day Liberator recently published an excellent article by William H Douglas exploring the racial comments of Young in the Journal of Discourses and his legalization of slavery. It's a fascinating article. There is a very good reason to believe that the Journal of Discourses is full of errors and completely fabricated statements that have been attributed to Young included statements on race that seem contradictory. I am not familiar enough to render an informed opinion but the evidence is compelling.

However, what most fascinated me in the article was the history surrounding the legalization of slavery in Utah. One should keep in mind that Utah Legalized slavery in 1852. This was during the height of the debates over slavery in the US between the North and South. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both fairly typical in their northern political views toward slavery which were not abolitionist but not pro slavery either. Most northerners wanted to follow the example of Europe and legally bring slavery to a conclusion but without causing a major conflict with those who held slaves. For instance, Joseph Smith wanted to sell the lands in the west to purchase slaves and set them free. Brigham's"Legalization of slavery" in Utah was really a law that was made to end the practice, just not instantly. Brighams was actually ending slavery while trying to avoid embroiling himself in the hottest political contest of his time. A contest that eventually ended in the bloodiest war in our countries history. His legalization freed all the children of slaves and essentially granted slaves an indentured servant status in which they were given a series of rights such as...

  • Right to property

  • Right recompense

  • Right to education

  • Freedom from cruel treatment or sexual abuse of any kind.

  • Consent before a court being brought to Utah.

  • Consent before having his servitude transferred to someone else.

  • That their children would be free citizens.

Another aspect to consider was the fact that Brigham encouraged the saints to buy the children the local Indian tribes were selling to the Mexicans and to raise them as their own children. Brigham was literally a pioneer (not only in settling the west) but in stopping human sex trafficking, but we never see his critics give him credit for this.

From Daniel W Jones Stopping this [the Mexican] slave business helped to sour some of Worker’s band. They were in the habit of raiding on the Pahutes and low tribes, taking their children prisoners and selling them. Next year when they came up and camped on the Provo bench, they had some Indian children for sale. They offered them to the Mormons who declined buying. Arapine, Walker’s brother, became enraged saying that the Mormons had stopped the Mexicans from buying these children; that they had no right to do so, unless they bought them themselves. Several of us were present when he took one of these children by the heels and dashed its brains out on the hard ground, after which he threw the body towards us, telling us we had no hearts, or we would have bought it and saved its life.

Historian Leonard Arrington wrote about Brighams response to this barbarism. Brigham also sanctioned the adoption of Indian children into Mormon homes. Upset at the Indian practice of selling children into slavery in Mexico, Brigham found that the Indians resented his interference with their trade and then looked to the Mormons to pay for the children. So Brigham advised his people to “buy up the Lamanite children as fast as they could, and educate them, and teach them the Gospel, … and said that the Lord could not have devised a better plan than to have put us where we were in order to accomplish that thing...Some of the known fifty to sixty Indian children raised in Mormon homes became acculturated to white Mormon ways and intermarried into the society, while others either died or never were comfortable in either white or Indian society.

One should keep in mind it's difficult to "purchase them into freedom" if purchasing slaves is illegal. When you couple this with the fact Utah was seeking statehood and could not do so without support from the southern democrats and the fact that it was the radical republicans that vowed to destroy polygamy, you can begin to see that the entire political picture is not so cut and dry. It seems odd that Lincoln to this day is seen as a hero, while Young is seen as a racial villain. William Douglas puts it well in his article and sums up the situation with great clarity.

If Abraham Lincoln could repeatedly and openly support the legal right of slavery in the Southern states, champion an amendment to the Constitution to protect Southern slavery in perpetuity, could support using federal monies to colonize free blacks in an entirely other country, say repeatedly that he believed that Africans were the inferior of the white man and should be kept in a lower status by law and prevented from intermarrying with whites and still be called the Great Emancipator for his actions eliminating slavery through bloody conquest and war, how much more should we not give Brigham Young, whose views on race are comparable to Lincoln’s own, the same accolade for helping to accomplish the end of slavery in Utah, and for doing so peacefully without war? At least Brigham thought it was possible for free blacks and whites to live together peacefully, if not equally. Lincoln did not...

So, where does all this leave us? What is the explanation for these apparent contradictions? I, for one, think the issue comes down to politics. In the book Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery (pgs. 507-508) Dr. John David Smith suggests that Brigham may have taken a pro-slavery stance in his speech (assuming we have his words and not Watt’s) because he was hoping to get the support of Southern politicians for Utah’s application for statehood. I see this as a distinct possibility. Why else would a man who was in fact supporting a law that would turn Utah into a de facto free territory speak in a way that would seemingly endorse slavery at the exact same time? And why would he give said pro-slavery speech after he had just signed the law that turned Utah into a free territory the day before? The whole thing sounds like political theater. He understood that Utah would never be admitted as an official free territory. He would never get the support from Southern politicians necessary to become a state if Utah openly denounced slavery. So he did something incredibly cagey. He supported a gradual emancipation law but couched it in expressly racist and pro-slavery terms. Thereby he could limit slavery and also, hopefully, still get the support he needed to try and get Utah admitted as a state, which he wanted because it would protect the church from federal attack over polygamy and other arbitrary exercises of federal authority.

In holding these views while taking the political actions that he did, Brigham Young was essentially no different than other Free-Soiler Northerners of his era, including Abraham Lincoln. And just as many are proud of Lincoln despite the limitations of his racial vision there is no reason that the Saints should not be justifiably proud of Brigham Young despite the limitations of his racial vision. In doing so we can both acknowledge the fallibility of men and celebrate their achievements while marveling at the Lord’s power to bring His great works to pass through the weak things, and people, of the Earth. We will only be joining hands with those black men and women who knew the man personally and who, as Dr. Amy Tanner Thiriot explained “almost uniformly …loved and respected Brigham Young.”

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