"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
June 6, 2012
Joseph Smith for President?
by James B. Allen

Several years ago I happened to walk into an LDS chapel where a prominent LDS speaker was presenting a fireside chat. He was discussing Joseph Smith's campaign for the presidency of the United States in 1844, which was a topic I had long been interested in.

I was in the building for another purpose, but because of the topic I stopped to listen. I could hardly believe it, however, when I heard him suggest that if Joseph Smith had not been murdered before the election he might well have won the presidency, and that in any case his campaign was so influential that it threw the election to James K. Polk, whose platform was similar to that of the Prophet's.

This, to me, is only one of many examples of how we sometimes distort history. Not that the speaker was a bad man or a liar. He was an interpreter of history, but one who seemed to feel that interpretations such as this would enhance the reputation of Joseph Smith and make him that much more of a prophet.

In my opinion, there could hardly have been a more inaccurate interpretation of that election. More importantly, stories like this only emphasize the importance of being very careful about what we accept as historical fact as opposed to speculation based on flimsy historical evidence.

Besides, whether Joseph Smith could or could not have won the election, or whether he did or did not influence the eventual outcome, has nothing to do with whether he was a true prophet.

Actually, there is no solid evidence that Joseph Smith really believed he could win the election. One reason he ran was simply to fill the void created by the fact that, from among the leading candidates at the time, there were none that he could support.

In addition, he made it clear in a statement on February 8, 1844, that the various persecutions endured by the saints convinced him that he must run in order to put the Mormon case before the American public and create a more positive public image for himself and the Mormon people.

After his presidential platform was complete, he sent more than 300 missionaries around the country to distribute it and to campaign for him, along with preaching the gospel. There is no evidence, however, that enough people were persuaded in any of the states that they would have given him their electoral vote.

Joseph Smith's presidential platform had much in common with the platforms of the leading candidates, but also some significance differences from them. In comparison with James K. Polk, the eventual winner, both men called for economic and governmental reform, but Joseph Smith also argued for a protective tariff and a new national bank while Polk opposed both.

The most controversial issue before the public, however, was western expansion -- whether the United States should annex Texas and take over other western territories. Both Joseph Smith and James K. Polk were strongly in favor. Joseph Smith also called for the abolition of slavery, but Polk said nothing of this in his platform.

In the final electoral vote, the state of New York was the pivotal state. It went to Polk only because a third-party candidate, James G. Birney, was running on an anti-slavery platform and this took enough votes away from Henry Clay to tip the election to Polk. Joseph Smith's campaign could hardly have influenced any of this. He and his platform were simply not that well known, despite the efforts of the missionaries. Besides, by the November election he was all but forgotten politically.

Joseph Smith was a great man, and his platform showed remarkable insight into the needs of America at the time. But we hardly need to mythologize the effect of his presidential campaign in order to revere him as a prophet.

If you are interested in reading a few items on his residential campaign, see the following:

  • James B. Allen, "Was Joseph Smith a Serious Candidate for the Presidency of the United States ...?" Ensign (3 September 1973): 21-22;
  • Arnold Garr, "Joseph Smith: Candidate for President of the United States," Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois, ed H. Dean Garrett (Provo, UT: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU, 1995), 151-68;
  • Arnold Garr, "Joseph Smith for President: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in New England," Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: The New England States, ed. Donald Q. Cannon et. al. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004): 47-63;
  • Martin B. Hickman, "The Political Legacy of Joseph Smith," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Autumn 1968): 22-27; Richard D. Poll, "Joseph Smith's Presidential Platform," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Autumn 1968): 17-21;
  • Margaret C. Robertson, "The Campaign and the Kingdom: The Activities of the Electioneers in Joseph Smith's Presidential Campaign," BYU Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 147-80.

References to more on Joseph Smith's political activities in general may be found online at mormonhistory.byu.edu. Do a subject search for "Smith, Joseph, Jr., political activities."

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About James B. Allen

JAMES B. ALLEN, Professor of History, Emeritus, Brigham Young University

James B. Allen was born June 14, 1927, in Ogden, Utah. He married Renée Jones, April 16, 1953. They have five children, twenty-one grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren . He received his bachelor's degree in history form Utah State University in 1954, a master's degree from Brigham Young University in 1956, and the Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1963.

Active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all his life, he has served in numerous positions, including bishop of two BYU wards and a member of 5 different BYU high councils. In 1999-2000 he and Renée served as missionaries at the Boston Institute of Religion.

He has also been active in the Republican party and twice served as a delegate to the state convention.

In his professional career, he taught in the LDS Seminary and Institute program from 1954-63, after which he was a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University until his retirement in 1992. From 1972 to 1979 he also served as Assistant Church Historian (splitting his time between BYU and the Church Historical Department). He was chair of the History Department from 1981-1987 then, during his last five years at BYU, he was honored to hold the Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Chair in Western American History. After his retirement he became associated with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, where for several years he held an appointment as a Senior Research Fellow.

He has also been active in various professional organizations, including the Western History Association (served on various committees, and as chair of a program committee) and the Mormon History Association (president, 1971-73). He has been on various boards of editors and advisory committees and presented numerous papers at the meetings of various historical associations.

As a researcher and writer he is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fourteen books or monographs and around 90 articles relating to Western American history and Mormon history, as well as numerous book reviews in professional journals. Some of his books include the following:

The Company Town in the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
The Story of the Latter-day Saints (with Glen M. Leonard; Deseret Book Company, 1976; 2nd edition 1992)
Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (University of Illinois Press, 1987). Revised and republished in 2002 by BYU Press under the title No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton. In 1986, while still in press, this book won the prestigious David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans Biography Award.
Men With a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841 (with Ronald K. Esplin and David J. Whittaker, Deseret Book Company, 1992)
Studies in Mormon History 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker; University of Illinois Press, 2000). Allen was the lead investigator for this important work. It lists, and provides an index to, all the significant books, articles, doctoral dissertations and master's theses on Mormon history produced between 1830 and 1997. It has been widely hailed as one of the most important aids to finding LDS history ever published. In 2001 the Mormon History Association awarded the authors a special citation for the publication of this book. After that, working with J. Michael Hunter, Allen continued to update the bibliography database. Hunter has now taken over the updating, and the database is online at mormonhistory.byu.edu.
Mormon History (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker, University of Illinois Press, 2001). This book is a history of the writing of Mormon history, from the days of Joseph Smith until the present time.

Over the years he has received various awards, honors, and recognitions, besides those indicated above. Among them were several "best article" awards; the Karl G. Maeser Research and Creative Arts Award, Brigham Young University, 1980; named Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, Brigham Young University, 1984; named a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, July 15, 1988; the Leonard J. Arrington Award for a Distinctive Contribution to the cause of Mormon History, awarded by the Mormon History Asociation, 2008.

James and Renée have enjoyed living in Orem, Utah since 1963.

He currently serves as Sunday School President in his ward, and he and Renée have been officiators in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple since 2004.

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