Election Day at Gallatin

Here’s a bit of 4th of July thinking. But don’t let it get you down.

The rough and tumble politics of the Jacksonian Era has a distinct Mormon example. Precipitating the Missouri-Mormon War, the election day riot at Gallatin, Missouri, August 6, 1838, placed Daviess County Mormons in the position of defending their vote with a little assertiveness. [1]

But tough-guy politics was not so much the exception as the rule in American polling. If some Missourians saw Mormons as the natural equivalent of horse-theives and slaves, European observers of American politics thought of the state of republican democracy as degenerate – a place where no “prudent . . . enlightened . . . wise . . . good” man would venture, retiring “rather than submit[ing] to the insolence and dictation of a mob.”[2] The writer went on to complain that Jackson’s presidency brought the will of the majority to absolute power, paradoxically controlling government and defying it at the same time.[3]

Violence at the polls was not just tolerated, it was expected to some degree. Richard Bensel observed that authorities only

required that a “man of ordinary courage” be able to make his way to the voting window

But the “banditti” would not be “scourged back to their caverns” as Nicholas Biddle put it in his complaint to Princeton alumni in 1835. At least not anytime soon. The age of the common man had romantic flavors, but the thoughtful elite saw it as the era of mindless mobocracy in local and general politics. John Quincy Adams’s diary displays his disgust not only with the Jacksonian era but the cultural drippings that came with it. To succeed in the land of the free, the educated found themselves in the position of either withdrawing from public life, or allowing themselves to be “driven with the wind and tossed.” At least, that is the picture painted by many of the American elite and their European sympathizers.

Sure, their word paintings are exaggerated. But the mass of data here begs us to consider their views as more than just petulance. And I’m not sure that our characterization of Joseph Smith as Jacksonian Democrat is very accurate. Smith was nothing if not a fairness law and order guy. It is true that Smith had his apocalyptic side, but I’m not sure he saw his own candidacy for president in Jeffersonian Restoration terms. But what do I know?

Be that as it may, there’s got to be something here that finds resonance with modern politics, eh? Tea Party, anyone?

[1] For example, Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 357f.
[2] Marryat, A Diary of America (NY, 1962) 438.
[3] See Prince, “The Great Riot Year,” J. Early Rep. 3:3ff. None other than Matthew Livingston Davis penned (1837), “Are we treading on the verge of a volcano, whose flames are only smothered?” Yeah, well, yes.

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