During the 1852 Utah legislative session, a passionate debate ensued over voting rights for Black men. Legislator and Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Pratt argued that Black men should be allowed to vote, while territorial governor and Latter-day Saint president Brigham Young strongly disagreed. “[We] just [as well] make [a] bill here for mules to vote as Negroes [or] Indians,” Young declared. In an assertion of white superiority, he further stated, “What we are trying to do today [is] to make [the] Negro equal with us in all our privileges. My voice shall be against [it] all the day long.”
This debate, along with other legislative battles and religious pronouncements can be examined in full in a new digital database called This Abominable Slavery. Paul Reeve, professor of history and Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah, created the new database in partnership with the J. Willard Marriott Library and with the cooperation of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The public history project explores Indigenous and African American enslavement in Utah Territory through primary source documents – many of which are available to the public for the first time. The collection of documents is now open for exploration at ThisAbominableSlavery.org.
“The debates from the 1852 legislative session shed new light on the origins of two Utah laws,” said Reeve. “One passed to govern Native American indentured servitude and the other to regulate Black enslavement in the territory. The debates make it clear that legislators had choices, including a rejection of both bills in favor of a free labor ethic, a position that legislator Orson Pratt advocated. The speeches offer additional context regarding Utah’s 1852 election law and the development of racial restrictions within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities and a scholar of the 19th century abolitionist movements noted that the 1850s were pivotal years for the trajectory of freedom in the United States. “Paul Reeve’s scholarship continues to transform how we understand the history of that decade and how individual leaders shaped that history.”
This Abominable Slavery
The document collection represents the most exhaustive compilation of primary sources to date on Indigenous and African American enslavement in Utah Territory. Reeve, along with historian Christopher B. Rich, Jr. and LaJean Purcell Carruth, Pitman shorthand expert, relied on the documents in the digital database to write a history of enslavement in Utah which Oxford University Press will publish in 2024 as “This Abominable Slavery: Race, Religion, and the Battle over Human Bondage in Antebellum Utah.” The book offers a narrative interpretation of the documents while the website provides access to the primary sources on which the book’s narrative is based.
“The digital collection allows the general public to read the documents for themselves,” Reeve said. “People do not have to take our word for it, but they can access the evidence and read the speeches in their entirety. It is a burst of new information on enslavement in Utah Territory as well as on the racial priesthood and temple restrictions within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
At the time of the heated debates in 1852, legislative recorder George D. Watt captured many of the speeches using Pitman shorthand but failed to transcribe most of them into longhand. As a result, many of the speeches were never published. In 2013, Carruth transcribed the speeches into longhand. Reeve added punctuation and created sentences out of the raw transcriptions. Rich joined Reeve in gathering speeches and documents from the Utah State Archives and Utah Historical Society relating to African American and Indigenous slavery in Utah Territory. These documents became the basis of their book “This Abominable Slavery: Race, Religion, and the Battle over Human Bondage in Antebellum Utah.”
An Act in Relation to Service
Signed into law by Governor Brigham Young on Feb. 4, 1852, An Act in Relation to Service was a hotly contested bill that revealed fundamental disagreements between Latter-day Saint leaders regarding theology, race, and the nature of slavery. The bill was designed to govern the relationship between Black enslaved people in Utah Territory and their white enslavers.
“The bill that the legislature passed was distinct from chattel slave laws then in force in the U.S. South. It did not free anyone then enslaved, but it did grant them limited rights. It stipulated that an enslaved person could not be transferred to a new enslaver or taken from the territory without their consent. It also required enslavers to educate their enslaved people, something expressly prohibited in Southern slave codes. Also, likely in response to Orson Pratt’s speech, lawmakers dropped the clause from the proposed bill that would have made enslavement perpetual. Without that clause, the likely legislative intent was that the condition of servitude not pass to the next generation,” explained Reeve.
Pratt, nonetheless, wanted the bill rejected in its entirety. “Where in can [it] be expedient for us to suffer slavery to come into this territory when we can [avoid] it?” Pratt argued. “Shall we hedge up the way before us by introducing this abominable slavery? No! My voice shall be against it from this time until the bill shall pass if you are determined to pass it.” Pratt was insistent and determined. “Shall we take then the innocent African that has committed no sin and damn him to slavery and bondage without receiving any authority from heaven to do [so]?” he questioned. “For us to bind the African because he is different from us in color [is] enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush!”
Race and election law
On Feb. 4, 1852, the Utah territorial legislature passed a new election law; in doing so, lawmakers stipulated that white men over 21 years old could vote in the territory. Pratt advocated that Black men be allowed to vote too, while Young rejected that idea.
Young drew on longstanding biblical ideas that God had placed a curse on Black Africans and in 1852 he gave those ideas theological weight in the church he led. Young believed this curse rendered people of Black African descent incapable of holding the priesthood and presiding in God’s church. He believed that they should likewise be barred from participating in civil government. “If there never was a prophet or Apostle of Jesus Christ [who] spoke it before, I tell you this people that [are] commonly called Negros are [the] children of Cain, I know they are; I know they cannot bear rule in [the] priesthood, [in the] first sense of [the] word.” He further declared that “You cannot find within men upon [the] earth [who are of the] seed of Cain [any] that [posses] knowledge and sensibility [enough to vote].”
Many Christian denominations at the time used certain biblical interpretations to justify discriminatory practices. In 1978, the LDS Church restored priesthood ordination to all worthy male members of the church and temple blessings to women and men, regardless of race or ethnicity.
“Young’s racial policies grew in fits and starts across the course of the 19th century and became fully entrenched in church policy by the beginning of the twentieth century. Those policies took on a life of their own so that later generations came to believe that they had always been in place and that human hands had never touched them. The new speeches from the legislative session offer a different version of the origins of those policies,” said Reeve.
1856 Application for Statehood
In 1856, Utah applied a second time for statehood. In the constitutional convention that ensued, one delegate from the South argued that Utah should apply as a slave state. Pratt again delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech. This time he drew on Latter-day Saint scripture to argue that, “it is not right that any man should be in bondage to another.” He also flatly declared, “We have no proof that the Africans are the descendants of old Cain,” a rejection of the only rationale Young ever offered for the priesthood restriction. In the end, delegates at the constitutional convention voted against making application for statehood as a slave state. The proposal was soundly rejected 26 to five. Young was pleased by this and insisted that if Utah were admitted to the Union it would not be as a slave state.
Soon after the passage of An Act in Relation to Service, Latter-day Saints Margaret Thompson McMeans and Abraham O. Smoot sold an enslaved woman named Lucinda to Thomas S. Williams for $400. This Abominable Slavery database includes the bill of sale for Lucinda, a transaction that was dated March 1, 1852.
The database also includes the estate settlement of Latter-day Saint David Lewis which included two Native American boys valued at a total of $95 and three “coloured” people: a 35-year-old man named Jerry valued at $700, a girl named Caroline who was 16 years old and valued at $500, and Tampian, a girl aged 11, valued at $300.
The indenture of two Native American children to different Latter-day Saint families also illustrates the way that An Act for the Further Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners, another important bill passed that legislative session, played out in practice.
The speeches and debates from the legislative session included in This Abominable Slavery are now made publicly available with the cooperation of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Head of Digital Library Services Anna Neatrour, Digital Curation Librarian Rachel Jane Wittmann, and Web Software Developer Leah Donaldson at the Marriott Library worked with Professors Jeff Turner and Reeve to create this digital repository of sources and thereby grant public access.
“The Marriott Library is delighted to have played a part in this important digital collection,” said Harish Maringanti, associate dean for IT and digital library services. “Working with scholars in making critical knowledge available to all is a key component to the library’s mission. We thank Dr. Reeve for allowing us to be a part of his landmark project.”
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