Utah History to Go
In Another Time
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
No Love Lost on Lawyers
Brigham Young Railed On Lawyers, Banishing Them to Long Missions
Hal Schindler
Published: 07/09/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

Early settlers in Utah didn't tell "lawyer" jokes--at least there don't seem to be any recorded in diaries and journals of the day. Nevertheless, frontier lawyers shared a commonality with their 1990s counterparts--weren't the most popular professionals in the community. In fact, one might even conclude that a cardsharp stood higher on the ladder of respect.

Much of that was a result of Brigham Young's inherent dislike of attorneys-at-law. Pettifoggers, he called them. (Webster's definition: "A lawyer who handles petty cases, esp. one who uses unethical methods in conducting trumped-up cases. A trickster, cheater, quibbler.")

In February 1856 when the first scent of a Mormon Reformation was in the air, Young took to the podium in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and began blistering lawyers. It wasn't the first time, but it was the most vehement since leaving Nauvoo, Illinois, a decade earlier. His peevishness with the profession dated back that far. After Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was assassinated, Young had become a target as well, not only for bullets and blades, but for "vexacious" lawsuits as well.

In mid-March 1845 he was especially aggravated and in a Sunday sermon he shouted, "I swear by the God of heaven that we will not spend money in feeing lawyers. All the lawsuits that have been got up against the [Latter-day] Saints have been hatched up to fee lawyers. I would rather have a six-shooter than all the lawyers in Illinois." But what raised his ire that February eleven years later was a growing tendency of church members to hang around the county courthouse and encourage one another to file suit. It was Young's opinion that Mormons did not need lawyers, they needed to use common sense.

So, he enlightened his Tabernacle audience on the subject. "Keep away from courthouses; no decent man will go there unless he goes as a witness, or is in some manner compelled to. We have the names of those who attended that courtroom, and we will send those characters on long missions, for we want to get rid of them, and we do not care if they apostatize or not."

Young's solution, according to his councilor, Heber C. Kimball, was to send thirty or so to sell their possessions and go with their families as soon as weather permitted to raise cotton on the Rio Virgin, another company of forty-eight to go to the Grand River to strengthen that settlement, make farms, build mills, and some thirty-five or forty to go to Salmon River country, thirty for Carson Valley, another thirty for the lead mines at Las Vegas, and eight to go to the East Indies. "These are all good men, but they need to learn a lesson," Kimball remarked.

Again in 1866, Young, speaking at the Bowery on Temple Square in Great Salt Lake City, said, "It would appear that [lawyers] think a civilized community cannot live long together without contention and consequent lawsuits. The law is made for the lawless and disobedient, not for the good, wise, just and virtuous. Law is made for the maintenance of peace, not for the introduction of litigation and disorder." Young had some curious notions about the legal profession, not the least of which was that they should work for free.

"I am now taking the liberty of discharging a duty I owe to the lawyers in telling them what their duty is. They read the law; they do so or should understand the law of the United States, of the states and of the territories and cities in which they live, and whenever they have an opportunity of telling people how to live in a way to avoid litigation, it is their duty to do so.

Then, if they wish to get a living, instead of picking people's pockets as is too commonly the case, let them have their stores, and bring on goods and trade, buy farms and follow the healthy and honorable profession of farming, and raise their own provisions, and stock--and when their services are wanted in the law, give as freely as we do the Gospel."

The years did little to mellow the church leader on the subject. As he grew older, his opinions in the matter solidified as if etched in granite. In 1871, again in the Tabernacle, he reflected on "the mining business." "I want to say to you miners: Do not go to law at all; it does you no good, and only wastes your substance. It causes idleness, wickedness, vice and immorality.

Do not go to law. You cannot find a courtroom without a great number of spectators in it; what are they doing? Idling away their time to no profit whatever. As for lawyers, if they will put their brains to work and learn how to raise potatoes, wheat, cattle, build factories, be merchants or tradesmen, it will be a great deal better for them than trying to take the property of others from them through litigation."

Young did not lambaste the legal profession on a whim, the 1870s were a time when the law was doing its utmost to clap him in irons at the very least or, as his biographer, Edward W. Tullidge, phrased it, "consign him to the gallows." He made good use of defense counsel himself, in those days.

The United States was trying desperately to tie him into the Mountain Meadow massacre through John D. Lee; Young was charged with lewd and lascivious cohabitation with his plural wives, and he had been indicted for murder, based on the confessions of the notorious killer William A. Hickman, described variously by his contemporaries as "one of the most remarkable scoundrels that any age ever produced--a human butcher--an assassin." It is bitter irony that Hickman, when not actively leading a gang of cutthroats known as "Hickman's Hounds," was a practicing attorney. In truth, it can be said, he was "a criminal lawyer."

And of course, there was the matter of the divorce case filed against Young by Ann Eliza Webb, his celebrated Wife No. 19 (the title of her sensational "tell all" book.) That affair alone cost Brigham Young some $24,000 in legal and other fees, according to Tullidge. All of the indictments were eventually set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At one LDS conference session, Young told this anecdote: "I feel about lawyers as Peter of Russia is said to have felt--when asked his opinion concerning them, he replied that he had two lawyers in his empire and when he got home he intended to hang one of them."

The Land
American Indians
Trappers, Traders, & Explorers
Pioneers & Cowboys
Mining & Railroads
Statehood & the Progressive Era
From War to War
Utah Today