Party Politics and Utah Statehood

Stanford J. Layton
History Blazer, July 1995

A. D. Richardson, a journalist visiting Denver in 1859, had this to say about the politics of settlement along the western frontier: “Making governments and building towns are the natural employments of the migratory Yankee. He takes to them as instinctively as a young duck to water. Congregate a hundred Americans anywhere beyond the settlements and they immediately lay out a city, frame a state constitution and apply for admission into the Union, while twenty-five of them become candidates for the United States Senate.”

Granting the loquacious journalist a bit of allowance for exaggeration, his observation fits the Utah experience pretty well. Within two years of permanent settlement of the Great Basin in 1847 the Mormon pioneers had drafted a proposed constitution for the State of Deseret and petitioned for admission to the Union.

This attempt at statehood was premature for many reasons. State-making was an incredibly complex process in the years preceding the Civil War, and Congress was not about to be rushed into admitting a new state at the risk of upsetting the delicate balance holding the Union together. Deseret also presented technical problems with its limited population. Additionally, there was the matter of polygamy among its populace—not yet officially announced but generally known to be practiced. Congress rejected the petition for statehood and instead granted territorial status for Utah under provisions of the Compromise of 1850.

The 1849 petition was the first of seven attempts to gain statehood. Success did not come until 1896, nearly a half-century later. It was a period of intense political conflict pitting the power of federal authority, which strengthened greatly after the Civil War, against the conscience and commitment of a determined religious group. The process—a series of federal laws designed to end polygamy and theocracy in Utah Territory—has been aptly if unimaginatively termed by one historian as “the Americanization of Utah for Statehood.” By 1890 the Mormon leadership had capitulated and issued the Manifesto which began the rapid phase-out of officially sanctioned plural marriages. From there, events moved quite expeditiously toward statehood.

Yet, just as matters seemed to be falling into place, the march to statehood stalled. The issue was no longer slavery, polygamy, or theocracy but rather good old-fashioned party politics. Congressional leaders wanted to take a closer look at Utah. Would it come into the Union with Democratic or Republican senators and representative?

During most of the territorial era, Utah’s party system was aligned strictly according to religious preference. The Peoples party was Mormon; the Liberal party was non-Mormon. Now that statehood was within reach, both elements scurried to integrate themselves into the national two-party system. Much of this was accomplished under a Mormon initiative. Striving for balance, church leadership sought to “assign” its members into the Democratic and Republican parties. But as the summer of 1894 approached, the U.S. Senate held the Utah enabling bill in committee, uncertain just how effectively the Utah population had been in achieving party balance.

Finally, under some very adroit lobbying by friends both inside and outside Utah Territory, the Senate passed the enabling bill on July 10, 1894, and President Cleveland signed it a few days later. In the election of 1895, Utahns chose Republicans as governor and U.S. Representative, and they elected a Republican legislature that would choose two men from that party to fill the U.S. Senate vacancies. While that tended to suggest a strong Republican preference, keen political observers of the day noted that the Republican majority was small. And as a matter of fact, in the presidential election of 1896, the year of statehood, Utahns gave their electoral votes to Democrat William Jennings Bryan and elected a Democratic legislature.

Throughout its first century, Utah has maintained a strong two-party commitment and a pronounced tendency to vote according to national trends. Even though they worried about it at the time, Senate leaders of a hundred years ago could rest assured that, over the long haul, Utah would not be dominated by a single party preference.

Sources: Frank H. Jonas, “Utah: The Different State,” in Politics in the American West ed. Frank H. Jonas (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1969); Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).