Bernard DeVoto

Historian and conservationist, 1897-1955

Category: History

God — Litterateur

    God  —  Litterateur

originally published in The Guardian: A Literary
Monthly Published in Philadelphia, Volume I, no.
V (March 1925), pp. 188-197.


Whatever fault one may find with the conversation of a United States Senator or the treasurer of a large corporation, one does not usually criticize it on the ground that it lacks a sense of religious values or betrays ignorance of the dogmas of the true church.  Modern concepts of statecraft and commerce tend to exclude theology from the discipline of their leaders.  Yet there is one populous section of this country where religiosity is so bound up with trade and government that a successful banker or official must of necessity be an ecclesiastic as well.

If Senator Reed Smoot, tariff prodigy, chairman of the Senate finance committee, and tiler to the inner council of the G.O.P. should in a serious mood deliver to a Washington dinner table a message from the Angel Moroni concerning the true meaning of a disputed text in the Old Testament or an admonishment to flee the imminent retribution of the Lord, he would only be exercising a prerogative of his office.  As Senator from Utah he is, almost ex-officio, a member of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose duty is to preach the everlasting gospel to “all nations, tongues, and kindred,” and a member of the Higher or Melchisedek Priesthood to whom it is given “to have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven — to have the heavens opened unto them — to commune with the general assembly of the Church of the firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father and Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant.”  And if Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of this Church of God should, in a prospectus of any corporation of which he is ex-officio treasurer, mingle the phraseology of Scripture with a summary of the corporation’s assets, he could show divine authority for the mixture.  As a bishop, his pedigree derives by demonstrable steps from Aaron, and the precedent is apparent in all the works of Aaron’s seed.

Nor, in Utah and its environs, would either event occasion surprise.  Rather, both would be regarded as normal examples of  the working of the Holy Spirit, exhibiting the piety of the individual but in no way singling him out form his fellows.  For among the Mormons the function of priest has not been distinguished from that of cowherd, soda dispenser, or garbage man, and the Chautauqua ideal of religion that is work, work that is play, and play that is religion has been achieved for close to a hundred years.


The contributions of God to American literature have never been adequately surveyed.  Altogether the bulk of His writings during the past three centuries on this continent must be enormous.  And in Utah at least, the critic who approaches this field will discover, God has long been and continues to be the favorite author.  I do not mean the Bible.  That, though considered to be of divine inspiration, is believed only “in so far as it is correctly translated,” and is read very little, if at all.  Nor do I mean the histories of Abraham, Nephi, Jarom, Mosiah, Alma, Ether, Mormon, and other worthies collected in the Book of Mormon, the “Gold Bible” of our grandfathers’ generation, the translation of which by Joseph Smith Jr. is specifically warranted correct by God.  These, by reasons of irrelevancy and an almost unreadable style, have become obsolete, and though occasionally mentioned at Conference are unknown to the average Mormon of today.  But the direct words of God possess a universal currency among the faithful.  They are the only living literature of the Latter Day Saints, and, in spite of a flood of Church propaganda and a system of Church magazines intended to reach all readers from children to patriarchs, they are the only Mormon literature likely to attract the critic.

The book which embodies the words of God has the general appearance of the Book of Common Prayer as furnished to American Episcopal churches, but is a little larger and thicker.  It is called The Doctrine and Covenants, and the title page declares that it contains “the revelations given to Joseph Smith, Jun., the Prophet, for the building up of the Kingdom of God in the Last Days.”  Strictly, it contains also seven lectures on faith by the prophet, which are never read, an account of his martyrdom, and a few scattered revelations to others, including the sole message of God to Brigham Young, which are unimportant.  As the favorite book of three quarters of a million Americans, as a work of American literature which has been translated into more foreign languages than Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Last of the Mohicans, and as the most extensive anthology of the words of God ever compiled in America, as indeed a purely American theopathy — it deserves the attention of every patriotic critic.

In this book God speaks directly.  There is no secondhand reporting, as in the works of Moses and the Prophets.  The function of Joseph Smith is purely that of stenographer taking dictation from the Almighty.  The method of dictation, we learn from other sources, differed with the occasion.  Sometimes God visited Joseph in a dream, a vision, or a trance.  More often, when the need for guidance in practical affairs grew pressing, Joseph retired to his office and shortly thereafter issued again with a revelation, hot from the tripod, directing a recalcitrant Saint to sell his farm or, if his presence was embarrassing, to depart to work the vineyards of the Lord several hundred miles away.  On several occasions God even spoke to Joseph at the council board, when the opinion of his Apostles or Seventies was going against him, and he was able to confound them by tossing across the table an incontestable decision from the final authority.  Always, however, it is God who speaks, in His own person.

The literary style of The Doctrine and Covenants is an advance over that of The Book of Mormon.  The latter was the work of Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon, or of Rigdon in revision of the other, and to both God has plainly a superior terseness and economy of thought and language, if not a more literate English.  The point of view adopted and the vocabulary used to express sit are those of the American peasant of 1830, a creature somewhat less civilized than the Georgia cracker of today, a hard-headed zany who has his frontier superstitions by heart and is willing to voice them in imitation of a traveling revivalist.  The result is almost incredibly naive.  The fears, antipathies, and longings of the backwoods-man become God’s commandments.  Yet, intermingled with addlebrained theology, one finds the business acumen which has ever since commended the book to the Saints.  In His own due time God achieved a blend of commerce and religion not unprophetic of future developments on this continent and pragmatically designed to advance His church.


On January 19, 1841, at Nauvoo, Illinois, God directs the establishment of a hostelry.  “And now I say unto you, as pertaining to my boarding house which I have commanded you to build for the boarding of strangers, let it be built unto my name and let my name be named upon it. . .  Let my servant Joseph and his seed after him have place in that house for ever and ever, saith the Lord. . . and let the name of that house be called Nauvoo house and let it be a resting place for the weary traveler, that he may contemplate the glory of Zion. . . verily I say unto you let my servant George Miller and my servant Lyman Wight form a constitution whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house.  And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house.”  The revelation goes on to direct various individuals, presumably those who doubted the value of the stock, to subscribe the issue, assuring them that it will pay heavy dividends both heavenly and earthly.  One of them, William Law — always a hard man for Joseph to control and afterwards the chief cause of his martyrdom — is promised as a bonus the keys of the priesthood, and outward signs of heavenly favor.  “He shall heal the sick; he shall cast out devils, and shall be delivered from those who would administer to him deadly poison, and what if I will that he should raise the dead, let him not withhold his voice.”  Wages to the builders are fixed, and after a distribution of priesthoods and proctorships, the revelation ends: “and ye should prepare rooms for all these offices in my house when you build it unto my name, saith the Lord your God.  Even so — Amen.”

The Nauvoo house was by no means God’s first commercial venture.  One feels that God is surer of himself here than at Kirtland, Ohio, ten years earlier where, at his direction, the saints had organized a bank.  State regulations impiously intervened, the enterprise was declared wildcat and bankrupt, and the prophet was forced to flee, like several of his biblical prototypes, into the wilderness.  He emerged in Missouri, where the faithful, to the number of several thousand followed him, and where God presently condoned the failure.  “As you obtain a chance to loan money by hundreds or thousands,” God says to the prophet, no doubt with an eye to the indictments, “even until you shall loan enough to deliver from bondage, it is your privilege.”

In Missouri, where God turned to real estate promotion, the Saints proved a trifle sceptical.  The Kirtland bank having failed, what security had they here?  God thereupon rechristened Spring Hill “Adam-Ondi-Ahman,” a mysterious title associated with Paradise and with great wealth, and boomed the country thereabout as the site of the Garden of Eden.  Furthermore the locality was pronounced the gathering place for the judgment day, the authentic center of the end of the world and the beginning of the millennium.

Thus assured, by divine prospectuses, that real estate values would increase, the Saints plunged.  God, as always, directed the investments — with, one concedes, sublime indifference to the expulsion of the faithful to Nauvoo, only a few years in the future.  “It must needs be necessary that ye save all the money that you can, and that ye obtain all that ye can in righteousness, that in time ye may be enabled to purchase land for the inheritance, even the city.”  “And again verily I say unto you, let my servant Sidney Gilbert establish a store, that he may sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the Saints.”  “I say unto you, that my servant Isaac Morley may not counsel wrongfully to your hurt, I give commandment that his farm should be sold.”  “Purchase all the lands by money which can be purchase in Jackson County, and the counties round about, and leave the residue in my hand.”

Waldo Frank, in a moment of rhapsody, has pronounced the Mormon Church an attempt to escape from the negation of frontier religion into dynamic joy.  Considering that the frontier churches were given to protracted meetings, revivals, mourner’s benches, exhortations, the jumps, agonized rollings of the convicted, and exultant leaps by the converted, it is difficult to see just wherein they lacked the emotional ecstasy which Mr. Frank believes the Mormons to have sought.  If indeed they did seek it, they sought in vain.  Ecstasy, the joy of the expanded soul is nowhere present in The Doctrine and Covenants.  God neither promises nor delivers consuming emotions.  He is content to promise a very literal inheritance of the earth and to furnish detailed directions for achieving it.  “For in my own due time will I come upon the earth in judgment, and my people shall be redeemed and shall reign with me upon the earth” — this is the extent of the spiritual hope of the people, and wherever it appears in the words of God it is accompanied by regulations for the stocking of his granaries.

The only escape discernible in the book is an occasional attempt  to redeem the colorlessness of names.  The town of Kirtland becomes, by divine ordinance, Shinehah; New York City, Cainhannoch.  Joseph Smith is variously Enoch, Gazelam, and Baurak Ale; Sidney Rigdon, Pelagoram, and his tannery “the lot of Tahhanes.”  One can understand the satisfaction of a quid-chewing, illiterate bishop on being informed that though he be plain John Johnson on earth, his name will resound through celestial glories as Zombre, and that he will greet his friend Frederick G. Williams through all eternity with the blessed name of Shederlaomach.  “And let my servants Shederlaomach and Olihah (Oliver Cowdery) have the Laneshine-house (printing office) and all things that pertain to it.”  The parentheses are always present in the text.  But this resounding and perhaps wistful nomenclature was only a brief whim of the deity’s sometimes led to ambiguity, and endured for only a few pages.

No, the typical Saint of the eighteen-thirties and forties was an ignorant and unimaginative lout, of an active bigotry and superstition, unable to understand a world larger than his parish and his acquaintances.  The literary genius of God is best seen in that He adapts His message exactly to this type of mind, utilizing its fears and hopes and adopting its Weltanschauung.

“Cease to be unclean; cease to sleep longer than is needful,” God says at Kirtland, immediately after discussing Michael and the Lamb of God, “retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early that ye may be invigorated.”  “Strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies,” God adds a few pages later, at the same time directing all beasts of the fields to abandon carnivorousness.  “And on the first and second lots to the north shall my servants Reynolds Cahoon and Jared Carter receive an inheritance.  These two houses are not to be built until I give you a commandment concerning them.”

Always the touch is personal.  God speaks to the individual saint, who will thereby have a greater confidence in the message.  “Verily thus saith the Lord unto my servant William Marks and also unto my servant N. K. Whitney, let them settle up their business speedily.”  “Let my servant Zombre (John Johnson) have the house which he lives.”  “Let my servant Lyman Wight beware, for Satan desireth to sift him as chaff.”

The personal message becomes poignant when one of the Saints has offended.  Oliver Cowdery, the scribe to whom Smith dictated his translation of The Book of Mormon, has been offering revelations of his own.  God addresses him through Smith, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph.”  Cowdery, thus rebuked, is further directed to reason with another false prophet: “And thou shalt take thy brother Hiram Page and tell him that those things which he has written from that stone (evidently an unholy imitation of Urim and Thummim, the stones which enabled Smith to translate all languages) are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him.”

The famous revelation on polygamy contains an exquisite reprimand of Emma Smith, the legal wife of the prophet.  “And let mine handmaid Emma Smith, receive all those (wives) that have been given unto my servant Joseph. . . for I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice. . . and I command mine handmaid to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph. . . but if she will not abide this commandment then shall my servant Joseph do all the things as he hath said, and I will bless him, and multiply him and given unto him an hundred fold of houses and lands, wives and children…”  One gets a picture of the sorrows of a prophet of God laboring in spite of wifely jealousy and impediments to do God’s will by bringing some half-dozen plural wives into the house.

But the most touching direction in the book is that given to William E. M’Lellin and Samuel H. Smith.  Both, seemingly have wavered in their faith, repented, and received forgiveness.  They are now about to go forth as missionaries, spreading the true religion.  They are told to be faithful and patient, to heal the sick and succor the sorrowing, to abide affliction and to remain till God summons them.  The text does not make clear which one is addressed in the peroration; but, says God, dismissing them in all magnanimity: “Seek not to be cumbered.  Forsake all unrighteousness, commit not adultery, a temptation with which thou hast been troubled.  Thus saith the Lord your God, your Redeemer.  Amen.”


Such material as the foregoing does not, of course, exhaust the book.  Doctrinal matters receive the same attention, and here again God shows himself thoroughly of the period.  One wonders how far the imaginative and intellectual squalor of the age is responsible for the gifts with which God promises to endow the Saints.  They are to cast out devils, to heal the sick, to speak in tongues and interpret them.  They are to be immune from the poison of enemies and serpents, from pestilence and plague.  They are to annihilate their persecutors and to inherit the earth — the earth conceived as a fertile farm whereon man and beast alike dwell in leisure and reproduction of their kind.

They are to go, after death, to one of three glories, the terrestrial, the telestial, and the celestial, which are like the stars, the moon, and the sun in magnitude.  There they are to be either ministering angels — the fate of the least fortunate, those who have not entered the covenant of eternal marriage — or patriarchal heads of families.  This last is the highest reach of God’s — of the Mormon — vision, a state of perpetual connubiality, where the Saint shall rule over his house and over quantities of plural wives, strong as plowhorses and fecund as rabbits, who shall surround him with illimitable offspring.

Our literary critic will no doubt find this eschatology significant.  Nowhere in God’s book is there a hint of reflection, of meditation, the disregard of time and circumstance once associated with godliness. Still less is there any softness or languor, any exaltation, any beauty.  Most significant of all, this lack of beauty.  The critic, marking it, will remember that for three quarters of a century the Mormons have lived among mountains as beautiful as any on earth and have produced millionaires in plenty but not one artist.  Their churches have all the grace and distinction of the railway station at Gopher Prairie.  The only sculptor born among them escaped into the possibility of achievement by apostatizing, and the works of their painters hang fitly in their meeting houses and the lobbies of their banks.  Poets there have been none except the anonymous authors of hymns unspeakably bad, and the author of an epic which is read in Sunday schools with the utmost solemnity.  Only one Saint has essayed fiction.  His masterpiece deals with the experience of two Mormon souls united in love on this earth and translated to the ultimate glory where for many chapters they are made perfect and talk with God.

God, in The Doctrine and Covenants, is too thoroughly occupied with founding hotels to deal with intelligence and beauty.  Rightly so — for his audience demanded such literature.  If there was leisure from that occupation, then the audience would permit a few rules for their guidance amid evil spirits or for putting other sects in their place.  God provides such reading.  He gives directions for the holy life.  He explains visions and dreams.  He foretells calamities and the end of the world.  He provides charms and incantations.  He gives directions for solving the deceits of the devil and even provides a means for unmasking his messengers.  (The last is simple and serviceable.  If a supernatural messenger appears, hold out your hand.  If he is an angel, having no flesh and being unwilling to deceive, he will not extend his in return.  If he is of the devil he will hold out his hand, whereupon you can readily perceive that it is spiritual, not material.)

Above all, God insists on the superiority of the Saints.  On the frontier almost the only social activity was the disputation of textual and doctrinal matters.  All these God settled definitely in favor of the Saints.  The Mormon doctrines of baptism, episcopacy, sacraments, creation, and last days are ratified endlessly.  Always the salvation of God’s people is reiterated, and unutterable dooms are predicted for the opponents of the true Church.  All heretic sects — chief among them, one gathers, were the Disciples, the Methodists, and the Catholics — are assailed and vilified.  Mormon supremacy is asserted till one understands the smugness of the contemporary Mormon.  It is a smugness immediately apparent to one who visits Utah today, an infrangible self-righteousness, a bucolic megalomania founded on the authority of God.

Not infrequently excessive zeal leads God into contradictions.  For instance, in March 1831 he condemns a church for forbidding the use of meat and for denying marriage to its priests — asserting that monogamy is a sacred institution.  Three years later appears the Word of Wisdom, mentioned above, which forbids meat not only to men but even to carnivores.  And in 1843 God reveals the holy sacrament of polygamy which, though, long out of active practice, remains the only distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the public mind.

Such is God, literary artist.  Such is the book which represents a culture that was almost universal on the frontier twenty years before the Civil War.  And, if literature is something that comes home to men’s bosoms and business, the critic will hesitate before recording his judgment.  Because it has come close home to their business, the Mormons have accorded God’s literature a popularity far surpassing that of the most popular novelists.  God, in short, is a good business man; he is therefore a successful artist.

The critic will waive the question whether such destinies are not the common lot of American religions, when successful.  He will consider merely its bearing on American literature.  It is evident that the Mormons are not a singular community.  They oversubscribed their quotas in the Liberty Loans.  Kiwanis clubs multiply over their land.  The Drama League is among them.  The per capita ownership of Fords is high.  They are part and parcel of the American scene — typical Americans in origin, in history, and it appears in literary judgment.  One does not deny that Zane Grey and Edgar Guest have a large circulation among them.  One merely notes that God’s circulation is considerably greater.

Why should it not be so?  Following the principles laid down in God’s book they have developed prosperity from a poverty as great as their intellectual squalor, and this in face of persecution, exile, and even confiscation.  God, in effect, has made good.  There is wealth in plenty in Utah, and a material culture as modern as any in the nation.  All this they have achieved by reading God’s book and acting on it, by following God as few other artists have ever been followed.  The Doctrine and Covenants has interpenetrated every part of their lives, business methods with their worship and metaphysics with their trade.

That is why any Saint today will stop in the act of selling you a gallon of gasoline or cutting your hair to discuss the fact that God has “body, parts, and passions,” and is by actual sexual conjugation the father of mankind.  That is why your bell-boy is likely to stay a moment after receiving his tip to warn you of the wrath to come or to set you right about the Sermon on the Mount.  Your banker will mingle the lost tribes with his caution against overdrafts.  And if the Honorable Reed Smoot has never lightened a caucus by recounting the events of Christ’s visit to this continent after the Crucifixion, it is not because he lacked power or authority.  For, if he is given good health, and conceivably before his present term as Senator expires, he will be President of his church.  As such, he will be officially Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, charged with the duty of receiving the oracles of the Church, of making known the private opinions of Almighty God on all subjects, and of standing as the actual deputy of God to several hundred thousand people.  A spectacle likely to afford some amusement to the ribald and certain to cast one national political party in a role it has never had before in all its history.

to Willard H. Pedrick

to Willard H. Pedrick (Northwestern University Law School)

December 11, 1952

Dear Professor Pedrick:

I inclose a copy of my piece about the FBI.  It was published in the October 1949 issue of Harper’s.  If you can return it to me when you have finished your study, I should like to have it.

As for the episode involving Mrs. Eisler —  or was “Mrs.” a courtesy title? — I was at the time a member of the executive committee of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, having joined the organization in the early stages of the Strange Fruit case, the first step in an ultimately successful effort to weaken the system of extra-legal literary censorship that had made Boston notorious.  The others on the committee were lawyers, doctors, professors, and business men.  The CLU secretary believed that such people were very busy men, whereas writers were idlers and were never engaged in important work even when occasionally occupied.  It wouldn’t have been nice to call a teacher from a class, a lawyer from a case, or a store manager from a discussion of his golf score.  So whenever anything came up, she habitually telephoned me and I went gonging off to the fire.

Some organization, and I forget what it was (if indeed I ever knew its name), though doubtless it was a front group or at least composed of moony yearners, had arranged to bring Mrs. Eisler to Boston for a lecture — probably to raise funds for Eisler’s defense, though I am not sure of this.  The group had hired Jordan Hall for the lecture.  Jordan Hall is the concert hall of the New England Conservatory of Music, a staid and painfully respectable institution, and was then the second largest auditorium in Boston — a larger one has since been built.  It was, and still is, hired for all kinds of musical performances that could not be expected to fill the larger Symphony Hall, and for various kinds of lectures and theatrical performances.  Thus it was, and still is, a source of badly needed and greatly appreciated income for the Conservatory of Music.

One morning the Boston newspapers carried a story saying that, the previous evening, the Boston City Council had passed a resolution calling on the Mayor to revoke the license of Jordan Hall because of the forthcoming lecture.  Possibly the Mayor was out of town, or more likely Jim Curley was still Mayor and a prisoner in a federal penitentiary.  If Curley had been on the job there would have been no problem, for he would have disregarded the resolution.  The Acting Mayor was Mr. John B. Kelly, then President of the Council, later Attorney General of the Commonwealth.

I had barely read the news story when the CLU secretary phoned me and said that we had to act, as was obvious.  I assembled a committee of the greatest respectability […] and that afternoon led them to the Boston City Hall.  Mr. Kelly was in his own office but would not meet with us till he could get down to the Mayor’s office, and there was a further delay while he summoned the newspaper reporters who covered the City Hall beat.  Mr. Kelly’s literacy was not so overwhelming as to embarrass either him or his listeners.  We went in and I explained to him that the Council’s resolution, which had been passed while he was in the chair, was against the bills of rights in both the Federal and Commonwealth constitutions, that it was destructive of the right to freedom of assembly and of speech, and that so far as I could determine by phone calls to various lawyers the Mayor had no power to revoke the license of Jordan Hall anyway.  I am sure that Mr. Kelly regarded us as highly dangerous people, though that his information gave him any clear notion of what a Communist is can be doubted, but he did have some rudimentary notion of freedom of speech, having heard the aldermen hurl the phrase at one another during their intramural feuds, and a very clear and vivid notion of political opportunity.  He stood up, and facing the newspapermen, delivered a rousing oration to the effect that he was a patriotic American, that America was the land of freedom, that he loathed Communism, and that he would safeguard both the freedom and the patriotism of Boston.  In the course of this prose poem he intimated that he would not revoke the license of Jordan Hall.  The intimation did not seem to me sufficiently binding, so I kept after him till he said specifically, and in the presence of reporters, that he would disregard the Council’s resolution and make no effort to revoke the license.  I thanked him and we filed out in a reverent manner and dispersed.

That was the entire episode.  It was routine for the CLU, though in those days most of our energy went to rescuing Jehovah’s Witnesses from various painful situations which their incorrigible trouble-making proclivities had got them into.  There is one interesting feature about McCarthy’s use of it.  I understand that the former FBI agent who does his research was in Boston for several days, trying to dig up dirt about Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who, incidentally, was a student of mine when I taught at Harvard.  The Boston newspapers had devoted about an inch to our appearance before Mr. Kelly, I am morally certain that the agent could have got wind of the episode only in a newspaper morgue, and I am personally convinced that he could have been directed to it only by a newspaper, presumably the Post or the Herald.  It was a trivial matter, and, I am sure, had vanished from human memory.  […]

The preparation of both McCarthy and his agent was extremely superficial.  In spite of his emotions about the State Department, he missed the fact that Archie MacLeish had been an Assistant Secretary of State, which would have enabled him oratorically to gain forty or fifty yards if not score a touchdown.

If I can judge by a wisecrack that Judge Wyzanski tossed at me in the library, he believes that McCarthy libeled me.  I myself have no doubt that he did.  I did not hear the first speech but I did hear the second one, and I have heard tape recordings that were made of it.  In that speech he quoted me as having made in the piece about the FBI statements which in fact I did not make, ferociously inflammatory statements.  I take that to be libel.  Whether or not he damaged me in a pecuniary way I do not know.  I do know that an editor and a lecture agent with whom at the moment I was negotiating contracts solemnly inquired of their associates and representatives whether they would lose money if they employed me.

One thing more.  McCarthy’s second speech was he delivered it was more vicious and scabrous than the advance text which he supplied to the newspapers.  I have been told that the same thing is true of the first speech.  I have examined several hundred newspaper clippings and so far s I can see no newspaper called attention to this fact.  In my opinion this is important.  Incidentally, my sole function in Governor Stevenson’s Research Group was that of an expert on conservation and public lands policy.

I am glad that you are making your study and hope that this letter will facilitate it.

Sincerely yours,

[on American Literature]

    [on American Literature]

September 24th, 1943

Professor Oscar Halecki, Director
Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America
37 East 36th Street
New York, N.Y.

Dear Professor Halecki:

I send you a running summary of my remarks at the Institute, as well as I can remember them.  I think it might be advisable to run a prefatory note saying that it is a summary and that all explanatory and illustrative material has necessarily been left out of it.  I hope that in its present form it will not be too discouraging.

Sincerely yours,

Bernard  DeVoto


Until toward the end of the 19th century American history is primarily the story of the differentiation of an American way of life from the various strains of European culture and the development of a native culture in terms of the environment of the new world.  From the earliest plantations the Impact of that environment on Europeans had been making them over, altering their consciousness and changing both their experience and the interpretations that they put on experience.  The American Revolution was the political expression of a fact already achieved, the establishment on the American continent of a new nation.

In some degree the history of American literature is also the story of a differentiation, the establishment of a national consciousness and the achievement of an existence independent of European literature.  The two histories do not, however, coincide.

During the first century of the English colonies there was little artistic expression of any kind.  Only in the tidewater society of the South and in the small provincial capitals of Philadelphia, New York and Boston was there sufficient wealth to afford anyone reprieve from the struggle for existence in the wilderness and permit the cultivation of the arts.  The educated classes thought of themselves as Englishmen and insofar as they read or tried to write literature, they conformed to the fashions and traditions of the mother country.  Such slight literary expression as exists is frankly imitative, and not only that, but imitative of modes and manners already obsolescent or even obsolete in Great Britain.  This specific kind of lag, the reproduction in America of literary fashions already waning In England, has been a recurrent phenomenon of American literature almost down to the present era.  Apart from this sparse and feeble dilettante literature, there was no belles lettres at all.  The characteristic literary expression of the period is to be found In theological exegesis and controversy, sermons, and hymns.

Nevertheless there was going on a sub-literary activity out of which were eventually to come the earliest beginnings of a native literature.  At the level of folk art, legends, tales, proverbs and the common experiences of common people in the wilderness were creating an oral literature.  In part this literature represented an adaptation of the immemorial folk literature transported from Europe.  In part it recorded and expressed experiences of the new world.  It first found print perhaps in disregarded broadsides and almanacs, or as unconscious interpolations in more polite literature, but its tales and ballads enormously enriched the nation’s consciousness and in due time would fertilize a finer literature.
The 18th  century was the second century of American experience.  During this century the nation grew to political consciousness and finally independence.  Polite literature remained provincial, a minor and usually antiquarian department of English literature.  The fashionable essayists and poets of twenty-five years earlier in London were the models accepted and usually accepted unthinkingly by the wits and. literati of the colonies.   One sees a still greater cultural lag than in the preceding century.  What was truly American was political literature.  As agitation and conflict sharpened, whole schools of political theorists arose to rationalize, explain, and implement the tremendous changes that were occurring. In the formal arguments of such men as Jefferson and Hamilton, the only less formal exegeses of such a man as Franklin, or the more nearly literary interpretations of such a man as Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, the experience of the differentiated American way of life finds a genuine expression.

The steady development and enrichment of folk literature continued. It is certainly true that the popular consciousness found native expression in music and even in painting before it did in literature. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 18th century there was something faintly recognizable as an American theater, if not an American drama, and there was abundant evidence of a humble popular literature almost ready for mature expression. One is aware of sharply characteristic rhythms and imagery in American speech, which in turn had already created a characteristic American humor, and it was through humor that the American consciousness was first to find expression in formal literature. Franklin writing essays on manners or education is almost altogether a late imitator of Addison. Franklin’s familiar correspondence, however, his Poor Richard aphorisms, and his rowdier editorials and addresses frequently employ rhythms and imagery and above all the characteristic turns of thought of the life immediately around him. They frequently rise to the level of a native expression of autochthonous experience. They tremble on the verge of an independent literature corresponding to the political independence agitated for in political literature and achieved in the Revolution.

It is certain that by Franklin’s time that independence had been achieved in speech, in oral literature and in folk literature. Franklin may not have said, “We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately,” but if he did not, then one of his contemporary Americans did say it. We are told that after Franklin became famous in Philadelphia it was remarked of him in New England that his keel had been laid in Nantucket but his mother had had to come to Boston to launch him. In either of those expressions one may discern an instinctive use of the language quite inconceivable in England. Crèvecoeur’s “this new man, this American” was speaking in a new way. It remained for literature to adopt that way of speaking.

For many decades the conflict in the American literary consciousness was between the native way of thought and the form and traditions of English literature. The conflict has never been wholly resolved, perhaps never can be, perhaps never ought to be. In the sense that western civilization is one and that all cultures have some international expression in common, American  literature is properly a phase, if an independent phase, of European literature. Nevertheless for generations the American writer was oppressed by a feeling of provinciality and a conviction  that he had to struggle with a lesser medium, inferior subject matter, at a great distance from the true sources and meeting places of literature. Emerson’s “The American Scholar” was a summons to writers to cease to feed a minor stream of a foreign culture, to cast off conventions, fashions and literary ideals not native to  them and to compose out of purely American experiences a purely American literature. At intervals throughout our literary history  it has been necessary to repeat Emerson’s challenge, and in fact one continuing and easily recognizable activity of American criticism has been the rewriting of “The American Scholar” in terms of the changing generations.  In the period since the First World War American literature has matured so widely and on so many levels, and has exercised of its own right so important an influence in world literature, that we may too easily forget the long labors and the innumerable and heart-breaking failures which American writers suffered on the way.

I have already alluded to the early development of an indigenous popular literature and pointed out that it was chiefly characterized by humor and even by vulgar humor. Struggling to be born in the United States was a literature of democracy corresponding to the democratic society which had already developed. Such a literature lagged far behind the society itself, and the lag was considerably increased by the provincialism of writers and their adherence to forms and traditions of English literature, many of which, as I have said, were already obsolete in England when they became fashionable here. In the first thirty or forty years of the 19th century one may frequently find the indigenous strain embedded in the lifelessness of primarily imitative polite literature. This indigenous strain, which is always the only part of the literature that seems to have any life today, is encountered in the humorous presentation of humble characters, usually bucolic and frequently backwoodsmen. A stiff and empty Gothic novel, for example, or an equally preposterous romantic drama will center about principal characters, heroes, heroines, and villains who are altogether lifeless and who are taken over from the conventions of second-rate English novels and plays.  Yet in that same novel or play there may be a shrewd countryman or a rambunctious frontiersman whose emotions, behavior and speech are unmistakably observed from the life. The small farming communities and the westward-making frontier thus came to have in American ltierature precisely the same function of democratization that they had in the development of American society.  This strain begins as humor but continues as realism, and if American literature as a whole has made any characteristic contribution to world literature it may be generalized as democratic realism.  It must be so generalized here,  since a detailed discussion of it would supply matter for an entire course of lectures.

An indigenous and truly national American literature first found mature expression in the 1840’s and 1850’s and was demonstrated by a group of New England writers of whom at least two, Emerson and Thoreau, have become the possession of international literature.  It is characteristic of our history that this literature represented something of a cultural lag, in that the dominance of New England was already waning and that the nation was expanding socially, politically and geographically far beyond its consciousness.  The United States of Emerson and Thoreau is the last stage of the society of the founding fathers, the society of a small republic whose centers of power were still east of the Allegheny Mountains, and for which the Atlantic was far less of a boundary than the great wastes of land to the westward.  Nevertheless, this is a mature and permanent literature, absolutely expressive of the way of life from which it arises, a purely American literature in terms of American life and therefore of equal citizenship in world literature.

The second great age of American literature began some ten years after the end of the Civil War and may be said to extend for a quarter of a century thereafter.  Its great names are those of such men as Mark Twain, Howells, Whitman and Henry James, although Whitman really represents the bridge between this and the earlier period.  I have elsewhere called this the literature of the American empire, as distinguished from the first republic represented by Emerson and Thoreau.  It is significant that none of the four men I have mentioned was a New Englander by birth but it may also be significant that three of them lived for a long time In New England.  The effective centers of power and of national vigor had crossed the Alleghenies, and there had grown up in the great valley of the Mississippi a new and vigorous phase of American culture, destined eventually to become the dominant phase.  The same lag that we have encountered earlier is encountered here in the fact that whereas this new phase of American life found its highest political embodiment in Lincoln, it had to wait many years for Its finest literary embodiment in the work of Mark Twain.  The same way of life shaped the minds of Lincoln and Mark Twain, yet it had been unable to get literary expression before Mark Twain.  It is, of course, a far more spacious and far less genteel America, as robust and as rude as the lines of Lincoln’s face, or the technique of a Mark Twain novel.  It is a continental America turned inward from the oceans rather than outward toward them, immensely less aware of Europe, and already tinged with a sorrow and pessimism foreign to Emerson and Thoreau and based on an instinctive realization of the boundaries and limits alike of democracy and progress, which the America of the earlier period had not known.  It is, however, an enormously vigorous prolongation and widening of the democratic realism which had produced them.

These two major periods before our own are distinct but nevertheless continuous.  Between them they defined the channel in which American literature has flowed ever since and seems likely to continue.  There has been a third principal period in American literature, the one in which we are now living.  Its achievements have been various and large.  If it has produced no single writer of unquestioned genius and comparable to the great names of either of the two preceding periods, it has nevertheless maintained a far higher average of excellence than either of the others.  The commonly accepted statement that American literature came of age with this period is flatly untrue, for it came of age nearly a century before with Emerson and Thoreau. But in the period following the first World War the labors of generations of American writers came into harvest. By that I mean that American writers achieved a higher stature in public estimation and the freedom to determine their literary conduct as a matter of course, a freedom for which their predecessors had had to fight. The literature of this period has been more various, more nervously alive, more concerned with the immediate experience of men than the average of any period of American literature before it. It has also been more immediately influential abroad. The product of a confused time, however, it has had far less unity and far less sense of being a proud continuance of an American tradition. That it has continued a proud tradition is evident in the fact that it also may be most justly generalized as a literature of democratic realism.

The Ex-Communists

… “The Ex-Communists” expounds a text that was first a single sentence in an Easy Chair, in “But Sometimes They Vote Right Too.”  My friend Charles W. Morton, the associate editor of the Atlantic, spotted a sermon in it and asked me to write the sermon.

(from the Preface to The Easy Chair, 1955)

And now that we have a bumper crop of volubly penitent communists, I am unable to see on what grounds we are asked to respect their intelligence, whose sole claim to respect is that they have recanted ideas which only fools would ever have accepted.

(from “But Sometimes They Vote Right Too,” Easy Chair,
 Harper’s, November 1950)

    The Ex-Communists

(first published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1951)

A stanza from a currently unfashionable poet ends, “The way is all so very plain / That we may lose the way.”  Several stanzas farther along the phrasing changes a little: “So very simple is the road / That we may stray from it.”  The poem happens to have a religious theme but what it says holds true for some crucial acts of the intelligence.

A number of intellectuals who were communists have lately been explaining why they no longer are: discussing the reasons that led to their conversion and those that have produced their apostasy.  The theological terms apply, for it is apparent, and indeed was apparent all along, that the phenomena are primarily religious.  The typical ex-communist American intellectual in fact has experienced two conversions; whereas evangelical doctrine holds that to be saved you must be born a second time, salvation has required him to be born a third time.  Such an experience puts the greatest possible strain on the personality.  There can be only compassion for the agony he has felt, the double disillusionment, the necessity of twice rebuilding his shattered personal world.  And his careful analysis of his experience can be valuable and useful.

Embracing communism, like religious conversion, is an act of the total personality.  It is packed with private and even unconscious as well as rational and objective reasons, with emotion as well as intelligence.  What the apostates have been saying shows that frequently intelligence played only a small part in it.  Yet it played some part and they are eager to show that it was decisive in their apostasy, their repudiation of communism.  I propose to discuss only their intelligence.  We will agree that the American intellectual who became a Communist was, typically, a generous, warmhearted man, an idealist deeply disturbed by the catastrophe of the modern world and deeply concerned for the betterment of mankind.  But how good was his thinking?

The question is given more point in that frequently an odd claim accompanies the ex-communist’s confession of error.  In a book which I will return to presently Richard Crossman puts it forthrightly.  Ignazio Silone, he remarks, “was joking when he said to Togliatti that the final battle would be between the Communists and the ex-Communists,” but we must understand that there is a great deal of truth in the joke, in fact it is no joke at all.  Only one who has wrestled with communism as a philosophy — unhappily Mr. Crossman’s prose turns opaque here — but, he implies, only one who has come close to accepting it as a philosophy “can really understand the values of Western democracy.”  And, climactically, “The Devil once lived in Heaven and those who have not met him are unlikely to recognize an angel when they see one.”

Mr. Crossman was never a communist but he here voices in good faith the mingled snobbery, arrogance, and unreality that make communist thinking so hard to deal with as idea.  The road to an understanding of democracy crosses the communist east forty.  Before you can add a column of figures correctly you must first add them wrong.  He who would use his mind must first lose it.  Various ex-communist intellectuals are offering themselves on just that basis as authorities about what has happened and guides to what must be done.  Understand, I am right now because I was wrong then.  Only the ex-communist can understand communism.  Trust me to lead you aright now because I tried earlier to lead you astray.  My intelligence has been vindicated in that it made an all-out commitment to error.

The thesis thus abuilding gets indirect support from others.  Diana Trilling isolates for examination one group of American intellectuals, those who during the trials of Alger Hiss hoped that he would be proved not guilty.  She makes bold to say that this hope expressed an unconscious absit omen!  They had come so close to accepting communism that they could see part of themselves in Hiss; they felt that only the luck of the draw had kept them from the prisoner’s box; there but for the grace of God went they.  And Alistair Cooke sees the Hiss trials as symbolic: an entire generation of American intellectuals was on trial, for an entire generation had been at least in part disposed to take the same fork at the crossroads.  In the historical context, that is, in the United States during the nineteen-thirties, the acts charged against Hiss were, though not innocent, at least logical for intellectuals who were doing their utmost to understand and repair the world.  Way back in the upcountry where the height of land separates the watersheds, there is only a narrow space between the rivers that reach the sea so far apart.

There is only a narrow space too — and a good many have crossed it — between this and the conclusion that whether or not to embrace communism was the master problem of the American intelligence in our time.  As a corollary, everyone who was truly intelligent and tried to grapple with the modern world must have been powerfully impelled to accept the communist explanation and to support its measures.  Conversely, anyone who never felt the powerful attraction of communism must have been insensitive or unintelligent or both, and at any rate was not deeply engaged with the problems of the time.  Here is the kind of distorted simplification that did turn some minds to communism.  A historian cannot let these ideas go unchallenged, for though they are wrong they might get lodged among the accepted ones that are brought to bear on the past.

What, in sum, is the recusant communist now saying?  That he has come to understand that communism is an abhorrent dictatorship, a corrupt power which destroys freedom, robs human life of dignity, and obliterates the institutions of Western civilization which embody its morality and justify its hope.  Step by step, conclusion by conclusion, affirmation by affirmation, he draws up an indictment of communism that corresponds in every particular…to what?  To what the non-communist American intellectual has said about it from the beginning.  Just how is this wisdom when voiced by a man who spent years convinced that it was nonsense?  The ex-communist pleaded error; he was deceived.  There should be some presumption in favor of the intelligence that was not deceived.

We need not distinguish between those who became members of the party and those who, remaining outside it, accepted communism, followed the party line, and put their minds at its service.  The number of American intellectuals who did either was very small, though high-church Republican politics finds a useful technique in representing it to have been enormous.  The communist intellectual was a tiny subspecies; the generality of American intellectuals were never tempted to accept communism but instead recognized it for what it was, understood it, and opposed it.  The unfolding of events vindicated their judgment – proved the accuracy of their analysis and the justness of their conclusions.  The ex-communist has now added an independent if belated justification.  With ideas, empirical demonstration is the payoff, and serves as at least a rough gauge of intelligence.  If the side of a cube is twelve inches square the man who measures it and says that it is twelve inches square is right.  A man who for some time maintains that it is a half gallon in the key of C-sharp and blue at that is not displaying conspicuously penetrating intelligence when he finally picks up a ruler.

The conversions were a phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties; we may safely disregard the rare intellectual who turned communist before the economic collapse.  In the bewilderment and panic of the time the bases of conviction were brought into question.  As some economic and political systems crumpled and those of the United States were grievously strained, as misery and want and despair spread more widely here than ever before, as the Nazi totalitarian joined Italian fascism (and Russian communism) in a reversion to tyrannies supposed to have disappeared permanently from the civilized world, as another and greater war seemed to threaten, as belief and courage weakened — as the world of the nineteen-thirties revealed itself, a man whose trade was to use ideas had to determine which ideas could deal with it.  The one who embraced communism did so in a belief that (Russian) communism was the wave of the future: that it promised a better economic order, that it offered the best possibility of social justice, that it was a force for peace.

The generality of American intellectuals held that this man was wrong.  They said the same thing of converts to creeds which only a historian now remembers.  Minute groups of true believers found a light in such aberrant gospels as Social Credit, Technocracy, Distributism, “Christian Collectivism,” Monarchy (oh, yes, it is on the record and very winsome it is too), and a number of fantasies which declared that mankind was going to be saved by the abandonment of machine production, the restoration of handicrafts and the subsistence farm, and perhaps the reinstitution of Negro slavery.  They appeared to have no commensurable quality, and yet if you followed them far enough you found them all converging.  Eventually each of them substituted for law the will of whichever group was to hold power, abandoned representative government, impaired or destroyed individual freedom, and either repudiated the immunities of citizenship or undermined their safeguards.  The typical intellectual said of them that they were not workable but he said something else which got to the heart of the matter in the first instance: that they began by giving up what alone could give value to anything they might salvage.  The experience of the United States, of Western man, he said, was that nothing worth having could be bought at the price of freedom, citizenship, and government by law.  And, he said, that goes for communism.

The evidence, the ideas, the experience on which he based his judgment were equally available to all minds.  The communist must be granted some allowance for the anesthetizing power of any gospel and for the fact that his gospel and for the fact that his gospel was a mechanical formula.  It explained everything; the mind that accepted it was not required to inquire critically into realities, it need only apply the formula.  And his gospel was authoritarian as well as infallible; criticism of any kind was deviationism.  Nothing else in the history of thought has so completely stifled critical inquiry, which non-communists take to be the essence of the intellectual process.

Communism made its American converts not as a system of thought but as an eschatology, a millennial faith.  And here the evidence available to everyone included, by the nineteen-thirties, more than a decade of the U.S.S.R.  It also included the content of American history.

The communist needed no knowledge of history and no understanding of experience, since his formula would reveal the meaning of either wherever he might apply it.  This turned out to be a handicap; it blinded him to a defect in the millennial apocalypse.  The non-communist intellectual understood that neither a proletarian revolution (such as the convert was predicting) nor one corresponding to that of the Bolsheviks would occur in the United States.  Neither was of our nature or in our kind.  If a revolution were going to occur here it would have to be in a pattern established by our inheritance.  Our revolutionary radicalism would not suffice; their model was the I.W.W. (syndicalist and therefore anathema to communism) and no imagination could conceive of its seizing decisive power.

A native revolution must be by political fission followed by political coalescence, the model of the Civil War.  And in the thirties for this single possibility one or the other of two developments was a prerequisite.  There must first be either an overwhelming defeat in war or an absolute collapse of the economic and social system.  Clearly, no nation was going to inflict the former.  The communist assumed that the latter was inevitable; his formula explained that it was a part of the process of history, the decay of capitalism.  But the non-communist dismissed this as fantasy; he knew what it left ot of account.  This was crucial knowledge and the judgment was a crucial test of intelligence.

That is: he knew the richness of American natural resources and the power of the productive plant.  He knew the flexibility and responsiveness of the political system which had been developing for a century and a half.  He knew that the political system was capable of resisting and containing great strains, whether social or economic, while readjustments were worked out.  He knew that it had held while fundamental readjustments were being worked out in the past.  He concluded that such a revolution as might be in store for the United States would consist only of a redirection of political control.  He knew our history held a series of such revolutions, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Lincolnian, the unlabeled one that implemented the Grangerite-populist revolt, Wilsonian.  In all of these the social and political freedoms had been preserved and redirection of political control enabled the enormous natural wealth to resolve the conflict and work out the required amelioration.  In all except the Lincolnian the social fabric had been kept intact.  He judged that the possible revolution, and the one to work for, was the characteristic American revolution by “reform.”  The communist formula said that reform was impossible: the non-communist pronounced the formula defective.

What followed was the most fundamental, the most widespread, and the most thoroughgoing reform in American history.  To call it the New Deal obscures the fact that it was a sweeping revolution which had already begun to gather momentum when Roosevelt took office and some fundamental parts of which were unrelated to the movement he headed.  All that need be said of it here is that it worked.  It demonstrated that the generality of our intellectuals had correctly analyzed the situation, and the generality of them had some part of it.  (Historically, as against popular cliché, though the influence of the American intellectual on politics has fluctuated, there has never been a time when it was not considerable.)  The revolution expressed the non-communist intellectual as a type.  The communist intellectual had only two concerns in regard to it: to explain it as evidence of the progressive degeneration of democracy and to convert it if he could to the service of Russian foreign policy.

There was, however, an even more basic act of the intelligence.

    The way is all so very plain
    That we may lose the way.

The enemy was not fascism.  It was absolutism.  The non-communist intellectual clearly understood that what the communist intellectual was glorifying in Russia and working for here was dictatorship.  And dictatorship always means abrogation of law, government by force, destruction of private and civil liberties, slavery (alias forced labor), forced starvation, mass murder.  The master question of our time was never: Is communism the way out?  It was simpler: Does freedom count?

No matter how inscrutable the future, the axiom at the basis of American experience is that freedom counts most of all.  That the defense of freedom comes before anything else.  Right there the non-communist intellectual took his stand.  Whatever threatened freedom must be fought totally, first, wherever, in the immediate instance, from then on.  The communist intellectual decided that the concept of freedom was a bourgeois sentimentality, that communism had established the necessity of destroying it, and that his job was to make use of American belief in freedom as an instrument for the destruction of freedom.

The choice offered the intelligence was as clear and simple as the quoted poem says.

The sequence of events that led the ex-communist to his break with communism may provide a scale of comparative intelligence, though on the other hand it may be an index to his capacity for self-deception.  The recusants usually name three turning points or dramatic revelations of the truth: the great state trials (though they had been going on for some years before they caused any apostasies here), the treaty of nonaggression with the Nazis, and the attack on Finland.  The non-communist grants their power of disenchantment but finds them no more revelatory than the massacre of the kulaks, forced collectivization of agriculture, planned famine as an instrument of government, police terrorism, transportation, forced migration, labor camps, execution for dissent, any other kind of liquidation, the treatment of the Spanish anarchists, or any other tyranny in the functional dictatorship.  In this judgment, though he derided it throughout, the recusant communist now heartily concurs.  But the non-communist thought of him, the communist convert, as having repudiated intelligence, and thinks of him now as having lived in a delirium which he took to be a vision of a better world.

A non-communist finds the serial apologia of the recusants astonishing.  Here for instance is a gently, unworldly literary man, one of the first who “jumped off the Moscow express.”  (The phrase is Mr. Cowley’s but I am not referring to him.)  His activity as a communist was not important.  It consisted of slanting book reviews, helping to prepare for the Party control of entirely insignificant organizations, writing resolutions which various “fronts” adopted and everyone disregarded, proclaiming his faith, and maintaining his doctrinal orthodoxy through the innumerable zigzags of the Party line.  The long agony that preceded his break with communism and the despair that accompanied it were a profoundly moving tragedy.  But, in his new enlightenment, what has he found out?  Why, that freedom must not be given up, that treason is evil, that murder and terrorism must not be condoned, that communism is not democratic, that democracy is precious.  That is his harvest from two dark nights of the soul, from a second birth and a third one.  See it as pitiful waste or see it as the innocence of a saint, but what is it as intelligence?  Where, for God’s sake, where was he when they were distributing minds?

Or take the anthology of apologias from which I have already quoted Mr. Crossman, The God That Failed.  There has been little discussion of its one truly shocking revelation.  The talented authors, like all recusants who preceded them in print, describe in detail the process that led them to renounce communism, the slow, painful achievement of the stand which the non-communists had originally taken.  But in doing so they also detail the reasons that had induced them to accept it.  And they reveal a shocking simple-mindedness, a shocking surrender of intelligence, a shocking inability to grasp reality.

Richard Wright’s admission of what his mind would accept as true, for instance, is almost benumbing.  One searches fruitlessly for comparison — Santa Claus, the stork brings the baby, pie in the sky by and by?  Or Ignazio Silone’s consternation when a communist assembly laughed at a delegate who protested, “But that would be a lie!”  He discloses a credulity for which there is no word but infantile, a credulity that blocks off not only the critical faculty but the perception of reality.  He had studied communism for years.  he knew its doctrines and techniques and was acquainted with its activities everywhere in Europe.  He had not only known Lenin and read his texts on revolution by conspiratorial elites but had had firsthand reports from his lieutenants on what was actually being done.  Yet he was capable of believing that this was not a shooting war but boys playing with cap pistols.  Somehow dictators, like children making their first communion, would be good and would use power only cleanly and justly.  Communism would purify itself.  It would restore “the possibility of doubting, the possibility of making a mistake, the possibility of searching and experimenting, the possibility of saying ‘no’ to any authority.”  Living in the presence of an absolutism never exceeded in history, of a ruthlessness greater than the civilized world had seen for centuries, of millions already killed or enslaved, he hung up his stocking to be filled with sweetness and kindliness.  Even after experiencing communism at first hand, he believed that machine guns would turn into cap pistols if you only affirmed they must – and had to be told that he was a counterrevolutionist.  Benignancy, magnanimity, altruism, greatness of hope — yes, all these are there.  But intelligence?

The sinister part of the book is the introduction by Mr. Crossman, an editor, a member of Parliament, never a communist, and never a mature mind, either — sinister because though it analyzes and rejects the communist intellectual’s fallacies, it retains unmodified most of the assumptions from which they originally issued.  But the absolute disclosure is Louis Fischer’s chapter; there has been no document of equal naïveté since Marjorie Fleming.  The summary of his career as a correspondent distorting and withholding facts is unremarkable, for when a mind is put to the service of an absolutism, that is what becomes of intellectual integrity.  (A commonplace cry at the mourners’ bench: oh, yes, brethren, I lied but I had faith.)  The point is that year by year this mind made out what the facts were and insisted on believing that what they were instead was what they could not possibly be.  I must understand them as something else; it really is a cap pistol to the eyes of faith, the earth is flat for I can see its edge, and I must purge myself of doubt.  When the job is finished at last all will be justified.  Believe altogether that this is not so and on the Day of Jubilo it will prove not to have been so.

This may represent some vibration in the central nervous system but it is not intelligence.  And what realization does he reach when at last a sign is given him?  “No dictatorship is a democracy and none contains the seeds of liberty,” and “There is no freedom in a dictatorship because there are no unalienable rights.”  Yes.  Where had he been?

We are asked to respect these men not as believers but as mind.  So to Arthur Koestler.  Since he apostatized he has written a brilliant novel and several others not quite so good.  And admirable artist, he evokes reservations as a thinker — as a reporter on Israel, as the compounder of a psychometaphysics.  But he illustrates the usefulness of the ex-communist intellectual.  He described convincingly what communists have done, what they feel, what they think and believe, what their methods are, how they behave.  And yet is “convincingly” the exact word?  Whatever any ex-communist can tell us truly about communism will be useful.  But it will always be a little suspect too.  His recantation says explicitly that he was once easily deceived and thought badly.  However brilliant, he had a conspicuous gift for illusion, for spinning beautiful fantasies out of abhorrent facts,  In what he now tells us about communism, how can we be sure that he understood his experience or is able to report it reliably?

That, however, is up to us; it is an ordinary problem for the critical intelligence.  But one possibility of danger latent in the ex-communist intellectual cannot be ignored….In the sum, probably, our American ones were not very important, did not do much harm, were nowhere near so great a danger as a widespread fearfulness now assumes.  Conceivably, it may prove in the end that only those who were engaged in espionage did any harm at all….But they were communists and it was only because their ideas were not accepted that they did no harm.  Their ideas were dangerous and will remain so even though they may be wrapped in tissue of a different color.

Let James Burnham show how.  As an expounder of communism he offered s the poison that kills freedom, representative institutions, democratic life, the integrity of individual men on which the existence of free society depends.  His recantation describes communism as exactly that.  But he has devoted himself to offering us the same stuff out of a differently labeled sac.  If you drop the word diamondback and substitute for it Crotalus adamanteus you have changed only the words, not the effect.  What the sac holds is still poison to freedom, free institutions, democratic society.

The convertites confess that once upon a time they were not very bright.  What we must remember is that once upon a time they were authoritarians.

“The flight from freedom.”  They have given that old phrase a new currency to explain what happened to them.  To explain what, in another renewal of a familiar phrase, they call la trahison des clercs.  Freedom lays on anyone a heavy burden of obligation, it is the heaviest of all burdens, and perhaps we should feel compassion for a man who could not bear up under it.  But the point about the ex-communist is that he did not bear up under it, a little while ago.  He fled from freedom to the absolutism that relieves a man of responsibility and his mind of obligation to do the mind’s work.  His but to accept and obey; the authority, the gospel, the Party would take over.  By this act he repudiated everything for which the free intelligence, democratic society, and the dignity of the individual stood.  His confession says in humility and grief that now he has learned better.

But the original problem is still there.  It has not changed since the nineteen-thirties.  It has not changed since Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  It has not changed since mankind began to work out the conception of free men in a free society.  The enemy is still the same: absolutism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, tyranny, whatever threatens freedom.  And the burden that freedom lays on the human mind and soul has not decreased; it has grown heavier.  The strength of every honest man is needed in its support.  There is no impugning the honesty of a man who says, “One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see.”  There can be only rejoicing that he has found his sight.  But what about his strength?  The essence of his plight, and of ours who must appraise him, is that neither was there any impugning his honesty when he was blind.  Freedom was once so intolerable a burden that he fled from it; will it again prove too much for him?  Not as a penalty for error or as a punishment for sin but as a precaution against a known and self-confessed weakness, he must be put to a double scrutiny in whatever he tells us or proposes.  His courage failed once; in what he now offers us has he succeeded in deceiving himself into some other acceptance of the gospel of despair?

Goddard College Address, 1954

    The Recurring Platitude

Commencement Address delivered Sunday, June 20, 1954
at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont

President Pitkin, members of the Faculty and of the Graduating Class, Students and friends of Goddard:

A friend of mine was, like me, invited to deliver a Commencement address this month. Unlike me, he had never composed such a speech; he had not even heard one. So he looked into the problem that confronted him; he conducted a research, or — should I say? — an investigation. He reported his findings to me. “The form,” he said, “is as fixed as that of a sonnet. You tell them: ‘This is a time of crisis.’ You say: ‘Mankind stands at a crossroads of history and the issue is in your hands.’ You say: ‘There is a lightening in the east and the gale that buffets us is the wind that runs before the dawn.’  Then you sit down.”

But, my friend said, he was going to cross them up. He was going to say, in effect, “There never was a time that wasn’t critical and this much I know, that it is going to get steadily worse and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.”

My premise is somewhat different. You are better educated this morning than you will ever be again, and I count on you to recognise today’s ceremony as of the same substance you have often encountered in your reading in, for example, The Golden Bough. We are dancing to the buffalo so that the tribal hunt will succeed, or exorcising malignities that might put a hex on the fish nets so that the catch will be abundant. Or say that my speech is a manhood ordeal which the tribe requires you to endure in order to prove that you have reached maturity. You and I are divided by the normal antagonism between the generations, on the one hand the elderly and unfit, on the other the young and untested. But I count on you to listen courteously while I perform my part of the tribal ceremony for you know that rituals must be respected, if not for their content, then because of their function and because all of us have rituals for which we demand one another’s respect.

I speak to you out of what ritual agrees to call the wisdom of my generation, which is to say that this is a highly personal discourse, overtly autobiographical in some portions, and elsewhere covertly autobiographical. I hope that you will find it heavily sown with platitudes. Indeed, I have no fear you will not, for the cornerstone of your generation’s wisdom is the awareness that mine thinks in platitudes. For four years you have been developing an admirable scorn of them. And day after tomorrow you will go out from here and begin to bridge the gap between our generations, and to create room for the coming of a generation which will progress ever upward to a fine scorn of your platitudes. And day after tomorrow you begin a process which is almost entirely unconscious, happily so for otherwise it would be even more uncomfortable than you will find it, of discovering that the most offensive attribute platitudes have is an inherent tendency to be true.

I have announced part of my text. Before I go on to the rest of it, I should look at you and murmur, “How time flies.'” I take it that you average twenty-two years old.  You were seven when the Second World War began, nine when the United States entered it, thirteen when it ended.  The figures are shocking to a man who served in the First War.  But a happy fact for my purpose is that, statistically, you were born in 1932. You are — and in the years ahead you will   find many platitudes unfolding from this fact — you are New Deal children.

I was an enthusiastic New Dealer; which is to say that my acceptance swung from fifty-one percent of the New Deal to about seventv-five percent. Never one hundred percent. In the opinion of the working New Dealers, those who accepted it one hundred percent were a conspiratorial group best described as Fifth Amendment Republicans bent on subverting our administration of the government.

It was the minus-25 portion of my beliefs that led me to dig out a news story which I wrote in 1935, when you were three. One of the New Deal agencies which together achieved a thoroughgoing but peaceful and orderly revolution, thus defeating both the left and the right, and creating in the extreme right a hatred whose effects are manifest from day to day still — one of the New Deal Agencies was the Resettlement Administration. It was established to relieve the distress of that area of the United States for which we have never developed a successful   society, the Great Plains. Bankrupted by more than a decade of farm depression, the Great Plains had been further stricken by the nationwide depression which  began in 1929 with its collapse of markets and of credit, by four years of the worst drought ever recorded, by dustbowls, and by the rot of rural society that  follows hopelessness. In a quarter of a million square miles people were in greater distress and wretchedness than Americans have ever been anywhere else  in the memory of living men. There was nothing to do but to use the resources of the federal government on their behalf in the most effective ways that could  be devised. This was done with very great success, though as I have said not so successfully that a stable society has developed there even yet.

There were other depressed rural areas and in some of them, as in much of the Great Plains, people were trying to wring a living from land which it seemed  unlikely could ever produce a tolerable living standard. Flushed with its success in the Great Plains, the Resettlement Administration confronted the problem of such areas. In due time it moved into New Hampshire. There was a particular  town which in the judgment of the experts and scientists of the Resettlement Administration consisted almost entirely of agriculturally sub-marginal land.  Farmers could never make a decent living on it and obviously the best social  and economic purpose to which it could be put was to let it return to the forest from which with great labor it had once been wrenched.  And with this judgment the State Land Use Board of New Hampshire entirely agreed. The residents of  the town had noticed the repeated presence of a lot of strangers, but they first learned why the strangers had been coming when they were notified that the Legislature of New Hampshire, conforming to the requirements of the Resettlement Administration, had passed a bill for moving them off their farms. The farms were to be paid for at full value. Other and better farms were to be found for them and credit would be extended for the construction of modern houses and farm buildings and for the purchase of agricultural machinery. The promise of a more abundant life was opened to them. But nobody had asked them whether they wanted it or on what terms.

To be brief, with their fate already decided, the townsmen reversed the fate. So far as I know the Act of the Legislature is still on the statute books but no action to put it into effect was ever taken. They besieged the Legislature and the congressional delegation. They battered both with every device of publicity which they would make use of. They rallied the Grange, the labor unions, the church, and most of all the rural press. It had taken the state and the federal government more than a year to work out their plans.  It took the town two months to kill them.

A series of letters in a little nearby weekly newspaper, signed by a woman, appeared to be one of the most effective weapons in the fight. A sentence in one of them made me determine that I would see for myself. “All this land needs,”  the woman had said, “is a little more manure and a lot more loving.”  I did not  know whether by this passionate declaration she meant loving the fields in ways which produce tribal rituals such as are interpreted in The Golden Bough, or  loving in an equally earthy but more physical sense which produces rites that we  do not need The Golden Bough  to explain to us. Nor did it matter.

The town, I found, was literally in the sticks. Not only did no main road go through it, there was not an inch of blacktop. There were exactly half as many horses as there were farms. There were no automobiles, no trucks, no tractors.   Some hay was cut by horse-drawn-mower, some by scythe. And so on. It was subsistence farming out of the early Nineteenth Century, and perhaps the picture strikes you, when I sketch it, as that of a rural slum.  So I add that no one in town was on Relief either, or at least on any form of relief other than that of borrowing from the neighbors.

The woman who had written those letters, I found, was the head of this agrarian  counter-revolution.  A pleasant smell of apples cooking came from the wood range  when I interviewed her, and I asked if she were making apple pie. Certainly  not, she said, she couldn’t afford piecrust or for that matter sugar: this was stewed apples. Well, I wrote my news story mainly about her and I have always  remembered the afternoon I spent with her; I remember it poignantly these days now that there is quite a bit of blacktop in the town, automobiles, tractors, electric light — since her counter-revolutionaries, no doubt at her instigation, succeeded in using the proffered credit to set up small woodworking plants.  “All they want is to get us on Relief so we can buy radios,” she said to me, and  I commend the remark to the dogmatic economists among you. The project was  dead, she told me. The town, she said, had licked the State of New Hampshire and it had licked the Government of the United States. “You can always lick ‘em  if the fight means enough to you,” she said.  And when I said that they had  fought well, she said yes, and it was in this up-creek farmhouse without plumbing of any kind, whether a toilet or running water, that I heard this, “As one of them old fellers said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

What had most horrified me was the proposal to move off their land people clearly thought of not as people but as lines on a graph, though the other portion of my New Deal mind knew only too bitterly that stubborn, blind insistence on staying on land unable to provide a living is a deep and dreadful evil.  l’m afraid that I wrote my story with considerable insistence on the sturdy independence of the Yankee individualist, and how the independent mind would always say to political tyranny So Far and No Farther, There was a slight phoniness in my story which I have never acknowledged before this moment, for she was not a Yankee but only married to one, she was in fact from Nebraska. And there was a slight phoniness, or perhaps I should call it literary skill, in her discourse to me. For she did not come naturally by her effectively ungrammatical idioms, and she knew very well which one of them old fellers she had quoted to ms. For she was a graduate of the University of Nebraska and a member of its Phi Beta Kappa.

As you perceive, with the low journalistic cunning which literary people disapprove, I have not only stated my text in full and in several different ways, I have also made considerable headway with the sermon I am preaching on it. The anecdote contains a large cluster of platitudes, though I have left unphrased the most important one.   Having established that base, I forgo whereas for a moment and baldly list some of the therefores which my generation has had platitudinously and most painfully beaten into its thick skulls, on the way from being the juveniles who listen to Commencement speeches to becoming the  patriarchs who deliver them,

One knows by instinct, I suppose, that when a nation finds itself engaged in a  war, then it had better win that war. But one has to be taught, and against  his resolute will not to learn, that sometimes war is inescapable. Hard as that  platitude is to learn, however, it is easy compared to learning that some wars  are necessary and their goals righteous. Hardest and most disquieting to all assumptions and beliefs is the teaching that a war does not end as the same war it was when it began. Now the tuition fee charged for instruction in such therefores is exactly whatever chances to be asked of the individual learner. It  cannot be fixed or discounted in advance. It may be the destruction of his expectation or hope, the shattering of his family affection or of the ideas with which he was prepared to appraise the world. It may be the death of friends or family. It may be the sacrifice of his career or of his limbs.  It may be  a tuition fee that will be paid only by his heirs.

An oddity must have forced itself on your attention. Statistically, you  are twenty-two.  If you had attained that statistic twelve years ago, not only would the platitudes I have listed had an exigency for you that I cannot give  them now, but also you would have found the mechanisms of society so set that you would be treated as incomparably the most important people in the country.  It happened to your older brothers, sisters, and cousins, perhaps to the parents of some of you. The social mechanisms are not geared so now. In wartime the bedrock value of a graduating class is that its members are at the level of greatest usefulness in the war. After the war is over the struggle between the  generations is resumed, and the tribe insists on treating its newly matured members as apprentices. If this seems to you a vast injustice and a greater  stupidity, you are entirely free to deal with it according to the means you  have at hand.  Bear in mind, however, that those who graduate next year will be classing you with me.

Ideas are indestructible. I doubt if any that mankind has ever held has died, been killed, or disappeared. In some avatar all are among us still, however feebly existing, and any of them may wax and spread again at almost any time. Yet they may decline of themselves, or they may be reduced in power or importance by the experience of mankind or by unceasing opposition.  A moment ago I offered one of my generation’s platitudes to the economists among you; let me now offer one to the philosophers. During the last two weeks, at such ceremonies as this, speakers have discussed various key significances of the times we live in — with, as you remember my friend’s oration was not to say, with mankind at the crossroads of history and the future in your hands. Some have spoken of the end of colonialism, some of Asia on the march, some of the incurable disease of atomic fission. I am not qualified to talk about such things, but I mention a couple of ideas whose force has been waning throughout my generation.

I remind you that the generation has lived through two world wars, a world depression, the rise and defeat of fascism and nazism, the steady increase in the power of the Russian absolutism. You are acquainted with many of its failures, weaknesses, and absurdities. Presumably, strenuous argument would be required to convince you that it has had any successes or achievement at all — except that of begetting you. Well, the tragedy of parents is that they cannot bequeath an intellectual estate.  By hard labor and good fortune, they may perhaps amass a little real estate, or a few bonds and stocks, which they can leave to their children. And they know that this is one good thing they can do for them.  An estate composed of dependable experience and negotiable ideas would be far more valuable, but intellectual real estate has a way of being destroyed by fire or flood and, bonds and stocks of proving worthless.

And yet this generation of your elders’ experiences has in one way emancipated   and enfranchised you. It has beaten down for you two of the ideas which for two centuries, or if you will for twenty-five centuries, have been among the  principal sources of human despair. Stated simply, these were the delusions that mankind and society could be made perfect, and that evil could be eradicated as a force in men’s souls and their societies. We had no intent or commitment to chain these nightmare dragons but history will say that our experiences brought a long arc of history as near to an end as history’s arcs ever come.  The sick romanticism which had man evolving divinity and his society evolving Utopia, the neurotic fantasy which cleaned evil from them both — ever since these ideas were  loosed in the world, in the experience of everyone the realities have struck  through them. There was apt to follow the collapse of courage whose name is  despair and which paralyzes action. And there was apt to follow the impatience which held that we have been too long about these matters and it is best to  accelerate the evolution of man and society by means of a  machine gun.  But to a very considerable degree we have restored a world in which man is a mixed  being and you had therefore better be vigilant, but can therefore be of confident courage too.  A world in which you know that dynamic and indestructible  evil is present at every moment, and so you will not be stampeded when it strikes.  To at least some degree we have given you a sense of reality we did not inherit.  But if that is true, then we have given you leave and justification to hope,  And as the story about the baseball player goes, God will take you through the streets in safety to the ball park and will stand by protectively while vou put on your uniform, but when you start out on the field God will touch vou on the shoulder and say, “All right, son, you take it from here.”

This leads straight to my last set of platitudes, which may well be a single platitude. I do not know which particular incantation President Pitkin, speaking for the tribe, will use in tomorrow’s ceremony. At my own college the President declares that by virtue of the authority vested in him he admits the graduate to the society of educated men. There vibrates unheard in the air an echo from another ritual, “And may God have mercy on your soul.”

In the spring of your senior year, in a time of confusion and division and violence and fear, with the Republic beset by external dangers as great as any it has ever faced, torn also by internal dissensions of far greater danger, created and used by the vilest of motives for the most repulsive reasons, with a hesitant government finding in cravenness no resolution of turbulence and no guaranty of safety — in this whirling time you have seen the United States pass judgment, through its official agencies, on one of the greatest of its citizens. The nature of that judgment, the means by which it was reached, the inferences that must be drawn from it, the implications of the future it contains — all these may appall and frighten you, as they do me. But there is another judgment too, the one which we must all pass on this great man’s education. As a scientist he was a man not only of genius but of humility too, but, though he did not know it, his education had also made him an intolerably arrogant intelligence. He tolls us that he was not given to reading newspapers or magazines of affairs, He did not know about the financial collapse of 1929 till an allusion in something he chanced to read called it to his attention months later. He was not, he tells us, he was not interested in politics.

I have left my earlier platitudes for you to put into words, but I will spell this one out. It goes without saying, we hope, that you will dedicate yourselves to your chosen way of life, your profession, art, trade, beliefs.  But you cannot be permitted such other-worldliness as Dr. Oppenheimer’s. This tragedy is not innocence, it is not naïveté, it is not purity of mind or soul — it is what the founders of this state called the deadly sin of pride, it is intellectual arrogance, it is a paralyzing poison. You are not superior to politics.  Politics are your first business; everything else comes afterward. Otherwise you  need not even step out on the field.

Thus your senior year dramatized for you one danger to which your admission to the society of educated men exposes you. Throughout your college course, you have watched the serial dramatization of another one. I can identify it by quoting a single sentence from a lecture to the Anti-Subversive Seminar of the American Legion of Massachusetts, delivered by Dr. Bella Dodd, one of the barnstorming professional ex-Communists who tour the circuit of investigating bodies and alarmist groups.  Last March she said in Boston, “The only thing we have to fear in this country is the educated man.” One of the consultants of the Jenner Committee it more generally. “People who read a lot,” he said “are a  natural set-up for Communism.”

In Texas a text-book cannot be used unless the author, or the publisher on his behalf if he is dead, has filed an affidavit with the Commissioner of Education swearing that he has never been a Communist, a Communist sympathizer, or a member of a subversive group.  Alabama has gone farther. There every textbook must carry a sworn and printed statement by the author that he is none of these things  and that he cites no book in his text or notes by anyone who is anyone of them.  Congressman Velde has gone farther still. He introduced into Congress a bill which would have required the Librarian of Congress to consult with the Attorney General, loyalty boards, state agencies, and private agencies — and a private agency can be anything from three Veterans of Foreign Wars of Norwalk, Connecticut,  to the loyalty committee of the state insane asylum — and after consulting with  them, to go through the nine million books in his library and label “subversive”  every passage which he, with such guidance, finds to be subversive. He would  also be required to affix to the cover of every such book a label saying that it contained subversive passages and another label giving the subversive elements of the author’s biography.

Vermont has long been reputed to be the state most obstinate to assert the rights of the individual mind to go its own way as it may see fit to, without let or  hindrance. Within the year a woman in the town of Shaftsbury demanded that there be thrown out of the schools one book because it was “by one of the Lattimore  gang” and another one because it was “liberal”. In Indiana a woman who is a member of the state textbook commission demanded the proscription of an anthology  containing the story of Robin Hood because, as our folksong says Jesse James did, Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor, and this is propaganda for Communism.  Also a book with Alfred Noyes’s “Highwayman” in it must go from the Indiana schools, for crime plays into the hands of the Communists, and so must Tom Sawyer, for Tom plays hooky from school and so will make defenseless children take their first step in the life of crime.

I need not list the hundreds of similar incidents during the last few years, the scores of laws .hat have been passed, the dozens of national organizations that try to proscribe books and inquiries and ideas, the hundreds of local groups that work to the same end, the thousands of books actually proscribed. I need not remind you that by now “subversive” book or idea means any book or idea that anyone docs not like, that anyone  disagrees with, that disturbs anyone. Or any  book written or any idea held by anyone whom anyone cares to call subversive, whether he say so out of ignorance, fear, fanaticism, jealousy, malice, gossip, personal or business rivalry, or .hope of profit or publicity. Whether the person who calls it subversive is a competitor or enemy of the author, a drunk, an idiot or a psychopath.  I do not need to remind you that if a book “by one of the Lattimore gang” can be proscribed today, any other book can be tomorrow.  If any idea can be penalized today, any other, and most pointedly yours, can be by Tuesday.  And if I remind you of the Gathings Committee, it is for the one purpose only.  This select committee of the House of Representatives, formed to investigate the threat to our society which consists of paperbound books that sell for twenty-five cents, reported to the House that those who wrote the Constitution   erred grievously when they put into the Bill of Rights a guarantee of freedom of publication and of the press. Democracy was in so great a danger in this fearful period, the Committee report said, that it can no longer tolerate that error, and the freedoms of which democracy consists must be abridged so that it can be saved.

I remind you of this because throughout your college years you have seen a progressive erosion of the Bill of Rights: the substitution of ordeal by committee for trial by jury, the official acceptance of occupation as proof of guilt, official denial to an accused person of the right to confront his accusers and cross-examine witnesses and present witnesses in his behalf, the progressive narrowing of the people’s right to be secure in their houses and papers and effects, the widespread revival of multiple jeopardy and the star chamber and lettres de cachet.

This you have seen while preparing yourselves to be admitted to the society of educated men   As you enter it, you know that American democracy has no specific content, no body of dogma to which its miscellaneous and variegated citizenry have been committed for a century and three-quarters. Its essence is not dogmas, theorems or doctrines, it is procedures and mechanisms and processes, and political prohibitions and immunities.  These are what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights embody, and these are what have preserved us as a free people and have made us a powerful one.  And you have seen these being circumscribed and limited and eroded.

There is nothing new in this wave of fear, suspicion, and unreason that you have seen constantly rising higher and spreading farther.  It has risen many times in history and has destroyed a number of societies — in my time both royal Italy and imperial Germany, for instance.  It has risen, as any historian can tell you, a good many times in our own history.  It has not destroyed us because the mechanisms and procedures and immunities and prohibitions which it designs to overthrow have so far stood fast, and they have stood fast because so far the defense has proved strong enough.  It has repeatedly risen because in American society, as in all others, there is a paramount reservoir of fear, suspicion, and unreason, which circumstances and crises periodically increase and arm.  Fear and suspicion of the society of educated men, and of the traditions and values what that society represents.  Fear and suspicion of inquiry, questioning, criticism, appraisal, and doubt.  Of independence of mind and non-conformity of opinion.  If people who pursue them and books which embody them.  Of reason as such and ideas as such, and of the discomfort and dangers to which people who pursue them unquestionably expose everyone.

The power of this angry, resentful, frightened, mole-like portion of our people fluctuates.  It is exercised on many levels and in many ways but it is at bottom political power.  No one can be certain how large a portion of the American people it consists of.  Some estimates run as high as thirty percent of our population, some as low as five percent.  Five percent would be enough to make it a  balance of power which could be decisive if it were polarized at the right time, in circumstances of sufficient exterior danger or interior division or weakness, and captured by sufficiently strong and ruthless men. But it does not need to hold the balance of power, it needs at any time only sufficient weakness or  indifference in the opposition; to make serious inroads on the sanctions and  immunities of free men.

I am willing to use the cliché which has become standard, anti-intellectualism,  to describe this attack on freedom which originates in fear of freedom. You have  seen a wave of it rise toward a crest.  It is wise to recognize what you have seen  as a species of war; the war that is as old as ignorance and obscurantism and  terrorism. Not many have been killed, for this is a form that attacks the mind  and not the body. And you have seen the casualties in the form of blasted lives,  shattered careers, ruined reputations, the end of hope and the closure of opportunity.  The indirect casualties are mere costly: the survival value put on conformity, mediocrity, submissiveness. They affect all levels of the national life:  the government and the civil service, and the foreign service, the business and  industrial system, the schools and colleges.

There is a striking thing. This is a kind of war in which the forces of darkness cannot win except by default.  If they are opposed, then they are ultimately defeated — for it is a kind of war, too, in which containment is victory. We need only fight in order to win. Since it is a war, and that it is war is a platitude which you had better recognize and stand on — since it is, the costs and casualties are unavoidable and may be high. Those who fight in it arc called upon to  risk loss, damage, and ruin precisely as those who fight in military wars risk death. The risks are there but the alternative, as in military war, is defeat.

I had better stress the possibility of defeat. Granted sufficient timidity, cravenness, or indifference, we can lose.  The habits of democratic association go deep and their forms and mechanisms are strong. But nothing in the organization  of the world promises us that they are immortal, or that they will persist of their own will.  God takes the American people in safety through the streets to the ball park, but when they step out on the playing field they are on their own.  I could point to persuasive evidence which suggests that in the current chapter of this war we have passed the turning point and are on the mend.  I am not going to. It is true that whereas fifteen months ago the attack on books seemed everywhere irresistible, we have lost no ground at all in the last twelve months. We have, indeed, won back much if not most of what we had lost. In that year every fight made against proscription has been won.  It is an illustration of the principle that the fight needs only to be made in order to be won.  Primarily this success rests on the decision of two essentially weak bodies, the American Library Association and the Publishers Council, that henceforth they let no attempt at proscription go unchallenged. They have challenged every one since then and no proscription has succeeded. Clearly, too, the colleges are in a much better position than they were a year ago. The Jenner Committee and the Velde Committee were then preparing an attack on them that seemed incomparably more dangerous than by now it has proved to be.  It declined in power and has become almost a nonentity because, irresolutely and piecemeal and one by one at first, but with increasing resolution and cooperation the colleges turned and fought back. It accomplishes nothing to ask why they did not turn and fight a year or two year or five years earlier. The important questions are how much they will get back of what they have lost, and whether they have lost so much that the damage will be   permanent.

Extend the questions from the colleges to the nation at large, and it is clear why no one can say that we have passed the turning point. Which is where you come in, for it is obvious that to the passing generation the outcome of the war will matter less and less as time goes on, whereas it will matter more and more to you. No generation ever asked to be precipitated into a war, you did not ask to be enlisted in this one, but the war is here and you are in it. You will win or lose it and, a few years from now, to my generation it will not matter which.   You will make the fight or you won’t.  All right, son, you take it from here.

Joe McCarthy’s true name is Legion and he has a residence in every town. Which is to say that the people who count are those you will always find immediately at hand.  The misguided and the misinformed and the misled and the fanatical and the frightened — these, whom you will meet everywhere, are your first concern   They are a greater danger than the clowns and yahoos in Congress, for the powers of the clowns and yahoos derives from them. Half of it does; the other half derives from the supineness of those who should be enlightening them, reasoning with them, opposing them, fighting them.

I trust you have noticed that I have been chary of using the words “free” and “freedom”.  There is no reason to avoid them any longer. Freedom begins in the local community, the local group, the corner of High and Main, the bull session.  So does the loss of freedom.

Today I deal only in platitudes.  I tell you that you must make scenes. You  must let nothing go unchallenged, whether it is a companion’s remark that Joe’s heart is in the right place though his methods may be extreme, a hostess’s admiration of the Minute Women of the United States, a selectman’s discovery of Communism in Geoffrey Chaucer, an employer’s question whether you have ever read  Lenin, or a candidate’s campaign to replace someone who has dared to raise a voice for individual liberty. This much has been done for you: the means of challenge, opposition, scrutiny, counterattack have been put in your hands. No regressive  step, no proposal of proscription, no whittling away must ever go unopposed. It  must be opposed at the dinner table, in the bar room, at the cigar store, and from there on up.  The structure of freedom rests on those who are immediately at hand.

The honest but misguided citizen of your own home town — he is your first and constant objective. He must be reasoned with, when the need comes he must be opposed, and from there on to whatever extremity if may take. The light must be  turned on and kept on. When repressive organizations are formed, they must be  organized against. The law is on your side: you must use the law. The hope is that amiability can be preserved, but the edge of social action is always rough  and bloody and when ugliness arises you will have to accept it. In fact, what you need fully as much as resolution is anger. When a wave of anger at the demagogues who have set up against one another runs across the United States, the wave of whipped-up fear will abruptly subside, and then the turning-point will indeed have been reached and passed.

No one promises that the war in which you did not ask to be enlisted will be easy. No war is. Indecency, injustice, humiliation, thwarted careers, ruined reputations, blasted lives — you will see a lot of them, they may befall any of you. There is no help for that.  Remind a man of my age that he has seen two military wars on a global scale, has indeed been enlisted in both of them though he asked for neither, and he can tell you of the friends, companions, and relatives who did not survive them as he did.  The little flags fly over their beautifully landscaped graves now and many people, exalted by the grief and reminiscence which the sight of them inspires, may say what a great and pitiful waste those deaths were, the deaths of hundreds of thousands who counted as much in their own eyes and in God’s as you or I.  But the generation which fought the two wars will not tell you they were wasted.  God knows it is not much of a world we preserved by means of them, but ask what it would have been if those graves did not exist.

A platitude is a truth which, I have said, beats you over the head until you recognize that it is a truth.  So it is time to tell you my wish for you and the one item of advice I have for you.  The advice is simple and yet the future of democratic government in the United States and the fate of the inquiring mind depend on how applicable your generation will believe it to be.  It is this: when someone tries to shove you around, shove back, as hard as may be necessary.  The wish is that your generation need not be beaten over the head too hard or too long to realize that the battle for freedom is unending and that, though the terms of the battle may change from generation to generation, every generation must fight it in whatever terms are presented.  That, though the terms are different now from those of thirteen years ago and those of forty years ago, it is the same battle and equally inescapable.  That it can be lost, as all battles can be, but that resolution, courage, doggedness, the refusal to be intimidated, the refusal to be stopped, all of which are very simple things, are sure to win in the end.  That the price of freedom is whatever may be asked.  That freedom is there to be used.  That if it is not used it vanishes, but that in order to preserve it you have only to insist on using it.  That, for you too, as one of them old fellers said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

to Adlai Stevenson

To Adlai Stevenson

August 29, 1954

Dear Adlai:

You asked for a few paragraphs.  You get six pages.  It’s a dirty trick but if I do say so, I think they’re worth reading.  I think I’ve tied this one up and in half an hour you get the basis of a big problem.

The further point is that this problem dovetails with all the other basic problems of the West and cannot really be separated from them.  There is no greater domestic need than a comprehensive program for the West.  We need bold and imaginative thinking about resources, thinking on a large scale, and most of all new thinking.  Conservation thinking suffers from repetitiousness, hidebound tradition, and an inability to realize that the world of 1950 frequently requires different answers from those that were satisfactory in 1900.  If the Democratic Party could work out a resources policy that would safeguard the tested principles and preserve the gains made up to now, and that at the same time would dare to look forward to the needs of the next fifty years, it could get and hold the West indefinitely.  We need a mid-twentieth century Pinchot.

If you make use of any of the stuff herein, better say tentatively and gradually what I say flatly.

Mostly because I was with you and my Harper’s piece [“Conservation: Down and on the Way Out,” Harper’s 209, August 1954] had made me hot, the Department of Agriculture is suspicious of your Missoula visit.  Better therefore not mention the Forest Service directly if you make any challenging remarks.

One of these days I’ll challenge the theory and expenditures of Reclamation for you.

Sincerely yours,

[enclosure: “six pages” of notes about the West, below:]

Remember about the West:

Except for Washington and Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, and except for California west of the Sierra and north of an east-west line drawn a little south of San Francisco, the West is all semi-arid or arid.  That is, with those exceptions, the West gets less than the twenty inches of rainfall per year that, in general, is necessary to grow crops.

Most of the West gets less than twelve inches of rain, much of it less than eight.  Some of it is absolute desert, that is with a rainfall of less than four inches.

Herein, however, by “desert” I mean any region markedly deficient in rainfall.

The water deficit is made up from the snow that falls in the mountains.  In an excellent phrase Reed Bailey speaks of the mountains as the West’s “humid islands,” and that is the way to think of them, as island oases in a desert which occupies almost forty percent of the area of the United States.

The “snow-pack line” is the elevation above which the winter snowfall is sufficiently deep and packed sufficiently hard to produce a usable melt in late spring and early summer.  In the northernmost parts of the West the upper panhandle of Idaho for instance, it comes as low as 2,500 feet.  It gets higher as you travel south.  At Missoula, Montana, it is about 6,000 feet.  In the southern Sierra and the southern Rockies it is above 10,000 feet.  A safe generalization: in general the snow-pack line is above 7,000 feet.  The West exists because of the snow at this altitude and above it.

In the mountains, the climate is too cold, the slope is too steep, and the soil is too thin.  In the desert, there is not enough water.  Therefore, in the West agriculture and village, town, and city life are localized in the valleys.  Plus those parts of the (flat) desert to which water can be brought.

Dams are built to catch and hold the spring runoff, so that water can be taken to (in this order) the valley lands, the foothills, and the desert.  The farther upstream you build a dam, the higher up in the foothills and the farther out in the desert you can take the water.

We will never be able to take water very far into the desert.  Most of the West is desert — without agriculture, industry, or social organization — and all of it that is desert now always will be, except for minute fractions that can be “reclaimed.”  For instance, more than 97 percent of Utah is uninhabited and at best more than 96 percent always will be.  Uranium is so enormously valuable that water will be taken to the deposits in southern Utah in sufficient quantity for them to be mined, but the ore, in order to be refined, will have to be transported to places of more abundant water.  But most of the Utah desert is a winter range for sheep.

Irrigated farming is the most stable form of agriculture, for it is independent of annual and seasonal variations in rainfall.  The water that makes it independent of those variations is stored in the reservoirs above the dams.

Much of the West that should have remained grazing range has been plowed up for wheat.  This is especially true of the eastern portion of the Great Plains, which my book will call the “Tragic Area.”  It is true of much of the foothill area above the valleys in the mountain West.

Practically all of the West has been destructively overgrazed.  This is especially true of many high-slope areas which are of critical importance to primary watersheds and many of which should never have been grazed at all.  But it is most universally and most disastrously true of the foothills.

Remember about the Western stock business:

In general, and necessarily, it is conducted on land for which there is no other use.  Exception: some of it is conducted on land where grazing is one of several uses, some of it on land where grazing is a subsidiary and minor use.

Characteristically but not universally, the pattern of the business is as follows.  A stockgrower has a home ranch, where he raises hay and sometimes other forms of fodder.  He keeps his stock on his home ranch during the winter; they graze stubble for a time but mostly he feeds them the fodder he has raised.  In the spring and the fall he leases range for his stock from the federal government, from the states, or from private owners (most of whom are absentee).  The spring-fall range is mostly in the foothills.  In the summer, he usually moves them north or higher — that is, much of the summer range is in the mountains.  Here is where the Forest Service ranges enter.  (This is what the land-grab battle has always been about, the grazing ranges in the national forests.)  In a national forest, grazing is always a subsidiary use.

(Something less than one-sixth of the Western cattle business uses forest ranges.  About one-third of the Western sheep business uses them.  Since the summer season runs from three to five months, the forest ranges provide only a small percent of the fodder for the Western stock business and only an infinitesimal percent for the American stock business as a whole.)

Western stockgrowers who sell feeder stock for fattening farther east usually do not need a fall range.  In the southernmost portions of the West some of them do not even use a summer range.

Sheep can satisfy their thirst by eating snow, as cattle cannot.  This makes Nevada, most of Utah, southwestern Colorado and portions of Arizona and New Mexico a usable winter range.

Note, however, how thin such grazing can be.  (And how thin is has frequently been made, by overgrazing, in other than winter-range areas.)  It may take upward of 16 acres per month to graze one “animal unit,” that is one cow or five sheep.  (“Upward” sometimes gets up to 20 or 25 acres.)  If a steer requires 16 acres per month, then in a six-month season it will require 96 acres.  On this basis a thousand ewes, which is about the smallest band that will support a family, would need 19,200 acres for a six-months season.  That is thirty square miles.

Irrigated pasture land can support far more stock per acre than range land.  Because it can there is a gradual and inexorable shift of the Western stock business to year-round home feeding on irrigated pastures.  This trend will steadily reduce the number of range-fed stock.  But whether it will proceed fast enough and far enough to relieve the ranges in time is open to question.  Still, irrigated, home-owned pastures and improvement of breeding stock are a bright promise for the West.

It was a great national and a great Western tragedy that the eastern edge of the Great Plains was allowed to become a wheat country.  This is the fringe area west of the 100th Meridian — eastern Montana, such parts of Wyoming as were plowed, western North and South Dakota, western Kansas (western Nebraska, the sand-hill country, never has been extensively farmed and is today the best stockgrowing country in the West), eastern and southern Colorado, New Mexico so far as it has been farmed for wheat.  (And of course, western Oklahoma and Texas, outside my present concern.)  This was the finest cattle range in the United States.  The stockmen would have overgrazed it, and to some extent did overgraze it — for that is the nature of stockmen throughout history.  But as an agricultural country, it is the portion of the United States for which American society has not yet found a stable adaptation.  It is the three-bankruptcies-to-make-a-farm country, the dustbowl country, the boom-and-bust country.  In the wet years, the wheat ranchers clean up big and buy more land so that they can clean up bigger.  In the dry years they go broke, go on relief, move out, and the land goes tax-delinquent and the soil blows away.  In the 1930s the federal government bought millions of acres of it as a relief measure.  (These are the LU — Land Utilization — lands and a big battle over them is shaping up.)  It put those lands on a stock-growing economy and it organized many millions of acres in the same areas as Soil Conservation Districts, which were put on a stock-growing basis.  When the war prices for wheat came along many of the Districts voted themselves out of existence.  That’s where the new dustbowls are.  The dustbowl fringe-lands, now disaster areas from drought, are heavily overgrazed areas.


The Foothills

The West lives, and forever must live, on the margin of disaster — because of its water deficit.  It is habituated to crisis but there are slowly (at times and in certain places not so slowly) and steadily intensifying crises of which all go back ultimately to water supply and all are mainly due to bad land management.  The crisis that has proceeded farthest, the most critical area of the West today, is the foothills.  These are the lands above irrigation and below the mountain ranges.

In general, the Western valleys and foothills were originally covered with grass.  Its disappearance from the valleys is of no moment, for fields and orchards and towns have taken its place.  But its disappearance from the foothills is a tremendous disaster.

In general, the foothills were grassy before stock were grazed on them.  They were either all grass, frequently “waist high” and “stirrup high,” or covered with the highly nutritious grass-sagebrush association.  In general they were magnificent grazing ranges.  And almost universally they have been drastically depleted by too heavy grazing.

But they have been subjected to other pressures too.  Towns and cities have built up into the foothills above the valleys in whose floors they were originally founded.  Large areas have been dry-farmed for wheat.  Also they have been grazed increasingly heavily by the increasing herds of wild game, especially deer.  This threefold pressure has cut down the area of the range available for grazing by stock.  (As noted above, the foothills are naturally spring and fall range; indeed, the inclusive common name for them is “the spring-fall range.”)  This has naturally resulted in even more intensive grazing of the remaining area, with more rapid and complete depletion and deterioration following progressively.

This in turn has frequently meant a stronger pressure on the summer range and the winter range, with inevitable degradation.

Everywhere in the West the productivity of grazing ranges has been enormously cut down.  In Utah, for, instance, the ranges support less than half as many sheep now as they did in 1900.  At a guess Colorado cattle grazing has been cut down even more, but figures on cattle are tricky and this is not a safe statement to stand on.  All the ranges, mountain, desert, and foothill, have been abused and have suffered serious degradation.  But the worst damage, and the most widespread and alarming, has been done to the foothills.

I neglected to get figures on the foothill ranges near Missoula but they are obviously in bad shape and if restored to their original productivity could certainly graze much more stock than they now do.  And note that these ranges are in a much more humid climate (16 inches a year) than those in the states south of them, and so can stand more abuse, and have besides been much less heavily grazed.

After leaving Missoula, we drove over the mountains and up the Lemhi Valley in Idaho and across the Portneuf Valley in Idaho and the Bear  River Valley in Utah.  Foothill range all the way.  At one time these ranges probably produced more forage, more per acre that is, than the Montana ranges.  But now they produce no more than ten percent of what they once did and could again.  That is, if restored they could safely carry ten times as many stock as they do now, provided that stock was managed properly.

This is perhaps a little worse than the average deterioration of the foothill ranges in the interior West.  But on the other hand there are many places that are much worse.  It is safe to say that throughout the arid West, as distinguished from the semi-arid West, all the foothill ranges are in bad shape and most of them in critically bad shape.

It is worth pointing out why.  Damage is more rapid there, once started, than elsewhere in the West because of the delicate balance of the ecological complex.  The reasons are primarily climatic.  The foothills are on the margin between aridity and true desert, and the climate is one of extremes — prolonged droughts and torrential storms.  Swift erosion follows loss of vegetative cover.  A lot of overgrazing is required to break down the range, but once it is broken down. it goes fast and it can be brought back only slowly and only at great expense.  The extremes that produce rapid erosion also make revegetation difficult.

Note that as the “climax” vegetation, the best native grasses, is used up, increasingly less palatable and more useless vegetation takes its place.  Millions of foothill acres now covered with sagebrush, sunflowers, Russian thistle, tumbleweed, similar worthless plants were once covered with bunch grass.

The same thing happens on the flat winter ranges.  Overgrazing brings shadscale to the range, a pretty good forage plant but not as good as those it replaces.  Then comes rabbit brush, greasewood, and similar practically worthless shrubs.  The noxious and poisonous weeds — halogeton, the sheep-killer, for instance — get a toehold and begin to spread.

All this can be seen from an automobile as you travel down a valley.  What is less readily visible, what you have to stop and look at, is the increasing thinness of the vegetative cover and the widening areas of bare soil.  This is where the dust that makes dust-storms and the sediment that fills dams and irrigation systems come from.  This is where the hardening of the surface and the gullying that make floods occur.  This is where the soil blows away and is washed away, with pyramiding damage to the range (and the stock business) and progressively spreading and intensifying damage to the water production on which all Western life and business are dependent.

The high areas and the steep slopes are potentially even greater producers of sediment and begetters of flood.  But that is another story, though it is interlocked with this one and with the same interlocked general problems.



“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from which [sic] cometh my help.”  Nice poetry but not true.  The help doesn’t come.  What comes instead is disaster.  Every civilization built “under the ditch” has failed so far.  They have failed not because of engineering, which has performed miracles in all civilizations, but because of lack of understanding of the land.  Our civilization in the West can fail like the others and, quite certainly, is now headed toward ultimate failure.  But it doesn’t have to fail.

The correct management of land — how human society can be conducted in harmony with the conditions set by nature — is now a matter of scientific knowledge.  The terms of life in the West are more rigorous than those which nature sets elsewhere in the United States, but those terms and how to observe them are scientifically known.  In particular, during the last forty years we have developed, for the first time in history, the science of range management.  We know enough; all we have to do is to act on what we know.  If we do, the West, which is the great national storehouse of undeveloped natural resources, will play its potential part in our expanding economy.  If we don’t, the West will go to hell.  If it does, in my opinion the United States will go to hell too.

In the mountains of the West, deterioration has been halted, and the trend reversed in, perhaps 65 percent of the area — much more in some portions, such as Montana, less in some other portions.  But in the foothills deterioration has been halted in only minute areas, to a total so small that it can be disregarded.

The principal reason why no more has been done is the fact that the foothill ranges are mostly under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, which has not been given the appropriations, the manpower, the organization, or the authority necessary to do the work of restoration.

(Note that state-owned ranges are invariably in even worse condition.)

The farther deterioration has progressed, the harder, the slower, and the more expensive the work of restoration — and the more drastic the methods.  There are a good many areas, most of them fortunately small, about which nothing can ever be done beyond confining the damage to what has already occurred.  But in most places the range can be brought back, and if it is brought back then the interlocking problems of erosion and water loss will also be solved.

In general, restoration means: engineering, control of runoff, reseeding and related methods of bringing back the grass, and intelligent regulation of grazing.  Intelligent regulation of grazing means grazing, area by area, the number of stock that will fully use the range without impairing its ability to maintain itself and, area by area, grazing them for the right length of time at the right seasons.

Though some intransigents among stockmen have not yet realized it, intelligent regulation of grazing means much greater production of stock, much larger profits, and a much larger measure of stability in the stock business.  But to hell with the stock business, what counts is that intelligent regulation of grazing means the protection of the West’s water, which means protection of Western life and society.

All the methods of restoring the range must be applied on a far larger scale than they ever have been so far, an enormously larger scale.  A scale so large that it either oppresses the imagination or kindles it with enthusiasm.

This means appropriations.  But it means two preliminaries, and, after they are taken, it means genuine integration with all the efforts to solve the other fundamental problems of the West.

One preliminary is the transfer of the Bureau of Land Management to the Department of Agriculture.  (For reasons I harped on during our trip.  This naturally includes transferring to the Forest Service the forests now administered by BLM, but that is a secondary consideration.)  The other is the amendment of the Taylor Act, as proposed during the last Congress by Congressman Metcalf of Montana.  The BLM lands were organized and are now administered under the Taylor Grazing Act,  It must be amended so that regulation of grazing on BLM lands can be brought up to the standards of the Forest Service regulation of grazing in the national forests.

From there on we get into watershed management, reclamation, dams, power, water for cities and industries, etc.  The problems of the West must be seen in relation to one another and cannot be solved out of that relationship.  But I have herein isolated the problem of the foothills.

The Centennial of Mormonism

    The Centennial of Mormonism:    A Study in Utopia and Dictatorship

from Forays and Rebuttals, 1936
expanded from The American Mercury, January 1930


Authorities disagree about the exact date of the withdrawal from the Christian Church of the divine authority once vested in it.  Corruptions of its spirit, misuses of its gifts, and perversions of its doctrine following the death of the last Apostle suggest to some that God then took back His holy priesthood.  Others set other dates but all agree that by the fifth century the Church was altogether heretical and the ministry of Jesus, more properly called the Dispensation of the Meridian of Time, had come to an end.  From that time forth no one held the keys of the spirit, no priests had authority to perform the ordinances of God, and no church had the organization, ritual, sacraments, government, theological authority or legal succession that God had established.  During that period, which is known as the Great Apostasy, the Church of God was altogether absent from this earth.  The whole world labored in darkness.  Everyone was a heretic.

Mathematical computation establishes April 6, 1830, as exactly eighteen hundred years after the Resurrection of Jesus.  On that date, in fulfillment of prophecies contained in Holy Writ, God restored His Church, reëstablished the holy priesthood and the ordinances of salvation, and in doing so opened the Dispensation of the Fullness of Time.  On April 6, 1830, therefore, the millennium began.  For this was the final Restoration: henceforth the keys and the priesthood would never be withdrawn, and the orderly working out of man’s salvation would continue without interruption to the full establishment of the Kingdom of God.  The Restoration was clearly the most important event in human history, and its date is obviously more significant than that birthday of Jesus from which heretical Christendom reckons its time.

The scene divinely appointed for the Restoration was an obscure village named Fayette, between Lakes Seneca and Cayuga, near the edge of settlement in New York State.  Since 1830 it has been remarkable for nothing whatever, and at that time it was a primitive settlement surrounded by semi-wilderness, a mere dot in the expansion of frontier New York State that followed the construction of the Erie Canal.  But the last and greatest of God’s prophets happened to be staying there at the time.  Ten years before, when the prophet was just short of fifteen years old and while he was living at Palmyra, a similarly primitive community, Jehovah and Jesus Christ had appeared to him and informed him of his consecration.  Thereafter he had been in communication with the Angel Nephi (whose name later became Moroni) and with many other personages of heaven — archangels such as Michael, prophets such as Elijah and John the Baptist, and the Apostles Peter, James and John.  Nephi had conducted him to a hill near Palmyra and shown him the secret repository of certain miraculous sheets or “plates” of gold, which contained a record of the Church of God in America.  This was a history of certain Israelites who, in two different migrations, had left Jerusalem, had colonized the American continent with great cities, and at last had fallen from grace and degenerated into the Lamanites, erroneously spoken of as “Indians.”  Nearly three years before the Restoration, the prophet had been commanded to take the plates from their hiding place.  Since then he had translated them (from a language known as “the reformed Egyptian”) by miraculous means.  The translation had been finished and was being printed at Palmyra, as The Book of Mormon, when the Restoration occurred.

The Restoration was less dramatic than a number of events that had preceded it.  The setting was the house of Peter Whitmer, who probably came from frontier Pennsylvania but about whom practically nothing is known.  Two members of the Whitmer family were present.  So was Oliver Cowdery, a native of Wells, in frontier Vermont, who had been the prophet’s amanuensis.  So were two brothers of the prophet.  Joseph Smith, Junior, the prophet himself, was the sixth.  It was just such a group of countrymen as might gather at a crossroads store to discuss the price of mink skins or the rumors about Andrew Jackson that filtered through the backwoods from Washington.  After prayer and blessings, Joseph and Cowdery ordained each other as elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It was a simple ceremony, consisting of no more than the laying-on of hands and the pronunciation of the appropriate words.  But it brought back to the world the priesthood that had not existed here since the defection of the apostolic church.  And with that priesthood came “the keys of authority and the power to bind, to loose and to seal on the earth and in Heaven, according to the commandments of God and the revelations of Jesus Christ.”  Thus simply did the millennium begin.

That was the actual Restoration.  Following it, the six members of the true Church blessed the sacrament and partook of it.  The Holy Ghost was poured out upon them.  Some prophesied, all praised the Lord and rejoiced exceedingly, and the prophet Joseph received a revelation from Almighty God.  This exaltation began a period of miracle in the restored Church.  As new elders were ordained and as converts were made through the surrounding countryside, all the gifts of primitive Christianity were displayed.  The elders healed the sick and the blind, they conversed in the holy languages of Heaven, they suspended the operation of natural laws, they had prophetic visions and they raised the dead.  All this had been predicted, not only in Scripture but in the revelations of Joseph, and so they confidently began the proselyting that was to make Mormons of all mankind.

Only one who is unacquainted with American history will find anything amazing in these scenes, or think it strange that God should select an ignorant frontier-drifter, dowser and treasure-hunter as His greatest prophet and a handful of backwoodsmen as the first elders in His restored Church.  The year 1830 was well past the halfway mark in our national Pentecost.  The breakdown of Calvinism and the rise of the evangelical churches, the subdivision of sects that followed the Great Revival, the repeated outbreaks of hysterical phenomena that created the “burnt-over district,” the spread of expansive humanitarian ideas and their degradation by the vulgar — all these encouraged American Protestantism to work itself out to its logical extremes in a territory peculiarly favorable to their development, frontier New England and New York.  In the ten years preceding 1830, the True Church of Christ had appeared or reappeared many times; it would reappear many times again in the next twenty years.

A secret expectation that the terrible Day of the Lord would occur within the living generation had, of course, crossed the Atlantic in the Arbella and even in the Mayflower.  Belief in it had, however, formed no part in the Puritan teaching and its occasional irruption among the mystical or the hysterical had been curtly dealt with, so that it found little expression except as a hypothesis elaborated in occasional, abstruse metaphysical works.  Nevertheless the mystical and the hysterical exist in all churches and this idea, with its corollary of the establishment of the Kingdom of God, could be easily aroused by such a ministry as George Whitefield’s.  In fact, millennialism probably became an effective idea in America as a result of Whitefield’s preaching; at least, the fires which he lighted never died out.  It remained, however, for the mutilation of his ideas and the Wesleyan conflagration on the Kentucky frontier to bring on an era of apocalypse.

The passage eastward of the Great Revival occupied a number of years — and it fertilized the soil with piety, religious argumentation and nervous disease.  There is no way of estimating, and probably no likelihood of overestimating, the amount of supernaturalism that flourished in the burnt-over district during the first thirty years of the Nineteenth Century.  It affected, of course, various orders of intelligence.  On the lowest level it produced such squalid ventures in theophany as the one which William Dean Howells described in The Leatherwood God.  But the same energy found expression in higher levels, and millennialism was not the only shape it took.

For years before the establishment of Joseph Smith’s church, for instance, Alexander Campbell had been proselyting among the border Presbyterians and Baptists with a theology based on the literal interpretation and application of the Bible and growing steadily more concerned with the Second Coming of Christ.  At the very moment when the True Church was restored at Fayette, William Miller completed the fifteen years of mathematical analysis which enabled him to determine 1843 as the year of Christ’s return.  Miller was then living in Hampton, New York, a few miles from the Vermont border, and a year later, in 1831, God not only spoke to him out of the heavens, commanding him to make his results public, but also sent a messenger to open the way.  In that same year, 1831, another great revival flared up from the embers of the old one.  Onondaga Lake makes the third point of an equilateral triangle whose other points are Fayette and Palmyra, and the skies above Onondaga filled with battalions of angels.  At Putney, Vermont, young John Humphrey Noyes labored to resist the spirit and did resist it through one protracted meeting, but before long he too was hearing God speak.  From Onondaga to New Haven to Putney, by way of Brimfield, spread another doctrine that had been debated in the Puritan metaphysics but now had acquired living force: Perfectionism, the idea that living men might attain sinlessness and might thereafter dwell in the Kingdom, as Saints.  This doctrine was also part of the Shaker creed.  The Shakers antedated Pentecost and in fact had originated in England.  But they too made their greatest gains at this time, they too lived as Saints, they too were the Church of Christ, and it is not without interest that Joseph Smith had lived in a New Hampshire town where one of their communities was established.

These, it should be made plain, are only a few of the religions generated in the New England hills and the lake country of New York during the days of our apocalypse.  Sects rose, flourished or did not flourish, divided, were amalgamated with larger bodies, broke up from dissension or the failure of grace, were snuffed out.  An anonymous Frenchman had already remarked that although America had been able to devise but one soup, it had invented a hundred religions.  His was a moderate estimate.  Some subtlety of climate, racial stock or social organization on the frontier of New England and New York made the air fecund.  A circle described on a radius of one hundred and fifty miles around such a center as Pittsfield, Massachusetts, would include the birthplaces of ninety percent of the American sects and of an even greater percentage of their prophets.  Many prophets before Joseph Smith revealed God’s will within that circle, and many more came after him.

But if there was nothing singular in the Restoration and the ensuing birth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, there has been something very remarkable in its survival.  When on April 6, 1930, the sixth successor of Joseph Smith, Prophet Heber J. Grant, addressed his flock in Salt Lake City, his voice went out by radio to Latter-Day Saints all over America and the seven seas besides.  And the prophet Heber, announcing that the first century of the millennium had been rounded out, could show that the promises which God made to the prophet Joseph, alone of all His promises during the Pentecost, had been fulfilled.  Pentecost had been over for nearly ninety years, and of it only the Mormon revelation had completely succeeded.  The Saints had come into the inheritance promised them, their rivals had fallen away, their enemies had been trodden under foot or converted into business partners, their wars were ended forever, Israel was secure, the stake of Zion had been driven fast.

Consider.  Of the scores of True Churches that the four millennial decades produced, hardly a handful remain today.  Of that handful, all but two or three are so insignificant that only specialists have heard of the.  The Shakers about the farmsteads that were once pleasant in the sight of God, but in a few years more the last of them must die.  The Adventists, in various schisms, still retain enough vitality from the visions of William Miller to operate sanatoria and preach the wrath to come, but they are miserably poor and affect no one.  The Church of Christ Scientist, which flowered with the same planting though it was only indirectly Pentecostal, has achieved a social prominence beyond any other, but it has passed its zenith.  The rate of increase slows down, revelation is closed, and mighty interior strains threaten collapse.  Alexander Campbell’s church has some five times as many communicants as Mother Eddy’s, but the stigmata of a True Church have long since faded from them, they show few vestiges of Pentecost, and they are to-day hardly distinguishable from the Methodists or the damned.  Here and there along the Great Lakes or the Ohio, in interior Missouri, Iowa or Texas, the student will find other microscopic survivals of the True Churches that came down from the heavens to the high places of New England during the generation of the striving — but they are wretched and pitiful.  They came in sudden glory, the sky opening to the immemorial thunderclap, the awful Voice proclaiming that the hour had struck and summoning all kindreds, tongues and people unto judgment.  They end with a group of graybeards kneeling while a priest of the eternal mysteries prays for a miracle that will pay off the mortgage on the meeting house.

Why has one True Church survived while scores of others have perished?  What in the Mormon revelation has made it victorious over its myriad competitors?  The answer is intricate, not to be glibly pronounced in these few pages.  But one may shorten it somewhat by setting down an axiom: Mormonism is a wholly American religion, and it contrived to satisfy needs which are basic with a good many Americans and which none of its competitors managed to supply.  Otherwise, one may be sure, 1930 would have found it as dead as the creed of the Icarian communists who took over its deserted city at Nauvoo.


The 1870’s were the great decade of anti-Mormon agitation among the Protestant churches.  As soon as the Union Pacific was built missionaries swarmed westward to the Kingdom of the Saints, and swarmed eastward again to write books denouncing these uncouth, godly, and rather prudish folk as sinners of imperial magnificence.  What the missionaries could not stand was polygamy, as dull and heaven knows as laborious an institution as humanity has ever  evolved, and the scores of books they published painted Mormonry in lurid colors that exhibited both their authors’ skill at concupiscent fantasy and their total failure to use their eyes.  The tide receded when Methodism had its way and, in the ‘Eighties, Acts of Congress finally began the suppression of polygamy.  When Mormonism again broke into popular literature, in the first decade of this century, it was as big business and a target of the muckrakers.  Although several professional Mormon-baiters flourished as late as the World War and one (I believe) still roams the far Chautauquas, and although evangelical congregations deep in the canebrakes still occasionally raise funds to cure the Saints of lechery and free their houris, the surge of the ‘Seventies has never been repeated.  America will crusade no more against polygamy.

Unhappily, the pornographic bilge then written settled the ideas of the general public.  So far as that public thinks of Israel at all, it thinks of sinister, bearded men who have taken fearful oaths to destroy the United States Government, who are Sons of Dan (Destroying Angels) and so slip out of town by night to do a little murder for the faith’s sake, and who maintain harems of luscious girls snatched from their true loves or kidnapped from the Gentiles.  Not years of patient publicity work by the Saints, not the regiments of Mormons whom Reed Smoot put into the Civil Service, not even the appointment of a Mormon to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board and the publication of an article about him in Fortune has been able to alter this conception in the least.  The fact that the Mormons are polytheists and will eventually be gods ought to provide an attractive popular symbol, but seemingly to the Americans at large they will be polygamists forever.

At least the public view has some basis in fact, for the Saints did practice polygamy for many years.  Whereas the treatment of the Mormons by our intellectuals has never been contaminated by fact and is a mass of complete nonsense altogether divorced from reality.  My profession requires me to read al the books that explain America to itself (I study the genre in “Thinking About America” in this volume), many of them discuss Mormonism at some length, and I have never yet encountered in them any statement of fact that would hold water or any interpretation that made sense to a person who has lived among the Mormons and studied their history.  You will find some beautiful ideas about the Mormons in the books of our liberal thinkers, but you will find no idea that touches the reality at any point.  Let the rhapsodic Waldo Frank serve as a type-specimen.  When Mr. Frank wrote Our America he apparently had not heard of the Shakers or the Oneida Community (or, so far as I can see, any of the sects or communities that grappled with the problems he was discussing), but he was sure that Mormonism was an attempt to achieve a more expansive, more dynamic spiritual expressions — by means of echolalia and polygamy.  Polygamy is susceptible of several explanations, but to call it a deliberate effort to solve any question, whether spiritual or sexual, is a blunder possible only to a man who has read nothing whatever in Mormonism and knows nothing whatever about its contemporaries in Pentecost.  And when Mr. Frank calls Mormon doctrine a revolt against Puritanism he not only reveals his complete ignorance of Mormonism but calls into question his knowledge of puritanism — on which his book was based.

The public may be excused for misconceiving Mormonism, and it is the nature of the intellectuals to derive their ideas about anything from contemplating the imperatives of their own souls.  But there is no acceptable explanation of the long neglect of the Saints by scholarship.  The only aspect of Mormonism that has been adequately treated is the doctrinal one, and even here the student has to dig his information out of many professional journals, no single inclusive treatment having yet appeared.  Apart from the doctrinal aspect, everything is rudimentary, infrequent and mostly wrong.  The story of the Mormons is one of the most fascinating in all American history, it touches nineteenth-century American life at innumerable points, it is as absorbing as anything in the history of the frontier, it is probably the most important chapter in the history of the trans-Mississippi frontier and certainly the most varied, and it is treasure-house for the historian of ideas, institutions and social energies.  Yet no qualified historian has ever written a comprehensive treatise on Mormonism, and very few have even written monographs on minute aspects of it.

Search the indexes of historical publications and you will find stretches of many years when no title relating to Mormonism is listed.  You will come out at the end with a handful of brief articles, some of them about the Reorganized Church and other heresies, most of them by antiquarians writing for local history societies, and practically all of them devoted to specialized, unimportant inquiries.  It is an absurd and even shameful condition, and it indicates a rich opportunity for young historians who want to make a splash in their profession.  Economics and sociology, however, have done even worse.  A complete bibliography of articles by qualified scholars would not fill this page.  Yet Mormonism is the only large-scale social experiment in American history tat has lasted a hundred years, it developed institutions of its own of the utmost complexity and the greatest interest, it defied many of the social and economic trends of the nineteenth century, and it is a perfect field for social inquiry, since it is sharply differentiated and securely fenced in.  That it has been so long ignored is a disgrace to sociology.

Clearly we cannot answer our question about the survival of Mormonism by appealing to scholarship.  The immense literature about Mormonism is even less helpful.  Hardly more than a dozen books are worth the time of a serious student, and of these only four or five have much to tell him.  W. A. Linn’s Story of the Mormons remains the best history of the Church; it is invaluable, but it was written thirty-five years ago, before the history of the frontier had been investigated, and it is the work of a man who had no historical perspective.  M. R. Werner’s Brigham Young has a much better grasp on American history, but Mr. Werner did not master the Mormon point of view, was not able to look at the Church from within, and so seriously misconceived his subject at vital points.  A more recent book, Revelation in Mormonism, by George B. Arbaugh, is in some ways the most sagacious treatise on the Church ever written.  In spite of the fact that Mr. Arbaugh is committed to the untenable thesis that The Book of Mormon is based on Solomon Spaulding’s novel, his book will be indispensable to students from now on.  But even he studies Mormonism in a vacuum, quite without relation to the frontier or to the Pentecostal years.  The best way to understand Mormonism is to read its holy books and periodicals, and the best way to answer our question, to determine why Mormonism has survived, is to read the sermons of Brigham Young.


I have said that the answer to that question is complex, and even a superficial outline of it invokes vital forces of history.  Such an outline would mention: the frontier environment in which Mormonism arose and developed and in which it took refuge at the time of its greatest crisis; a succession of powerful leaders, not all of them in the Presidency; a series of historical accidents whose outcome might well have been otherwise than it was, but whose issue has attested God’s providence to generations of the Saints; the inclusiveness of the Mormon doctrines, which managed to incorporate most of the beliefs agitated during the Pentecostal years and provided a rebuttal to those it did not incorporate; and the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph.

Of these, three forces are much more important than all the rest, the frontier environment, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and the leadership of Brigham Young.  There is in fact no intelligent way of looking at Mormonism except as a frontier movement.  It began as a frontier religion, it developed as a frontier social organization, and the institutions which it has evolved and which are what has survived as Mormonism, could be brought to a vigorous maturity only on the frontier.

I have already suggested how the burnt-over district was ripe for the sickle.  It had been evangelized to a turn, it had been sown with the seeds of religious hysteria, marvels and miracles and supernatural manifestations were its daily bread, it heaved with millennial fervor.  Talk of the terrible Day of the Lord, of the Second Coming of Christ — of literal interpretation of the Scriptures, of reversion to the primitive church, of the renewal of revelation and apostolic gifts — was as common, as much a matter of course, as talk to-day of the next war or the imposition of the sales tax.  And now came a religion which restored the primitive Church of Christ, stood foursquare on a literal interpretation of the Bible, re-opened the channel of revelation, announced the coming of Christ, provided a harbor against the imminent Day of Judgment, and practised apostolic gifts.  More than that, it resolved a speculation which was as old as Protestantism in America, (having been tirelessly debated by the Puritans) and which was a living issue in the new York country of Indian antiquities and recent Indian wars; it identified the Indians as descendants of a migration from Jerusalem, and so ended an ancient mystery and harmonized it with the American heritage and the frontier experience.  And even more: it was a magnificent catch-all of the dogmas and doctrines which had agitated the devout ever since the Great Awakening and which had most actively flourished on the frontier.  It was at once millennial, restorationist and perfectionist.  It combined in one daring blend the frontier’s three favorite avenues to salvation: salvation by the Last Judgment, salvation by return to apostolic Christianity, and salvation by perfect and present identification with the will of God.  It had a determinism as tough as any in Calvinism; it had an optimism as attractive as any in Arminianism.  Its name tells most of the story: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It was the Church of Christ, now restored.  It was restored in the Latter Days, just before the Last Judgment.  And its members were Saints: they were becoming perfect.

But although such a mélange of doctrines and such a confusion of theologies, eschatologies, and metaphysics, or their acceptance, are hardly conceivable apart from a frontier society, that is not the most important part of the frontier’s conditioning.  What the frontier did was first of all to provide the necessary recruits for and toleration of the original Church; then to provide the opposition necessary to transform the Mormon feeling of peculiarity, of being a people chosen of the Lord, into a coördinated body of sentiments which animated the organization and social system that grew up; then to enormously step-up the power and fervor of those sentiments by persecuting the Saints and martyring their prophet; and finally to provide a distant, secure refuge where the system could expand unmolested till it was strong enough to repulse every attack made on it.  If you alter that sequence of reactions at any point, the survival of Mormonism becomes inconceivable.

For it must be understood not only that frontier society supplied the illiterate, the credulous and the dissociated to whom Mormonism first appealed, but also that almost from the beginning Mormonism ran counter to sentiments, ideals, institutions and ways of life that were fundamental forces of the frontier.  These were not so much the religious teachings: there was room enough and toleration enough for any vagary that got into the Mormon creed until polygamy violated an ancient taboo.  Rather they were economic, and especially social.  The difference can be seen as early as Kirtland.  The Mormon real-estate speculations and wildcat banking of that period could have occasioned no such antagonism if the peculiar people had not also been a unified people.  Ohio at that time was, heaven knows, well acquainted with both activities.  But the Mormons could bring to them the communal and corporate power of a society governed by one man who was answerable to no one but God and who was little short of omnipotent in the management of his people’s property.

The principle thus established was proved to the hilt in Missouri and Illinois.  Into Mormonism, by way of the Disciples of Christ and Robert Owen’s experiments and a dozen agitations, had come those principles of communistic association which were, in the Forties, to give a new channel to the evangelical energies that in the Thirties had gone to the production of sects.  The United Order, or Order of Enoch, was established by revelation from God as early as 1831, and was the immediate cause of the friction in Missouri.  This communism did not last long and the Mormon practice of coöperations was fluctuant and changeful.  But at the minimum, and in spite of dissension and occasional rebellion, the Mormons were much more coöperative, much more united for their own purposes under a single control, than any society with which they came in contact.  The Middlewestern frontier of those years is the classic frontier of Turner: the frontier of individual effort.  Its coöperation was purely neighborly and, beyond roof-raising and township road-building, its entire force was against combinations, and especially combinations in real-estate development and finance.

The Mormons thus encountered the strongest energy of the time head-on.  The two kinds of society could not exist side by side; they were necessarily at war and it was necessarily a war of extermination.  The Mormons antagonized the Missourians and Illini, of course, by the overbearing smugness that characterizes every chosen people, and disgusted them with outlandish terminologies, doctrines and ceremonies.  A more important offense was their political unity, the certainty with which their leaders could turn any election, and thus secure any privileges desired, by voting thousands of men as one.  But the decisive offense was the economic power that could be wielded by a coöperative hagiocracy — a people who held a great part of their wealth in common, undertook collective enterprises, excluded the ungodly from their businesses, and obeyed the orders of their leaders.  The frontier could not tolerate it — and did not tolerate it.  The sixteen years of the Missouri and Illinois settlements were marked by a continuous hostility which was institutional at bottom though expressed in religious terms, which frequently flamed into mobbing and lynching, and which ended in expropriation and expulsion.  Those years proved conclusively that Mormonism could not exist in the American system.

But also they were of first importance in that they confirmed the Mormons to themselves.  Attacked for peculiarity, singularity and coöperation, they became more peculiar and singular and their group effort became more vigorous.  Their system evolved and developed and the fiery sentiments that gave it vigor were tremendously increased.  They experienced the unifying force of persecution.  To this period must be traced the characteristic Mormon state of mind, that of the Lord’s chosen persecuted by the children of evil.  It was reinforced for seventy years.  The Mormons were, in cold fact, systematically opposed (if with uneven intensity) by their neighbors, by the other churches, by rival businesses, and by the national government down to the Edmunds-Tucker act of 1887, and on past that till a typical hotel-room bargain grafted the minority report of the Smoot Investigating Committee on the policy of the Republican Party, and so recognized the importance of the modern Church and ended persecution forevermore.  Throughout all that time the Saints had a sense of present martyrdom, and it was the most important single fact about them, the strongest single force in their survival.  They have it to-day, though the occasion for it as been over for a full generation; they will have it for many generations to come.

And of this, the most decisive element was the actual martyrdom of Joseph and his brother Hyrum.  That it came when it did come and was not delayed for as little as two years more is one of the providential accidents I have mentioned.  For there were already portents of dissolution.  Joseph’s megalomania had produced a formidable rebellion, in the Church which up to then had sustained no rebellion — it was the immediate cause of the events that ended in his murder.  He was giving unmistakable evidence of psychic disintegration and it seems certain that is Church must soon have broken up into warring sects, which is the historic outcome of Protestant heresies in America.  But the Carthage mob rose at exactly the right time.  The blood of the martyrs became once more the seed of the Church.  Thereafter the Mormons were not only a persecuted people: the seal of blood sacrifice had been put upon their faith.

The frontier at once rendered its final, indispensable service.  No matter how unified the Mormons might be, it had been proved that they could not exist in the increasingly complex society that was developing in the Mississippi Valley.  Brigham Young took Israel to the Far West and so saved it.  He probably hoped to escape from American jurisdiction — the Mormon sentiment here was ambivalent and pragmatic, prepared to profit from either patriotic service or expatriation — but that was a subsidiary consideration.  Mexican or American, the desert would, and did, secure isolation.  At more than a thousand miles from the frontier of settlement, the Mormons were safe from opposition.  Their isolations slowly yielded to the expansion that followed the discovery of gold in California and was ended by the building of the Union Pacific.  But the twenty-two years thus gained were enough.  In the occupation of the desert, in the increased coöperation necessary to survival there, and in the freedom from outside interference and the opportunity thus secures to deal in its own way with internal dissent, the Church perfected its organization and worked out the way of life that has survived.

Mormonism was an outgrowth of religious and social movements on the New York frontier, which stemmed from the New England frontier.  It was given its shape by conflict with the Middlewestern frontier.  And it survived by adjusting itself to the conditions of the Rocky Mountain frontier, in the isolation which was essential to it and which could have been obtained nowhere else.


Students have always regarded the personality of Joseph Smith and the authorship of The Book of Mormon as the crux which must be resolved in the history of Mormonism.  They are related problems but the second is much less important than the first.  What is significant about The Book of Mormon is not its authorship but its acceptance by thousands of people as an addition to Holy Scripture.  Furthermore, that acceptance, though the basis of the appeal which Mormonism originally made, was already losing its importance by the time the Saints reached Utah.  Since then the Church has venerated its Bible but, in the main, has paid little attention to it: it is there for the doctrinally inclined and the apocalyptic, but Brigham Young believed that the building up of the Kingdom on this earth was more important than the inheritance of splendors promised hereafter — and he held the Church to his belief.  Even in Smith’s time, moreover, the immediate revelations of The Doctrine and Covenants were more accommodated to the needs of the Church than The Book of Mormon, and they have retained their priority.  The Book of Mormon was a storehouse of arguments for proselyting among the other sects; it has had only a small influence on the development of the social institutions which resulted from that proselyting.

The question of its authorship, however, is inseparable from one’s explanation of Joseph Smith.  No interpretation of the first prophet of Mormonry has been satisfactory throughout, and none ever will be.  Vital evidence is lost in the obscurity of his early life, and there is no way of appraising with absolute finality the evidence that exists.  One hypothesis, of course, accounts for everything, is a complete explanation of the known facts, and contains only such small contradictions as must appear in all analyses of human affairs.  You may decide that God sent an angel to prepare Joseph for his mission, that Joseph translated the golden plates and organized the Church under divine guidance, and that The Book of Mormon is a record of actual events on this continent which was written under the same infallible direction that Joseph received.  That is the Mormon explanation.  It does not satisfy me.

Once you have discarded that hypothesis, you get into difficulties.  The opponents of Mormonism have usually adopted one almost as simple: that Joseph was a complete and consummate charlatan, that his story of his visions was a cumulative imposture, and that the Church resulted from a conspiracy which was deliberate at every step and which used the imposture of the visions and the plates as a basis for one more elaborate still.  Other hypotheses, however, suggest themselves.  Joseph may have been sincere and self-deceived: his visions may have been the delusions of insanity and The Book of Mormon and the framework he gave the Church may have issued as a whole from a psychosis.  Or he may have been partly sincere and partly a charlatan: he may have suffered from delusions and, at the same time, been forced to amplify and organize them in cold blood as a result of the momentum which they created.

I have studied the available evidence and arguments, and only the last of these hypotheses has ever seemed tenable to me.  I cannot believe that so elaborate a conspiracy as the first one assumes could be maintained or could succeed.  And I cannot endow Joseph or Sidney Rigdon, who is sometimes credited with the villainy, with such heroic powers of imposture.  They are inconceivable as geniuses of imposture, and the success of such an imposture on such a scale is also inconceivable.  It would be unique in history, a greater miracle than the descent of Jesus Christ in Fayette.  Nor is a finding of complete sincerity as the result of unvarying delusion any more acceptable.  There is too much evidence against it and in theory also it is absurd.  The line between religious ecstasy and religious insanity is sometimes impossible to determine, but it seems impossible that anything which was altogether on the wrong side of it could endure and prosper for the fourteen years of Joseph’s life following the establishment of the Church.  In fourteen years, if he were not in some degree a religious leader of sound mind, he must certainly have been recognized as a religious madman.  We are forced to assume both insanity and lucidity of mind — in some proportion and rhythm of alternation which can never be precisely determined.

The Solomon Spaulding theory, the one usually adopted by those who accept the hypothesis of complete imposture, is ingenious and persuasive but, I think, untenable.  According to this story, Sidney Rigdon, an unfrocked and contentious minister of the Disciples of Christ, who had been an ally, but had become an enemy of the Campbells, stole or otherwise came into possession of a historical novel in manuscript by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding.  The novel, called The Manuscript Found, purported to be an account of the emigration to America of certain Israelites and was strikingly like the narrative thread in The Book of Mormon — so strikingly that when the latter was published many of Spaulding’s friends and neighbors recognized the source.  Working on this manuscript, alone for the most part though sometimes in collaboration with Joseph Smith, Rigdon incorporated in it his controversies with the Campbells and all his doctrinal, ecclesiastical, eschatological and economic notions.  For reasons which remain unintelligible in any interpretation of them ever made, instead of establishing his own church on the basis of the book thus produced, instead of making himself the prophet and governor of the ideal society which he had conceived, he somehow selected Joseph Smith as the best instrument to achieve his ends.  Then, working secretly with Joseph over a period of nearly four years, he prepared the detailed imposture that followed.

This theory asks us to believe that Rigdon’s notorious subservience to Smith was not only voluntary — and he was a man of intense ambition — but even a fundamental part of the scheme. That is a pretty stiff assumption, but that a conspiracy could have been kept secret which involved not only Smith and his family and a number of his neighbors, but also such unknown go-betweens and assistants as Rigdon’s activity must have required, is  much stiffer one.  And, even disregarding the assumptions, the evidence is unsatisfactory.  The Manuscript Found has never been exhibited, or knowledge of it comes entirely from affidavits made by people many years after they were supposed to have heard it read, and the discovery of another and quite different manuscript by Solomon Spaulding (though it does not overturn the hypothesis) is an awkward fact to explain away.  Worse still, no description of it in any detail has ever been offered.  Modern students have analyzed it at such great length and so minutely that they seem to have the written page before them as they wrote.  But what they have had, and what they have so ambitiously analyzed, is only a few general statements about it — vague to an extreme and made long after it was written.  But the most awkward fact is the inability of anyone to prove that Rigdon and Smith met before The Book of Mormon was published.  The affidavits which support the theory of their collaboration are too vague, ambiguous and contradictory for history to accept.  And the Mormons have had no trouble in controverting them with affidavits, quite as plentiful and rather more specific, which prove the opposite.  At this distance there is no way of choosing among affidavits.

Moreover, the hypothesis of Rigdon’s priority cannot be harmonized with what we know of Smith and fails to explain his dominance, which is established when the Church makes its appearance and grows steadily more marked from then on.  Mormon testimony and Gentile accusations agree that from the first he was the personal, despotic leader of his sect.  The fact that, crazed or sane, sincere or hypocritical, he had a dynamic faculty of leadership is proved beyond dispute; it is the one fact that no one has ever challenged and the only one which can explain the early rise of the Church.  Other facts must, of course,be taken into account, especially the development of a supporting oligarchy, but that the oligarchy was only a supporting one and completely accepted his dominance is clearly established.  His ability to win men and to control them was responsible for the Church.  Nothing suggests that this vigorous leadership rested on an oblique and secret control by Rigdon; nothing suggests that Smith was capable of accepting such control.  On the contrary, he seems to have used Rigdon for his own purposes from the first, freely at all times, disdainfully a good part of the time, and sometimes contemptuously.

The appearance of this essay in The American Mercury marked the first time that Joseph had ever been pronounced a paranoid.  The finding has been accepted in the only general treatise on Mormonism published since that time, and in more specialized articles.  It has been vigorously disputed by Mr. Arbaugh in the book previously referred to.  No one knows better than I the unreliability of retrospective diagnoses or could be more reluctant to explore the past by means of a psychological instrument which requires the response of a living subject in order to be verified.  But the nature of the evidence makes any interpretation of Joseph Smith unverifiable, and history must use an unsatisfactory instrument where all others fail.  Moreover, the psychological instrument is most satisfactory when, as here, we are dealing with clearly aberrant behavior.  The psychoses, which show themselves in obvious insanity, are on a different basis for history than the psychoneuroses, whose end-product in behavior cannot be even qualitatively determined.  A finding that Caligula was crazy can be checked against experience; a finding that Jefferson’s philosophy of state originated in his aggression toward his father is uncontrolled.

Suppose a man tells you that he has seen and conversed with God the Father, Jesus, various personages of the Old and New Testaments and various angels and archangels.  He has been attacked by demons and other supernatural if vaguely described beings.  Unearthly messengers visit him daily supernatural portents attend the smallest details of his daily life, the heavens are always opening to give him guidance and new truth, and he has acquired knowledge approaching omniscience as a limit and power approaching omnipotence.  He has been selected to reëstablish the Church of Jesus Christ which was withdrawn from the earth eighteen hundred years ago, every act of his life divinely inspired, he is set part from all other men as the repository of truth and the channel of revelation.  His behavior over a period of many years forms a pattern which accords with these assertions, and as time goes on his eccentricity intensifies….What do you decide?  That he is just a gifted liar?  More likely, I think, that he has delusions.

Take a single incident.  When, in 1834, Israel’s outpost in Missouri was being harried by “mobocrats,” Joseph organized Zion’s Camp.  As general he led this expeditionary force of about two hundred armed men from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri.  As prophet he revealed to them the Lord’s intention to avenge the injuries inflicted on their brethren, destroy their enemies and pour out His wrath on the unrighteous.  The revelations steamed with apocalyptic frenzy.  Angels accompanied the expedition and miracles attended it, but it never came to grips with the enemy and the Almighty’s vengeance was deferred to another day.  Few undertakings so grotesque can be found in American history as this attempt to overcome an entire State with a handful of extemporized militia and the promises of God.  As the act of an impostor, be he never so vainglorious, it is inconceivable.  It can be read only as an enterprise that began in delusion and when forced to meet reality was compensated by the delusional promises which God at once vouchsafed Joseph.

It is characteristic of the mental construction which psychiatrists call the “paranoid reaction type” that the personality is transformed rather than impaired.  It is organized in support of certain dominant ideas which cannot meet the test of reality, but the mental energies involved need not be in the least diminished.  Native shrewdness, intelligence, will power, logic, imagination, whatever qualities you will, may be retained — and in fact may be given a complete harmonious expression in the service of the dominant ideas.  Paranoia is a great mother of achievement.  The paranoid is essentially the man who will not down, who will go on, who will be heard — whom no opposition and no derision, discouragement or failure can deprive of his belief in his mission.  As one psychiatrist has remarked, much of the progress of the human race has been a by-product of paranoia — paranoids whose obsessions are socially useful are simply called “geniuses.”  In the eyes of history, however, not everyone who has heard God speak is a genius.

The finding that Joseph Smith comes somewhere within the wide limits of the paranoid reaction type does not attempt to appraise the degree of his insanity nor the regularity and duration of its attacks.  That its rhythm was uneven, that for long periods he was free of it, that at other times his delusions did not affect his behavior apart from the dominant ideas — all this seems to me to show plainly in the record.  But that some form of the paranoid constitution is the explanation of him seems necessitated by all the available facts.

Anyone who will read a standard treatise on psychiatry and bring it to bear on the biography of Smith must be struck by the amazing agreement of the two.  I quote from Henderson and Gillespie, A Textbook of Psychiatry,a paragraph which shows some of the correspondences:

He [Kraepelin] defined “paraphrenia systematica” as characterized by the extremely insidious development of a continuously progressive delusion of persecution to which later are added ideas of exaltation, without disintegration of the personality.  This condition is usually ushered in by sensitiveness and irritability, with ideas of reference.  Gradually the persecutory ideas are more freely expressed, and are of the most varied nature.  [From bearded Spaniards to the Prince of Darkness.]  After a period of years auditory hallucinations begin to show themselves, and, to a lesser degree, hallucinations of the other senses also occur.  [God speaks from the heavens or in dreams, and then is materialized in blinding light.]  Gradually the ideas of persecution may be replaced by ideas of grandeur.  Some patients, for example, make claim to large sums of money [or, perhaps, to an ability to find them by means of a peep stone], and others show erotic trends, believing themselves sought in love by titled people [or, perhaps, instructed by God to marry a number of wives].  The patient’s idea of his own importance rises higher and higher [he may see himself as prophet, seer, revelator, translator, mayor, lieutenant-general, and President of the United States] and finally he may identify himself with God [or invent an ascending series of divinities through which he is to progress, all of them greater than the God whom this world knows].  Notwithstanding the deterioration of judgment that such ideas would suggest, the mood does not show any disorder per se, but remains appropriate to the disordered ideas.  The general intellectual faculties of the patient are well preserved, and the patient’s capacity for work may not be interfered with.  The condition is slowly progressive, the delusions and hallucinations becoming more definitely fixed; but usually the personality is well maintained.

Joseph’s autobiographical account of his youth and of the events bearing on the establishment of the Church was unquestionably doctored to fit the needs of propaganda.  Nevertheless it seems to me that it tells an authentic story and is in the main a dependable outline of what he supposed had happened to him.  Certainly it records the development of a paranoid delusion.  His grandfather and certain of his brothers showed symptoms of emotional instability, which he may well have inherited.  Be that as it may, he was a typical product of the burnt-over region, moody, fantastic, acutely sensitive to religious unrest.  This sensitiveness increased with the onset of puberty and the young Joseph is a type-specimen of the “seeker.”  (Is it necessary to point out that a strong anxiety about salvation is not incompatible with an enthusiastic yielding to sin?)  His unrest is fed by the revivals and protracted meetings of the countryside.  At this time the delusions of persecution appear which are attested not only by Joseph’s own account but also by the many stories which the early opponents of Mormonism gather to prove him a charlatan.  (They are especially marked in the early versions of the story which developed into his account of the finding of the gold plates.)  Presently, and as the sequel of a revival, he experiences both auditory and visual hallucinations.  Diverse and unrelated at first, they are eventually systematized into an image of himself as an instrument of God’s will with all the accompanying paraphernalia of gold Bible, revelations, visions, prophecy and priesthood.

Neither the delusions of persecution nor those of grandeur ever left him, though the psychic necessity for the former decreased as the progress of his Church provoked actual persecution.  His lust for ritual and masquerade, for military panoply; his epaulettes, sabres, gaudy uniforms, ornate religious symbols, secret and esoteric societies, dreadful oaths; his pleasure in resounding titles and in the civil offices which he conferred on himself; his lieutenant-generalship in the Nauvoo Legion, his climactic fantasy of himself as President of the United States — is not the total inconceivable except as a paranoid syndrome, organized in obedience to the fundamental drive of his nature?  Mark too the progress of his identification with God till in his last years we get the resplendent but unintelligible doctrines of the creation and evolution of worlds, the myriad phases of godhead, the eternally orgasmic divinity begetting universes of itself upon itself.  Is this development comprehensible as anything but the frenzy of a psychopathic personality at last delivered into stark insanity?  I think not, and I think that the intensification of all his other delusions at the same time supports the finding.  Whatever periods of quiescence and even complete lucidity he may have experienced before, his last two years were an intensifying mania.  As the text I have quoted suggests, the personality was well maintained but the delusions and hallucinations were fixed — and progressive.

Two other data which support the finding of paranoia must be mentioned: Joseph’s sexuality and his faculty of authorship.  Probably no religious sect or social experiment at that time could develop very far without experimenting with the marriage relation.  The period had seen the Rappites, the Shakers, Nashoba and the Oneida Community, as well as a score of less ambitious doctrines of love feasts, spiritual wifery and free love.  The air was vibrant with revolutionary ideas, and polygamy makes its appearance in Mormonism at the very moment when this interest is most intense in the nation at large.  Mormon polygamy, in fact, shows a typical vulgarization by ignorant and inferior people of an idea that on higher levels could work out in such an experiment as John Humphrey Noyes’s “stirpiculture.”  That is what Mormonism did with all the ideas it appropriated — one must constantly think of it as a mechanism by which the forces at work on upper levels of American intelligence were accommodated to the understanding of the lowest level.  Nevertheless, although some experimentation with marriage was probably inescapable, the experiment actually made was polygamy and it was initiated by Joseph.  That he was highly sexed appears in all accounts that have come down.  One need not accept the “hundreds” of seductions that are charged against him by Gentiles and apostates: the record of his marriages accepted by the faithful and the accounts printed by his widows are enough.  His vigor is as obvious here as elsewhere.  One need not suspect that it was pathological but he was conspicuously gifted.  It was part of the paranoid syndrome.  So was his literary activity.  Many a paranoid seizure expresses itself in ink, many paranoids write compulsively and voluminously, much of the world’s literature and a great part of its “experimental” literature flows from this obsession.  In the midst of an incredibly active life — a life filled with ruling thousands of subjects besides speculating in land and money, rearing temples to the Lord, maintaining a huge propaganda, developing the organization of the Church and settling hundreds of civic and religious disputes — in the midst of all this, Joseph still had time to emit countless pages of prose.  The stream never ran out; to the day of his death he was vilifying his enemies, recording miracles in his autobiography, and setting down fresh gospels and epistles from on high.  The paranoid faculty for seizing all the flotsam of thought and converting it to the support of the dominant obsession appears in everything he wrote.

It seems to me that all this evidence requires us to decide that Joseph Smith was a paranoid.  It is possible, of course, to accept this finding — which accounts for the establishment and constitution of the Church — and still believe that he did not write The Book of Mormon.  It is true that he may have assimilated the work of other hands to the needs of his delusion and given the vague body of vision a skeleton which someone else provided.  My opinion is, as I have expressed it in the article on Smith in the Dictionary of American Biography, that The Book of Mormon was in the main Smith’s own composition, though he may well have had the collaboration of the associates who were his amanuenses, bankers and witnesses.  Nothing that is known of him is incompatible with this opinion.  It is claimed that he had neither the intelligence nor the education to write such a book — yet his known writing makes an equal or greater bulk, and it is as imaginative and as literate.  Nothing in The Book of Mormon is foreign to his known interests or to the common emotional and intellectual preoccupations of the country in which he grew up.  Woodbridge Riley’s examination of its autobiographical material is persuasive.  When conclusive proof is lacking, history must adopt the simplest hypothesis that will satisfy all the known facts without controverting any of them.  We must believe that The Book of Mormon was the work of the man who is called its “author and proprietor” on the title page of the first edition.  It represented the impact of frontier religious speculation on a mind fixed in the paranoid cast.  Thus did the aspiration of Puritan divines find a squalid expression on the Hill Cumorah, and thus did the vision of the Kingdom of God broaden down till humble minds could recognize in it the City of the Saints.

For, whether or not Joseph Smith was the author of The Book of Mormon, he was the author of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Mormonism was, doctrinally, ecclesiastically, socially and economically, an evolution, a changing product of many influences, a resultant of many interacting forces.  The structure and organization of the Church at the time of Joseph’s death were far different from what they had been when God revealed them in 1830, and in that change the collaboration of the oligarchy that formed round the prophet was probably as important as the pressure from the outside world.  Such men as Rigdon, Young, Taylor, Snow, Phelps, Hyde, the Pratts, Kimball, Marks, Page and Wight unquestionably had a part in establishing the bonds and constraints that held the Church together, contributing earthly expedients and initiating or clarifying the doctrines that rationalized them.  The functions of Rigdon as exegete and Young as chief fiscal officer were of absolute importance.  Nevertheless these men was banded together in support of Joseph’s vision, and it was his energy and leadership that made them effective.  The Church that existed on June 27, 1844, when Joseph was martyred at Carthage jail, was the personal creation of a prophet of God.


Joseph Smith proclaimed the millennium.  Vision and proclamation, however, were not enough.  The actual achievement of millennium had to wait for Brigham Young.

Smith’s birthplace at Sharon, Vermont, is marked by fine landscaping and a monument which we are told with Mormon unction is “the tallest single piece of polished granite in the world.”  At Whitingham, some seventy miles away, you will find no landscaping, no caretakers, no recital of earthly accomplishments and heavenly splendors.  You will find only an unkempt hillside, a space marked off with barbed wire, and a small white marker which looks like a tombstone and is carved with one of the world’s most poignant inscriptions.  “Brigham Young,” the stone says, “Born on this spot, 1801.  A man of much courage and superb equipment.”  The historian finds it in his heart to agree.  But, he thinks, Brigham is worth more commemoration than that.

The two shrines express the judgment of the Mormons on their first two Presidents.  But in the eyes of history not Smith but Young was Mormonism’s great man.  In 1844, at the time of the martyrdom, the Church was an astounding phenomenon in size, vigor and persistency, but no more astounding than several other fruits of Pentecost.  It was, for instance, no more vigorous than and nowhere near so large as the Millerite church, which at that moment was, in a mounting frenzy, awaiting the coming of Christ on its second, more accurately determined Day of Judgment.  Furthermore, all the indications are that Mormonism had reached its apogee under Smith, was passing it, and must soon have broken up in factions whose contention would have destroyed it.  Apostasies were becoming common and the Church might not have been able to survive many more so hostile as that of John C. Bennett.  That vigorous opposition from within was at last possible had been proved by the rebellion of the Law brothers and the publication of Expositor.  The Church could not have coped with many more such revolts — and more would certainly have come.  Also it seems certain that Smith himself had entered a final period of psychic disintegration.  The fires had begun to consume him; if he had lived much longer he must soon have been recognized as mad.  A few years  more would have seen Mormonism going the way of its competitors, division my mitosis, internecine warfare, bankruptcy, disillusionment and decay.

The death of Joseph and the succession of Brigham did produce a number of schisms — and some of them issued from the very feeling that would have begotten them if Joseph had lived, a belief that he had wandered from the path of inspiration, betrayed his priesthood and made necessary a reversion to the tenets and practices of primitive Mormonism.  Seven or eight factions split off from the parent stock, under the leadership of various Apostles or of prophets suddenly appearing from the ranks with credentials from God.  These doubled by division in the course of a few years, and all told over twenty Mormon churches arose, several of which still exist as organizations or as unorganized millennial dreams.  The largest of these was formed by the combination of several which believed that succession to the Presidency should be in the hereditary line of Joseph.  As the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“Josephites,” to the Utah Mormons), it was held by the courts to be the legal and true Mormonism.  The courts, however, were out of touch with history.  Mormonism survived in the main body of the Saints, whom Brigham Young took to Utah.  Observe that, after he got them there, only one schism occurred.  It was small, momentary and absurd — and it was handled with Brigham’s deftness.  Young’s succession marks a decisive change in Mormonism, one which must be understood for it is finally important in the answer to our original question.  Whatever else Smith was, he was primarily a prophet, a religious leader, a man drunk on God and glory, his head swarming with giddy visions of the end of the world and the proliferation of Mormon triumphs through all eternity.  Young was primarily an organizer of the kingdom on this earth, an administrative and executive genius of the first order, the greatest colonizer in American history.  Under Smith the Church was a loosely coördinated body dedicated to a hodgepodge of dogma so preposterous that the mind rocks contemplating it, a compilation of the worst idiocies that had marked the American Pentecost, a fermenting yeast of nonsense — a mere millennial sect in which the social energies that were to save it were obscured, slighted, left to chance and the conditioning of Gentile opposition.  Under Young it became a religio-economic social system, based on coöperative enterprise, subordinating religious ecstasy to practical achievement, utilizing the energies and sentiments of religious faith for the production of collective wealth — and thus winning its fight against the opposition of Protestant America, the national government and the main current of the nineteenth century.

Young troubles the biographer with few subtleties and no ambiguities.  He was born four years before Smith in an even more remote and primitive Vermont valley, of the same racial and religious stock.  Like Smith he wandered widely through interior New York, and he was living in the vicinity of Palmyra and Fayette when the Church was founded.  He had a strong interest in religion — in the burnt-over district he could hardly have escaped having one — but it was entirely intellectual, free of soul-searching, agony and dementia of the twice-born Smith.  He was a Methodist when the new Bible came to his hands a few weeks after it was published.  He studied it for two years, argued with its missionary expositors, and was baptized into the faith in the spring of 1832.  What he asked of religion was literal interpretation of the Bible, applicability to daily life and a guaranty that millennial glory could be achieved by hard work.  Mormonism satisfied his requirements.  He accepted the divine inspiration of Smith and the doctrines and destiny of the Church.  That conversion settled all problems and his faith was never thereafter assailed by doubt.  It is absurd to suspect him of insincerity or charlatanism.  He accepted Mormonism in its entirety, and it required of him only to serve its interests.  He did so in the one way he understood, the one way for which he was fitted.

In 1844 there was little to suggest that this glazier, house painter, farmer and handyman could succeed where Owen, Fourier, Cabet and the rhapsodic Yankee experimenters failed.  Nevertheless he had already rendered the Church invaluable service.  He had proved its most successful proselyter and had headed the English mission, which ever since has been the most important recruiting-ground of Israel, sending all told more than one hundred thousand converts to America.  And his assumption of its finances had given the Church such fiscal stability as it possessed.  He was forty-three.  The death of Joseph provided his opportunity.  Campaigning to make Smith President of the United States when the prophet was killed, he reached nauvoo six weeks after the assassination.  He found the Church in a condition of collapse, harried by the Gentile mob, stunned by the murder of its prophet, leaderless and threatened with disintegration.  He proved that he was the strongest personality among the Mormons in a series of dramatic moves which saved the organization and restored the hopes of the faithful.  Israel rallied.  The small, schismatic sects broke away, followed by Young’s magnificent denunciations, and the Church, its fervor immensely increased by the martyrdom, united behind the man who showed it the way to endure.  And from that moment the student perceives a consciousness of what it was doing and what it intended to do that Mormonism had never had before.  Essentially, Smith did not know: he was moving only toward glory.  Young knew: he was moving toward survival on this earth and power which would protect Israel from attack.

The expulsions from Ohio and Missouri, which were now reinforced by expulsion from Illinois, had shown that Mormonism could not exist in the American social organization.  Young accepted that teaching.  One of the original missions of the Church had been to convert the Indians, and from time to time Smith had vaguely promised or threatened to remove it to the Far West, in spite of the fact that its ordained gathering place in the last days must be the site of the Garden of Eden, in Jackson County, Missouri.  Young carried out the removal.  In doing so, he saved Mormonism.

Just why he selected the valley of the Great Salt Lake cannot be determined.  At Independence the Mormons had been in touch for many years with the fur traders, who knew intimately every square mile of the intermountain region.  Frémont’s reports and other Government publications, as well as books by travelers, unofficial explorers, and big-game hunters, were available.  Young may even have had a report on Deseret by an expedition of his own.  The valley was Mexican soil when he started for it, though it came under American jurisdiction two years later, and separation from American control was a lively desire.  It was known to be the most fertile part of the Rocky Mountain region, but was barren and unattractive, and its unattractiveness made it fully as valuable to the Saints as its fertility, since it would keep the Gentiles from following after Israel.  It was well off the road to Oregon by which the main emigration of the decade moved westward; and the favored route to California, whither emigration was just beginning to turn, branched from the Oregon trail far to the northwest.  Deseret, the Territory-to-be of Utah, was in fact the obvious place, if not the only place, for the Saints to go.  Brigham selected it in a clear understanding of the needs of his enterprise.  He counted on profiting from trade with the Oregon migration, and though he could not foresee the gold rush which would occupy California, he understood that, after a sufficient period of isolation, Israel would profitably advance with the western expansion of the United States which he now joined.

Giving the established technique of emigration a religious nomenclature, in the only revelation that he ever issued, Young took his Church to Utah.  He broke no new trails and faced no novel problems (a migration almost as large moved to Oregon at the same time, and numerically greater ones had preceded him), and the enlistment of five hundred Mormons by the Government for a march to California provided financial help without which he would certainly have been delayed at least a year.  His success lay principally in building up the spirit of the Saints, convincing them that they were in fact leaving Egypt for the land of Canaan and the new day, keeping them at a pitch of religious fervor which, in the end, welded them into an instrument magnificently fitted to his hand.  For this two years’ journey to Canaan established Young’s mastery.  The last opposition collapsed or was rooted out; the westward migration confirmed the docility, obedience and malleability of the Saints, and made Young a more effective dictator than Smith had ever been.

The fact that he issued no more revelations is significant.  Smith had produced a communication from God at the slightest exigency — to close an awkward argument or to get someone out of town for a few weeks while the prophet explained celestial marriage to his wife.  Young made it clear that he retained the power of revelation; but his failure to use it, while asserting that God inspired his activities, set Mormonism in a new form.  Progressively, as time passed, he discountenanced all the Pentecostal gifts that had flourished so tropically for sixteen years.  He managed to stamp out private revelation altogether — if the President refrained, doubt was easily cast on the inspirations of the humble — but the other gift of the spirit were not so easily suppressed.  Prophecy , visions, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of signs, dreams and portents had been so long the daily bread of Israel that in spite of the skepticism and denunciation directed at them from the pulpit they maintained an illicit, sub rosa existence, and in fact have continued down to the present.  Young steadily opposed them but was forced to yield to the outbreak of evangelical frenzy known as the “Reformation,” when, after deflation and crop failure and the hand-cart emigration which was his most serious blunder, the old apocalypse flared up.  The doctrine of blood atonement (sacrificial murder as absolution for sin) appeared during this communal hysteria, and the passions then aroused were responsible for the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre.  This period, which ended in Young’s nominal submission to the Government when albert Sidney Johnston’s expeditionary force arrived, was the most serious crisis that he ever had to face.  How far he shared the fierce sentiments of his people it is impossible to determine.  He could not have been altogether free of them, but he conducted himself with a wary understanding of what was happening.  His genius for leadership is nowhere shown more clearly than in his ability to convert even this aberration to his own purposes (and in reality urn dissatisfaction with the priesthood into community penitence), make the Church more than ever responsive to his will, and emerge from conflict with the United States even more unmistakably the master of its fate.

In thus closing revelation and turning the Church from the very practices on which it had been founded, Young’s doctrinal position was clear.  With the mission of Joseph Smith the gospel and priesthood had been restored.  Israel now had the fullness of truth: its obligation was to build up the Kingdom.  Build it up here and now, preparing the glories of the future by making sure of the possessions of the present.  This interpretation of prophecy preserved Israel — and it contains the whole personality of Brigham Young.  He could understand salvation by works and the attainment of eternal glory by means of earthly diligence, but he had no interest whatever in metaphysics.  Having once accepted the vaporizings of Joseph, he devoted himself to providing a mechanism to perpetuate them.  “Live your religion” was his unvarying counsel to the Saints.  And by “Live your religion” he meant: take up more land, get your ditches in, make the roof of your barn tight, improve your livestock, and in so doing glorify God and advance His Kingdom.  At least four fifths of his sermons are altogether free of dogma, and though he did embroider a few variations on Joseph’s themes, he did so with a humor that reads suspiciously like parody.  He let his assistants satisfy the need of the Saints for doctrine.  Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, Jedediah Grant, Heber Kimball, C. C. Rich — it is in the sermons of such men that you will find the rhapsodies on celestial glory, the planet Kolob or the polygamy of Jesus which fed that insatiable hunger.  Brigham was more interested in irrigation, freight transport and whether a wife in Israel could rightfully require her husband to construct a stand for her washtub.

But if the Apostles worked in the service of hermeneutics, they also had a much more important role.  “Young’s greatest achievement was his transformation of a loose sacerdotal hierarchy consecrated by Smith’s revelations to apocalyptic duties, into a magnificent fiscal organization for the social and economic management of the Church….Accepting Smith’s priestly system, he made it a social instrument and to this realistic revision the survival, the prosperity and the social achievements of Mormonism are due.”  Under Smith the priesthood had been a system of stairways and corridors through the crazy-quilt glories of the Mormon apocalypse, a secret society with robes and passwords and magic rituals that at first was like nothing on earth or in the Bible but began to imitate Masonry when he and his lieutenants joined the lodge.  It was essentially a series of cabalistic “degrees,” attended by litanies and tableaus, through which one rose by piety and divination.  Under Young, however, the priesthood became the commissioned and noncommissioned staff of the social army.  They were the great and the small leaders of Israel, the channel of direction and control, the overseers, the department managers, the adjutants, the deputies and the police.  They were the nervous system of a coöperative enterprise in the occupation of the desert and the development of a commonwealth.  Young established them in that function, which they retain to-day.  That is the change of phase that he gave the Church; it is the principal part of what has survived as Mormonism.

The occupation of Utah must be understood as the accomplishment of a coöperative society obedient to the will of a dictator.  There was precedent and technique for the system of city-building which Young initiated as soon as he reached Utah.  Smith and his counselors had received divine advice on planning cities — the engineering of God corresponding to blue prints drawn by the communistic experiments in New England.  There was also precedent and technique for the system of irrigation which Young began on the very day of his arrival in the valley of Great Salt Lake.  But there was neither precedent nor existing technique for the colonization of the desert.  Young’s genius clearly in his immediate and unhesitating attack.  The word is exact: he retained the theological idiom but the investiture was military.

The positions of strategic importance, the only parts of the desert where settlement was possible, were the mountain valleys and the plateaus at their mouths which are watered by the streams that flow down them.  Young occupied these positions as rapidly as possible, some of them during the first year.  Parties under the command of proved leaders and assigned the right proportion of trades and handicrafts, with every man’s duties allotted him, were sent out to form “stakes” which were branches of the settlement at Salt Lake City and were supported and directed from that headquarters.  In the course of a few years such colonies were set up in every fertile valley of what was to become Utah and a good many in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico as well.  Israel also maintained outposts at positions of actual military importance — desert water holes, river crossings, and mountain passes through which either emigration or punitive expeditions must move.  As a result the Saints acquired a monopoly; they owned practically all the valuable real-estate in the intermountain region.

The occupation of Utah must be understood as the accomplishment of a coöperative society obedient to the will of a dictator.  There was precedent and technique for the system of city-building which Young initiated as soon as he reached Utah.  Smith and his counselors had received divine advice on planning cities — the engineering of God corresponding to blue prints drawn by the communistic experiments in New England.  There was also precedent and technique for the system of irrigation which Young began on the very day of his arrival in the valley of Great Salt Lake.  But there was neither precedent nor existing technique for the colonization of the desert.  Young’s genius clearly in his immediate and unhesitating attack.  The word is exact: he retained the theological idiom but the investiture was military.

The positions of strategic importance, the only parts of the desert where settlement was possible, were the mountain valleys and the plateaus at their mouths which are watered by the streams that flow down them.  Young occupied these positions as rapidly as possible, some of them during the first year.  Parties under the command of proved leaders and assigned the right proportion of trades and handicrafts, with every man’s duties allotted him, were sent out to form “stakes” which were branches of the settlement at Salt Lake City and were supported and directed from that headquarters.  In the course of a few years such colonies were set up in every fertile valley of what was to become Utah and a good many in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico as well.  Israel also maintained outposts at positions of actual military importance — desert water holes, river crossings, and mountain passes through which either emigration or punitive expeditions must move.  As a result the Saints acquired a monopoly; they owned practically all the valuable real-estate in the intermountain region.

Such social planning was effective because it was done at the muzzle of a gun.  The colonization of the desert was quite impossible to individual endeavor.  It could be financed only by the collective wealth of the Saints.  It could be initiated, carried out and maintained only because there was a central authority capable of commanding absolute obedience and able to suppress any dissent that might arise.  The Church had become a coöperative body managed by a dictator (and a developing oligarchy) who had absolute power deriving from the authority of Almighty God.  Only that formula could have succeeded.

Young cut off everyone who rebelled — he had to if the interests of the group were to be served, if the group was to survive at all.  He tolerated no interference from Gentile America — framing, flouting and terrorizing the Federal officials who were sent to Utah, terrorizing and sometimes murdering the private individuals who got in his way.  Almost at once he became a national ogre, vilified as a tyrant who suppressed all the liberties and privileges of the American system.  The line of cleavage, with the line of hostilities, however, is the line of group pressure.  Dictatorships do not arise and cannot endure except in the service of group needs.  Mormonism ran squarely against the main currents of nineteenth-century American life — and naturally the collision generated heat.  What seemed to be a religious warfare, Methodist America upholding the principles of Christianity and Mormonism those of a barbarous Asiatic heresy, was in fact a warfare of economic systems and social organizations violently opposed to each other.  Mormonism was a true dictatorship.  But the word should be quite neutral.  To the Gentile United States it seemed and intolerable tyranny, un-American and repulsive, exploiting religious faith and depriving the faithful of every value that gives dignity and worth to human life.  To the Mormons, however, it not only had divine sanction but was the only means of preserving the way of life for which they had endured persecution and unimaginable hardship, had sacrificed their fortunes and were prepared to sacrifice their lives.  Dictatorship was a form conditioned by group ideals, group desires and group efforts.

The country thus occupied had to be filled up.  Every immigrant who could be brought to Utah would increase the wealth of Israel.  The Church already had an effective proselyting system which covered both the United States and Europe, of which Young himself had organized the richest field, the British Isles.  He now increased both the extent and the effectiveness of the mission system.  He was engaged on a large-scale real estate development.  The promise of land which his missionaries held out to the tenant farmers and city unemployed who proved to be their best prospects was an even more effective bait than the heavenly glories which the Church assured them.  Note also that these classes had the native docility which the Mormon system requires.  Missionaries were sent as far afield as Australia, Africa and the Sandwich Islands.  They made converts everywhere but the only field which proved comparable to Great Britain was the Scandinavian countries, whose crofters were a dispossessed class.

Immigration, like colonization, was financed from the common funds.  Young devised the Perpetual Emigration Fund by means of which converts who could not pay their own way might be brought to Zion on their notes of hand.  Converted abroad, you paid your own fare to Utah if you could afford to.  If you could not, the Church would lend you enough to buy passage to America.  Arrived at an Atlantic or Gulf port, you found work if you could and earned a grubstake to take you West.  If you could not get employment, the Church would also charge against you the expense of transportation to Zion, add you to one of its emigrant trains, and employ you on public works in Salt Lake City when you got there, till your proper place in Zion could be determined.  In any event, you were effectively indentured to the priesthood.

A convert’s control of his own movements had a proportional relationship to the wealth he brought with him.  In theory all the possessions of every Saint were consecrated to God under the direction of the priesthood.  The theory could be enforced, however, on only the poorest or the most enthusiastic proselytes, and the wealthiest were certain to be given the freest choice and to begin their service farthest up the scale of spiritual evolution.  Every effort was made to utilize the talent and training of the converts, and they were sent wherever the best use could be made of them.  But since Zion was overwhelmingly agricultural, many a man who had never seen a plow was ordered to the fringe of settlement and spent his life breaking desert land to crops.  Again, only a despotically governed coöperative society could enforce a regimentation that got results.

Young thus established his commonwealth on a landed base and gave it a solidity that has never been endangered.  In doing so he had to restrain the Saints from developing the great mineral wealth of Utah; he understood what he was about and the loss of the mining country to the Gentiles was an inconsiderable price to pay for stability.  He also understood the debtor status of frontier communities — he had spent his life in contact with that reality.  His effort to give Israel financial independence accelerated the development of a totalitarian state.  There can be no doubt that, granted the terms of his religious conception, Young understood the principles of autarchy.  The cost of freight transport by ox team from the frontier (the Missouri River, until the Union Pacific started to lay track) was of itself a powerful conditioner; the drainage eastward of Mormon money was even more powerful.  He embarked on a policy of home manufacture to supplement his colonizing policy.  Manufacture of every conceivable kind was undertaken and though some of the experiments (notably smelting and beet sugar) were premature, an amazing success attended it.

Here enters, however, the force which, after Brigham’s death, was to bring Mormonism considerably closer to the main stream of American development than it had ever been before — the force which tangentially allied the Church with the currents it had opposed.  To support an agricultural colonization with the common funds did not create a division of interest between the Church organization and the people.  The people ere the colonization.  But to support manufacturing and mercantile enterprises in private hands with those same funds or to put the Church itself into either was at once to make possible a division of interest between the people and the organization.  It was an irretrievable first step in a change from coöperation to corporate control.  The Church thus set up financial bodies, banks, corporations and holding companies which had access to and were in part supported by the common funds, and whose interests were frequently opposed to those of the Mormon people.  The step was taken in behalf of Young’s vision of coöperative self-sufficiency.  But he paid in loss of coöperative unity for what he gained in independence from Gentile finance — and in the end Israel had to make terms with that finance.  He understood what was happening and his revival of the United Order, the communism which had been tried under Smith, was an effort to reverse the trend.  Doctrinally the United Order was the system which the entire Church must some day embrace.  But the other energies were too strong and the communism could make no headway.  Young left it, perhaps a little wearily, to perish by itself, and his successor destroyed it.  He had himself evoked the force that killed it.  Endeavoring to deliver Mormonism from exterior debt, he had started it on the path to conformity.

In leaving him, it is convenient to list a few of the parallels between Mormonism and the European dictatorships.  The Mormons had their Aryan myth: they were a chosen people and were destined, after conquest, to dominate mankind.  Dedication to that destiny implied their saying “Liberty, we spit on you,” and cheerfully accepting a rigorous and sometimes savage discipline in which the individual counted for nothing against the group.  Opposition to the priesthood has always been as inconceivable as individual defiance of Hitler or Stalin.  The Saints re privileged to “sustain the Presidency” by a free show of hands in affirmative vote: they believe, precisely as the Russians under the new constitution believe, that they are exercising the democratic right of franchise.  Effective government required the use of an OGPU: the Sons of Dan may never had existed under that name, or any of the other names given them in the Gentile literature, but Brigham had an efficient secret police who kept him informed and, on occasion, disposed of a Saint or a Gentile who stood in his way.  Effective government, too, required a sedulous attention to Israel’s young.  Brigham developed and his successors have maintained a succession of schools, classes, clubs and training corps which operate on the children of the Saints from the age of three until they are admitted to the priesthood, and which condition their reflexes as effectively as the corresponding institutions of Russia and Italy.

Furthermore, a steady necessity was the perpetuation of and appeal to the persecution-neurosis: Israel has always been told that every man’s hand was against it, that it must always work unanimously toward the righting of that wrong, and that any faltering would insure victory for its enemies.  Appeal to that sentiment has also provided the Presidency with a screen for failure and a canal to carry away from its activities whatever curiosity or resentment the Saints might feel.  The “Reformation” under Brigham was a blood purge which got rid of some of the inconvenient and united Israel against the world outside, forty years of Gentile agitation against polygamy served him and his successors in the same way, and the appeal is just as useful to the hierarchy to-day.  The mumbo-jumbo of a ritual symbolizing the common aspirations, and the infinite gradations through which every Mormon is always ascending, correspond to the steps of mythical promotion and reward which Italy, Russia and Germany extend to the orthodox and faithful.  State works have supplemented the central economy, religious courts have usurped some of the functions of civil courts (in varying degree, at various times) and have permitted a convenient secrecy and disregard of legal forms, excommunication has served the immemorial purpose of banishment, and the tests of orthodoxy have always been shaped to reveal economic, political and even intellectual nonconformity.  And finally, Mormonism repeats the experience of all absolutisms: a dictatorship must rest on the interests of a ruling class and comes to be a mechanism by which an élite exercises power over a society.


No one may say whether Brigham Young could have maintained his power if he had broken with the oligarchy which he came increasingly to represent.  Probably he could have, for during his lifetime it did not completely crystallize and its interests had not been differentiated from those of the Church as a whole.  His rule was personal and he could probably have maintained it, even in his last years, against the hierarchy as effectively as he did against the United States Government.  He was, however, the last of the personal dictators, and after his death Mormonism entered a new phase.  It remained a coöperative society but the coöperation was now governed by an oligarchy instead of the prophet, it was governed in the interest of the élite that had arisen, and that interest was sometimes opposed to and even exploitive of the interest of the people who composed the society.  Mormonism was developing not in the direction of Rochdale, New Harmony, the Oneida Community, Brook Farm, the United Order or the Kingdom of God — but in the direction of Standard Oil.

The coalescence of a ruling class was inevitable.  Any kind of government, any kind of colonization, any kind of social planning implies leadership and control, and as the profits begin to come in they must flow through the channels established.  Along with the profits there are opportunities, perquisites and privileges; they must be used by someone; they end by being used by those who are in the best position to use them and have the most shrewdness and the greatest capacity.  Already in Joseph’s time a hierarchy of useful, superior and ingenious men had formed round him.  They composed the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the other sacerdotal bodies of the Church.  Converting them to administrative duties, Young chose his leaders from this caste or speedily admitted to it those outside whose talents signified their fitness.  This hierarchy was the nucleus round whom the ruling class crystallized.  The process is functional in human institutions.

When a Mormon speaks of “the hierarchy,” he refers to the General Authorities.  They are: the First Presidency, consisting of the Prophet and his two Counselors; the Twelve Apostles, who are the principal administrative officers, the vice-presidents, so to speak, in charge of plant, production, distribution and sales; the Seven Presidents of Seventies, the executives through whom the authority of the First Presidency is exercised over the Saints, the heads of the organization which is the nervous system of Israel; the Presiding Bishop, who is the Treasurer of the Church, and his two Counselors; and the Presiding Patriarch, an honorary office hereditary in the Smith family and charged with only sacerdotal duties.  This, however, is merely the official framework.  The true hierarchy is composed of those families which have achieved wealth through the development of the Mormon system, and those whose service to the Church has been conspicuous or whose talent for fiscal or religious administration is marked — augmented in every generation by such newcomers as may conspicuously qualify in any of its requirements.  It is largely a hereditary class, but the avenue of accession is kept open.  It remains devout, lives its religion and derives its vigor from that of the religion it lives, but its interests have always won when any conflict between them and those of the Mormons as a whole has appeared.

The title of President includes that of “Prophet, Seer, Revelator and Vicegerent of God on earth,” but before the Prophet Heber lists those heavenly distinctions in Who’s Who in America he records that he is president of Zion’s Coöperative Mercantile Institution (the firm which Brigham organized to defeat Gentile competition), the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company (carrying with its corporate alliances control of the beet-sugar industry in the United States), Zion’s Savings Bank & Trust Company, the Utah State National Bank, and the Beneficial Life Insurance Company — and director of the Union Pacific Railway Company.  The list shows the final emphasis and values of Mormonism, but it merely hints at the economic power that is vested in the hierarchy.  That power is absolute over the business and finance of Utah, it has a great and probably decisive influence throughout the intermountain region, and it has working alliances with the countrywide network of finance.  It is a banking system, a manufacturing system and an interlocking directorate.  The Church, for instance, is said to own more stock in New York Central than the Vanderbilts, it holds directorates on other railroad boards, it dominates the manufacture of beet sugar, and through such manufactures as those of salt and woolen goods it is linked with many national interests.  In such matters the Church is the hierarchy.  And the hierarchy is a holding company.

The history of Mormonism after Brigham Young is the story of the process which brought the hierarchy into this relationship with the system of commerce and finance that triumphed in America after the Civil War, while retaining the coöperative system from which its power flowed and maintaining the sentiments which animated that coöperation.  There is no need to tell that story here.  The decisive period was that between the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890, which put a stop to polygamous marriages without impugning the doctrine of polygamy, and the adoption by the United States Senate in 1907 of the minority report of its Committee on Privileges and Elections which confirmed Reed Smoot.  During that time the Church learned not only that it must outwardly conform to the requirements of the American system but also that it would lose nothing by doing so.

The generation which had known the prophet Joseph in the flesh died out.  Whatever memories of hardship in Utah might remain, the agonies of Missouri and Illinois became only a tradition.  Meanwhile the businesses of Israel had prospered and, since the United States could seize them, had made Israel vulnerable.  The Edmunds Act and the Edmunds-Tucker Act which supplemented it did in fact confiscate Church property.  They also, in flagrant violation of the Constitution, disfranchised polygamists and attached a test-oath to the franchise — gelding and gutting the organization of Mormondom and threatening it with complete destruction.  They signalized the intention of the Government, after fifty years of compromise, to bring the Church into conformity.  They were directed at polygamy, but in the background was much unresolved matter, such as terrorism of the Gentiles in Utah, political exploitation, disregard of political and legal forms, and Mormon attitudes toward the tariff, the wool and hides industries and corporation law which the party in power could not approve.  Well, Israel’s fire had sunk somewhat and Israel had learned wisdom.  This time not life but property was at stake — so the dreadful oaths to avenge the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, to destroy the United States, to make the ground smoke with the blood and bowels of the Gentiles, were quietly laid away.  The new generation of leaders heard but impatiently the grandsires who preached fidelity to prophecy even though it should destroy the Church.  Israel capitulated to the United States, has never violated the bargain then made, and has had no reason to regret it.

Splendor dies with that hardheaded decision.  On June 26, 1858, the United States Army under command of Albert Sidney Johnston entered Salt Lake City in order of battle.  It came to assert the sovereignty of the national Government and to raise the flag above a capital where, up till then, only the banners of heave had been acknowledge.  All morning long the troops filed through the city, but the mirth of drums and bugles floated down empty streets.  Here and there the military might see a Gentile watching this assertion of the nation’s will, but they saw no Saints.  The only Mormons in Salt Lake City that day were hidden in designated houses, and they had torches and inflammables with them.  Mormonry itself, thirty thousand strong, was miles to the south, waiting with Brigham Young to see what terms could be made.  Just so far would he go, just so much would he yield to the children of evil — and no more.  By God he would make no peace endangering Israel — and by God he didn’t.  If he had had to, Salt Lake City would have been burned to the ground, all Zion besides would have been laid waste, and Brigham would have led his people on one more migration.  Into the badlands of the Virgin and Colorado Rivers they would have gone, and there the Kingdom would have been set up among the desert peaks and would have resumed its ancient warfare with the damned.  That was the stature of Brigham when, all expedients failing, he had to face submission and decide Israel’s fate.  He won.  The United States submitted.

Things went otherwise in 1890.  Israel’s wealth was saved.  Polygamy was postponed to the celestial state, the Saints were arbitrarily assigned to Democratic and Republican Party organizations, the Endowment House was torn down (as a pretty symbol), and the path to Reed Smoot’s Senatorship opened straight ahead.  Personal leadership waned.  George Q. Cannon was the last great leader of the Saints and, working through the figurehead prophets Taylor, Snow and Woodruff, he was neither President nor a personal dictator.  Cannon’s oldest son, Frank, was much the most brilliant minds of the younger generation.  He played a leading part in the preservation of the Church and the shift to a new basis following the Woodruff Manifesto, then he rebelled against the hierarchy, was cut off and became the most despised apostate of Mormon history.  By that time the government of the Church was openly vested in the hierarchy.  Reed Smoot rising to power in the Republican Party, becoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, consulting with his peers to force the nomination of Warren G. Harding — Reed Smoot is the perfect image of modern Mormonism.  Or, if you like, the Vicegerent of God’s directorship of Union Pacific.  The flight of the angel Nephi, the sacred repository of the Hill Cumorah, the temple of God reared secretly by night in the looted city of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s visions of the Terrible Day and his murder in Carthage Jail — came in the end to a treasurer’s signature on a dividend check.  God had brought His people into the glory promised them.  His house, it was already recorded, had many mansions; of them the one that had proved most durable was the countinghouse.

The inescapable word on polygamy may be spoken here.  It must be thought of as an experiment that failed.  The Gentile literature has enormously exaggerated its importance.  The institution was fastened on the Church by Joseph’s mania, working aberrantly on this current agitation as on so many others.  It was certain to fail.  Polygamy is not adaptable to American mores and is especially unfitted to an agricultural society.  Its preservation through so many years was a considerable handicap, holding back a development that would have proceeded more rapidly without it.  Young could not be expected to get rid of it: he himself was a polygamist and so were all his lieutenants.  He deliberately used the opposition it aroused outside Zion to keep alive the persecution energies of the Saints, and that realism represented the best he could do.  Polygamy was, moreover, a caste privilege.  Only the well-to-do could afford it, a fact of importance in the linkages that gave the hierarchy power.  The Saints defended it as a vital part of a religion revealed by God Himself, as they defended baptism for the dead and the multiplicity of gods.  But they did not, and could not, practise it very much.  The modern Mormon rationalization of it as a device to take care of surplus women is absurd, for there were never more women than men in Utah.  It affected only a small part of Israel at any time.  The most reliable estimate ever made indicates that at the most active period only four percent of the marriages in Utah were polygamous.  I believe that the estimate is too high, perhaps as much as fifty percent too high.  Polygamy would have fallen of its own weight long before it did, if the Gentile agitation had not kept it alive.  It was falling of its own weight when the Woodruff Manifesto ended it.  It was on its way to join the Deseret alphabet, the United Order and the fiat money of Deseret which was the only currency in history to be secured by the promises of God.


Theologically, Mormonism is a creation of the American Pentecost.  Philosophically it is a solution of a problem which American thought has grappled with for three hundred years: how to identify  spiritual grace with the making of money.  It is interesting to observe that, whereas Mormonism is a complete materialism, Christian Science, a complete idealism, came to the same successful issue.  Mother Eddy provided a means of vulgarizing, of adapting on the lowest level, a mysticism whose highest level may be seen in Emerson and Jonathan Edwards, and in her world-swallowing metaphysics there is no material existence, no external reality, no objective good except cash.  In the Mormon metaphysics everything is real and has an objective existence — even “spirit is matter but more finely divided” — but real things compose an ascending gradation whose climactic value is material prosperity.  Dozens of sects, scores of philosophers, tried to give that principle implements of expression.  The mechanism which developed under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young has a certain permanent importance in the history of thought.

The mechanism required was one which would utilize religious energy for financial ends.  Psychologically, religion is an energizer, an emotional stimulus: it gives its possessor life more abundantly.  Mormonism succeeded in harnessing that power for profit.  Briefly, this is the solution: a coöperation of energized believers working in the name of God for an earthly Kingdom that will persist into eternity, and commanded by an oligarchy of superior persons whose authority is absolute because it originates in God and can be vindicated, whenever necessary, by revelation.

The Kingdom must actually be sanctified in the present, so that the believer may keep a lively sense of grace from day to day.  And it must extend into eternity, so that he will always have stimulus to greater exertion.  He must, that is, be laboring in an industry that is both temporal and eternal, that advances him on earth and in heaven.  Also, he must have a lively awareness of fellowship with others who are set off with him as a people chosen by God and, for greater effectiveness, persecuted by the Gentiles.  He must hold a priesthood not given to those outside the law, so that he may always be aware of his superiority, but it must be one not completely conferred on himself, so that he will not unthriftily waste time in doubt or self-satisfaction but will always press on to advance through the infinite series of degrees open to him.  Granted a society of such believers, granted such a lesser priesthood working toward a common end and controlled by a greater priesthood which has absolute power and immediate communication with God — and the result is not only great wealth but also a religion which satisfies a need that has been constant throughout American history.

That religion has had the fullest expression it is likely ever to have, in the pleasant valleys of Deseret which Israel is content to occupy in place of the lost Missouri Eden.  Jens Christopherson, newly arrived from Norway and set to forking out his bishop’s barn, participates in glories that no Gentile will ever behold.  Ahead of him are dozen of steps which will take him farther and farther into the blinding light; till he dies he will be penetrating deeper into God’s mysteries.  He cannot so much as shingle a woodshed without adding to his spiritual stature, and when his daughter learns how to bake a cake without eggs she confers more glory on him.  He goes on in splendor, his priesthood developing as his savings account grows — and as his priesthood develops it creates increment for Zion.  And Reed Smoot, progressing from Henry Cabot Lodge’s yes-man to the Senate chairmanship that allowed him to write tariffs favorable to Israel’s industries, has always walked in the same glories, and in the greater ones of the Melchizedek priesthood.  No step that Smoot took in the service of Israel’s debentures was without immediate reward in the eternities, for you cannot build up the Kingdom on earth without also building it up in heaven.  And Reed Smoot, if he lives long enough, will come into the greatest glory of all.  The manipulator of tariffs and nominations will, by that fact and along that path, become Prophet, Seer, Revelator and Vicegerent of God on earth, holding the keys of the spirit and the mysteries and gazing into the awful secrets of all time to come.  By the quarterly dividend ye shall come to know God: Mormonism is Jens Christopherson plus Reed Smoot.



But historically Mormonism is the fulfillment of a social ideal, the fructification of a social myth, the achievement of Utopia.  It is what happens when Utopian dreams work out a free society.  It is the actual resultant of the theoretical forces, the vision realized, the hope given flesh.  It is the reality which the dream creates.  That is its importance.  And that is why it justifies study, these days of vision and desire….remembering that Robert Owen’s vision perished, that Fourier and Cabet are only footnotes in the dream book, that Ballou and Lane and Brownson and Ripley and hundreds like them went down to dust while Joseph Smith’s Utopia reached the golden shore.

What is Utopia when you get there?  Make no mistake about it: the Mormon Utopia is a great deal.  Brigham Young founded a state in the desert, the Mormons develops a culture there, and as states and cultures go they are good ones.  The state at least is better than the American average — Utopia is above the median line in civics, which, I take it, is what our prophets promise us.  Nearly any statistical index you may choose — literacy, school system, good roads, public health, bank savings, per capita wealth, business solvency, ownership of land free of incumbrance, infrequency of divorce or infanticide, infrequency of crimes against persons and property — will show that the Saints are better off than the average of their neighbors.  And the state has always taken care of its poor.  Poverty there has always been, but it has not been hopelessness.  Israel has remembered its persecutions and so has helped the widowed, the orphaned and the dispossessed — it has managed to watch over its own.  It has preserved great inequalities of wealth and has been forced to institutionalize its charity as thoroughly as the capitalists and the damned — but that merely says that Utopia remains outside security.  On the other hand, the Church has developed agencies for finding the gifted, the useful, clearing the way before them, and bringing them to a better functioning in Israel.  The agencies and the institutions are there, and the priesthood is there, overseeing the people, going among them and counseling them, sharing their problems, working with them toward the answers.

That, heaven knows, adds up to an impressive total.  But there is something that counts much more: the Saints are members one of another.  They form a community with recognized objectives, in the realization of which every member has an active part.  They share the effort and they know that they have a value in the result.  Before them is the ideal which they are helping to realize; around them is the culture which they have helped to shape.  The slightest of them has more identity of his own because he is identified with the great society and with its dream.  Here is the fellowship of common endeavor, the sense of sharing a social vision, the communion of men bound together in a cause — that is gone from the Christian Church and from the modern world.  It is what Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini have tried to invoke; it is what ardent and generous and despairing people hold out as our only hope, our only defense against chaos.  The Saints have had it from the beginning and they will never lose it.

Yes, Utopia exists in the Wasatch valleys.  And its idiom is completely American.  This is the fulfillment of our prophets’ dreams.  So let us see some of the conclusions it indicates.  Utopia, then, can be achieved.  How?

The first conclusion: that not Brook Farm but Mormonism is Utopia, that not Charles Fourier but Joseph Smith brings it about, that not the highest level but the lowest level is its absolute condition.  Mormonism was first embraced by the illiterate and the inferior, has been recruited from them ever since, and is held together by a body of belief that can satisfy only the most rudimentary minds.  Destroy that body of belief, alter it in the least particular, and Utopia will sink and vanish.  The Mormon ideology springs from dogmas not only preposterous but actually revolting to the intelligence.  In order to share the common effort of Utopia you must accept as holy books some of the most squalid creations of human thought, you must receive as God’s messages to mankind the delirium of insanity, you must believe that ignorant and stupid fools had the answers to all questions and were the channels of all truth.  You must believe that Reed Smoot trading votes with Boies Penrose and Murray Crane was in touch with ineffable justice and the light of the world.  You must believe that the president of your life insurance company is guided by the Holy Ghost, that the cashier of your bank is a son of Abraham and has his father’s access to immortal truth, that the Socony man who sells you a quart of oil gazes down the eternities.  You must believe that you yourself have kinsmen on the planet Kolob and will some day be a god begetting on a herd of brood-goddesses an infinity of other gods who will fill intergalactic space with new worlds to increase your glory.  You must dedicate yourself to an organized body of damned nonsense so beyond-conceiving idiotic that a mind emancipated enough to embrace the dogmas of the Holy Rollers is immune to it.  Touch that belief at any point and you have severed the aorta — Utopia will topple in fragments.  Utopia is not dedication to the humanitarian vision of George Ripley; it is dedication to the hallucinations of Joseph Smith.  The vision perishes, it is the vertigo that endures.

And if Utopia is a rigid selection of the inferior it is also a ruthless destruction of the individual.  What European dictators have been practising for twenty years has always been the practice of the dictatorship that maintained Utopia.  It is, of course, an American Utopia — it has had to do but little murder in the faith’s name, has used no castor oil, has flourished its knives but infrequently and then with a native humor.  But at moments of crisis it has had its purges and proscriptions — and day by day the priesthood is there, with powers not only of excommunication from eternal glory but of boycott, espionage, monopoly, price-cutting and the big stick.  Refusal to “sustain the Presidency” in any way is inconceivable.  The Saint in business “accepts counsel” — that is, does what the priesthood tells him to do — quite as inevitably and as thoroughly as he does in matters of doctrinal orthodoxy.  There has never been a time when any Mormon’s business, politics and mind were not as completely at the disposal of the ruling hierarchy as his belief in miracles.  Utopia can tolerate unorthodoxy in behavior or in idea no more than it can tolerate disunion in belief.

This implies that the culture of Utopia, though it be vigorous, must be conformable and mediocre.  What has Israel produced?  Business men, politicians, bankers and men gifted in the elaboration and propagation of doctrinal idiocies.  Its genius finds expression in that kind of man; its élite are a business élite exclusively.  Its scholars, scientists, artists, thinkers, all its infrequent talent, it has plowed back into the Kingdom.  In Utopia the fate of the superior person is tragic.  Consider an anthropologist set to vindicating The Book of Mormon, a musician condemned to write cantatas celebrating the flight of angels above Cumorah, a logician who must resolve the contradictions of The Doctrine and Covenants, a sociologist who must rationalize polygamy, a poet whose lyrics must idealize the Word of Wisdom’s prohibition of hot tea.  In Utopia talent must string along or it must get out.  Actually, not much agony of this sort has been caused.  Israel is the Kingdom, not the spirit, and has given irrigation to America, not arts and letters.  To the Kingdom, not the spirit, such talent as arises devotes itself.  The soprano comes back to Zion to drill “primary” in singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”  The painter, if the priesthood has been unable to turn him altogether from his vagary, comes back to do a mural of Joseph and the angel Moroni on a blank wall in the chapel of the Twelfth Ward.  It is that, or it is get out.  The sensitive, the intelligent, the individual, all those not gifted for the increase of kine, have always got out, for Utopia is death to them.  They have not been numerous; the élite reproduces itself in kind.

Again, the classless society must inevitably develop a privileged class.  Remember that Mormonism is a society of just men in process of being made perfect.  It is, that is to say, the exact fulfillment of the common dream out of which it sprang, which launched a hundred experiments in liberty and equality.  It is George Ripley, Robert Owen and Charles Fourier making good their vision of a common endeavor and a common life wherein each should contribute according to his ability and have according to his need.  The liberty Utopia has is the freedom to conform, the equality  it has is a common privilege of “sustaining the Presidency,” and though each contributes according to his ability, each has — whatever he can get from the system that supports the hierarchy.  The great society is one organized to advance the interests of the ruling class.  All that a century of vision and labor has accomplished is to give that class a resounding title and make it more secure.  Whatever benefit the humble Saint may get from the system comes to him and by the permission of his masters as the largesse.  He serves God and will profit exceedingly thereby when he is dead; he serves the hierarchy and profits thereby as may be when the dividends and the sinking fund have been taken care of.

Finally, Utopia does not alter the shape of things.  What is Mormonism in the twentieth century?  A grotesque ideology, a set of coöperative institutions strictly limited and managed in support of an élite, and, beyond that, effectively an identification with industry and finance.  Martyrdom, years of suffering, the colonization of the desert and the dream of millennial justice come out by the same door as any private enterprise in stock-jobbing.  Utopia begins by calling down the lightning and the terrible Day on the corrupt system of the Gentiles, and for some time it dances the carmagnole; but the bloody oaths fade out and the Prophet, Seer and Revelator sanctifies the World War and announces with the power of inspiration that God has blessed the United States, on which the earliest prophet invoked His eternal wrath.  At arm’s length you cannot tell Utopia from anything else.  It has blended with the map, it has joined hands with the damned.

There it is: what has actually survived from the Newness and the Striving.  That is the way the dream and the word are made flesh.  Mormonism is the millennium that comes through.  This is what Utopia is.  Now that the heavens open again and voices speak once more out of the thunder and the whirlwind, now that the vision reawakens and the heart lifts, answering….it is worth scrutiny and meditation.

***** NOTES *****

1.  In the Church, as elsewhere in American thought, the exact meaning of  “millennium” is disputed, and consequently the date of its beginning is variously given.  The strictest canonical interpretation, however, is that the millennium began with the Restoration.

2.  Celibacy was the Shakers’ blunder.  Of all the American religions the student finds theirs most charming.  They had a serenity beyond any other sect, they lived quietly and in the respect of their neighbors, through their orchards and nurseries they greatly improved American horticulture, and they raised the handicrafts to a greater excellence than any of their rivals.  Theirs was a genuine communion and a formidably successful communism.  If they had provided for its preservation by other means than proselyting, they might have had a strong influence on
American culture.

3.  At all levels of intelligence, education, and travel, Utah means Mormon and Mormon means polygamist.  A dozen times a year I am asked, in good faith, if I have more than one wife, and I think I have never had a dinner-table conversation about Utah or the Mormons that did not arrive at the present (mythical) practice of polygamy within five minutes.  It is all a little trying to a Utahn, especially one who was brought up in the Church of Rome.

4.  On the main (Utah) body, that is.  Milo M. Quaife’s The Kingdom of St. James, a history of the Strang heresy, is authoritative and complete.

5.  This deficiency may soon be repaired.  For several years there have been rumors of a thorough study by a grandson of the prophet Brigham, who is a qualified sociologist.

6.  A Mormon exegete claims that more has been written about Joseph Smith than about any other American except Lincoln and Washington.  That is certainly not true but it suggests the size of the literature.

7.  And which had been vigorously renewed in the last fifteen years before The Book of Mormon, the theological arguments being reinforced by scientific thinkers.  The most notable item of a large literature is Elias Boudinot’s A Star in the West, published in 1816.  For other items, see Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism.  Note, however, that The Book of Mormon does not identify its Nephites and Lamanites as the lost tribes.

8.  To meet various criticisms, champions of the Spaulding theory have modified it till in the modern version Rigdon is supposed to have borrowed only the proper names and the outline of the story, and to have written The Book of Mormon himself.  If Rigdon, why not Smith?  Besides, the weightiest evidence for the theory is the assertion of Spaulding’s friends that they recognized his style and mannerisms.

9.  Harry M. Beardsley,  Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire, Boston, 1931.

10.  See BDeV, “The Skeptical Biographer,” in Forays and Rebuttals, Boston, 1936, pp. 179-203; also in Harper’s, January 1933 .

11.  Third edition, London, 1932.  The passage quoted is on page 231,  Chapter X, “Paranoia and Paranoid Reaction-Types,” should be read entire.

12.  Advocates of the Spaulding theory rule out the evidence of Solomon Mack’s autobiography and Lucy Smith’s sketches of the prophet and his ancestors.  It is not suggested here that they are historical records, but surely they prove the frequency of miracle and hysteria in the Smith and Mack households, and surely Solomon Mack was not assisting the imposture of a grandson who was less than five years old.

13.  I have never seen in print any allusion to an ancient legend of Gentile Utah that Joseph was castrated at Nauvoo by someone — never named — whose wife he had seduced.  My father heard it in Utah as early as 1878.  Its usefulness, as well as its consolation, to the embattled Gentiles is obvious.

14.  Sometimes attaching a symbolic meaning to the colors of the inks and the instruments with which the writing is done.  Cf. Joseph’s corruption of the Urim and Thummim.

15.  Well acquainted with the evidence already, I made another study of it before writing that article.  Until then I had leaned toward the belief that Smith must have got hold of the Spaulding manuscript, whether through Rigdon or someone else.  One had to swallow the difficulties of that theory or those presented by Smith’s known ignorance.  I adopted that idea in the earlier version of this essay, but I hereby withdraw it.  We must be as skeptical as possible, and such a theory must be supported by much more evidence than has been found.  My final opinion is that
the evidence for the Spaulding manuscript is insufficient and unacceptable, and that Joseph’s later, and proved, writing indicates that he was capable of writing The Book of Mormon.

16.  If easily disposed of by the assumption that Smith’s autobiography was a systematic lie composed on no basis of fact and utilizing ex post facto material which someone else had already put into The Book of Mormon.  That is a very helpful assumption when you are proving the Spaulding theory, but the facts do not justify it.  And logic texts call the use of an assumption to prove itself argument in a circle.

17.  It was headed by the prophet Joseph Morris.  (The “false prophet” alluded to by Jonathan Dyer in the first essay in Forays and Rebuttals —  also printed as “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman” in Harper’s, September 1933.)  Morris had revelations from God and produced sacred books by inspiration.  So did most of the prophets of the other schisms.  Those of James J. Strang are the most interesting, and his Kingdom in Wisconsin and the islands of Lake Michigan is much the most picturesque of the heresies.

18.  This summary of Young’s religious experience is based on his own statements in sermons.  I see no reason for questioning any part of it.  His sermons, published in the Journal of Discourses, are the most important documents of Mormonism.

19.  The literature of the West contains an occasional allusion to a Mormon party which is said to have been in the Salt Lake valley in the summer of 1846, a year before the advance party of the emigration got there.  I cannot identify it or prove that it existed, and Rosamond Chapman, who has made an investigation for me, can go but little farther.  Note also that, in 1847, Mormons who had gone to California by ship may have come eastward through the valley and joined Young before he got there.

20.  Mormon historians used to claim that the “Mormon Trail” along the north bank of the Platte was used for the first time by this emigration, but it was in fact well marked and had been frequently used.  While traveling it, the Mormons met several parties coming east along it.

21.  A party of Gentile emigrants traveling to California were slaughtered by Mormons, only a few young children being spared. The act must be understood as an end-product of many months of religious excitement begotten by famine, panic, and the threat of invasion.  Israel was harrowed by its own soul-searching, the wrath of the Lord had been made manifest, and the priesthood had been inciting the Saints against the Gentiles — an expedient made sufficiently familiar to this age by European dictatorships.  Young was not directly responsible for it and was genuinely horrified when he learned of it — for reasons both of humanity and of statecraft.  Nevertheless, as I say in the Dictionary of American Biography, he must be charged with the constructive responsibility of all dictators.

22.  My article on Young in the Dictionary of American Biography.

23.  Because they then initiated the Saints wholesale and because their ceremonies were really a parody, they were expelled from Masonry.  I understand that since then no Mormon has been received into a Masonic lodge.

24.  Observe the national Government’s half-century of assistance to settlers elsewhere in the desert.  You may also observe its failure.

25.  See “The Life of Jonathan Dyer,” in Forays and Rebuttals.

26.  The economist who will investigate this question will find a wealth of supporting detail, from a managed currency and efforts to prevent the export of capital down to a purified alphabet to prevent contamination by foreign ideas.

27.  The basis of them has always been the tithes, a ten percent income tax and in theory also a capital levy.  No accounting of them, or of the other financial property of the Church, is ever made.  At Annual Conference an aseptic report is made on expenditures for missions, Church edifices, and charitable organizations.

28.  The revelation which originally established it has never been countermanded, and the Saints have always had a vague expectation that it must someday be obeyed.  During the last few years that expectation has grown livelier.  I greatly regret that I am not qualified to discuss the effects of the depression on Mormonism.  What most impresses one from a distance is the revival of the old millennial fires.  Israel has had a contrite heart and the gifts of the spirit have flourished.  There has been a widespread, if not officially indorsed, belief that the Last Days have begun.  World-wide upheaval, wars, rumors of wars, famine, drought and sun spots have been interpreted (as they have been all through Mormonism’s century) as the fulfillment of Joseph’s prophecies.  When Mr. Marriner Eccles was summoned to the Treasury Department the matter was clinched — Joseph having specifically foretold that in the Last Days a Saint would becalled to save the nation.  There seems to have been a reversion to a much more active cooperation, leading in the summer of 1936 to the Church’s withdrawing all its people from national relief.  Granted enough disaster, it is easy to imagine the restoration of the United Order — with, however, the hierarchy in absolute control.

29.  There was a thin trickle of secret polygamous marriage for some years after the Manifesto.  Then toward the beginning of the century the hierarchy became afraid that the loyalty of its members might be affected by the new alliances with the Gentiles. At that time, according to a Utah rumor of long standing, it required all of its members who were not polygamists to secretly marry plural wives.  If that is true, it was the last flare-up of any importance.  The Mormons to-day are as monogamous as the Presbyterians.

Next to Reading Matter

Next to Reading Matter

(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, June 1952)

I have just said, “The hell with it,” and yanked page 4 of an Easy Chair out of the typewriter.  Being a thrifty worker, I will come back to it in a couple of  months and finish it, for it is a lovely thing,  full of profound thoughts and deft turns of phrase.  Or it would be if I weren’t too tired  and off my feed to bear up under the thoughts, which are heavy as well as profound.  I’ve used up my second wind — I have been to St. Louis and back this week and a couple of days from now I start for San Francisco.  So, instead of my publisher, you get to read some publicity stuff I have been preparing, about a book I have written. The ethical justification for running it here is this: in the  last seventeen years I have devoted so many Easy Chairs to books by other people that I am entitled, or claim I am, to devote one to a  book of mine. The pragmatic justification is a principle I never lose sight of: nobody is required by law or custom to read the Easy Chair. A few pages farther along you will find Mr. Harper, who is so young that he has never learned what second wind is and can be deft about any weight of thought without disturbing the part in his hair.

Personal & Otherwise has already remarked  that rumor said my book was about Lewis and Clark and how come the Spanish got into it?  Over the years it looked as if Lewis and Clark would not make the grade, and in the outcome they didn’t till page 475.  I have browbeaten Harper’s into promising to print a section which comes about a hundred pages farther along, so that if you live virtuously you will be able to read some of the book a  few months from now. If you are elderly and a confirmed reader of Harper’s, in fact, you have probably read some of it, or anyway some pieces based on it, for it has been, as we say, “in preparation” for quite a while. My publishers first announced that it was in preparation in1937 and were telling the truth, though prematurely. Since then I have finished it. This publicity matter does not say why or even how, but only illuminates the repulsive process of literary genetics.

In the fall of 1936 I was, augustly, editing the Saturday Review of Literature. Somebody failed to deliver the article he had promised for the Christmas issue, our big issue, the one with some ads in it. He was probably feeling aggrieved about the $50 fee which was all we could pay for lead pieces, and knew that he wouldn’t get even that honorarium for six months unless I lit a fire under the business manager. I had held my high office since September and had dazzled Amy Loveman and George Stevens, who were used to literary people, by a journalist’s willingness to write pieces on short notice.. Four or five days before our Christmas-issue deadline they decided that the editor had to rise to the emergency. Besides, if I wrote the lead piece we would save fifty bucks.

We didn’t. When they decided that our Christmas had better be Early American, I offered to write about a.U. S. Army detachment in the Upper Missouri wilderness on  Christmas Day 1804 and at the mouth of the Columbia River on Christmas 1805. But I  stipulated that the SRL would have to buy me Coues’s edition of Nicholas Biddle’s History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Since it  cost $37.50, our net saving was $12.50. In 1952 my capital gain is zero; a catalogue I  received last week lists the set at $37.50, which  shows that rare books are the best investment  in the world. If you’re Dr. Rosenbach.

Called “Passage to India,” the piece led off our Christmas issue, distressed the business manager because it said nothing about books, and was received with unforgettable calm by our readers. Most of them customarily read only the Double-Crostics anyway, except publishers, who wanted to find out if any of their books were getting a free ride. That motive led my publisher to read my piece and the next time I saw him he said, “You ought to write a book about Lewis and Clark.” It seemed a sound idea and I could work it into my plans, which had been recently and violently remodeled. There was room for a good short narrative account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, say two hundred pages of brisk prose that would tell what happened and let it go at that. It is still a sound idea and there is still room for a short narrative account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, say five hundred pages shorter than my book.


For about fifteen years I had been studying primitive America and frontier experience. (Here I always have to explain that “frontier” does not mean “West.”)  I had planned a number of related books showing their effect on the contemporary United States. The plan had had to be remodeled because Harvard University, where I had been teaching, decided that I didn’t know enough to go on teaching there and so had better accept the job I had been offered editing, as Harvard understood it, the Saturday Evening Post. Only one of the books I had laid out ever got written. It was called The Year of Decision and I began to construct a new plan around it.  The new plan included, at some time in the future, the book I had promised my publisher, a short narrative account of Lewis and Clark. Just what else the plan included I didn’t rightly know, in fact I didn’t realize that it was a plan till a friend pointed it out to me. In retaliation I dedicated the next book to him; it was called Across the Wide Missouri.

Five years before the first of those books was published I had got a bellyful of the editorial life and had quit it. I went on studying primitive America and preparing to write, sometime, a short narrative account of Lewis and Clark. Friends of mine kept asking me when I was going to get around to it, and so did my publishers. The answer was always easy: any time how, all I’ve got to do is tie up a few loose ends.  In 1945 I gave up every other activity except writing an occasional piece for current cash and sold the securities — what a word! — that represented my savings so that my family could live while I wrote a book about Lewis and Clark. By the summer of 1946 I was only a couple of days short of beginning. I spent that summer covering the trail of Lewis and Clark, studying the topography and the rivers and the weather, talking with historians and geographers and engineers.  I had made several such trips for that purpose before this one; as it turned out, I was to make a number of others after it.  When I didn’t start writing that fall, the questions of my friends and my publishers got pointed and they have grown sharper over the years. They knew that at any time from say 1940 on I could have started to write about Lewis and Clark tomorrow morning. I knew as much myself but I knew too that there was a sound reason for not writing yet. The closest I could come to phrasing it was, “I don’t know enough; I’ve got to do some more work.”  When asked, usually in words I would not care to print in Harper’s, what that meant, I talked about “background.” That convenient word does not mean a thing but it protected me against further questions which might have revealed that though I knew I had to do some more work I didn’t know why.


Like this.  In a letter which Jefferson wrote to Meriwether Lewis before the expedition got started, he alluded to a young man who had gone up the Missouri River some years before in search of the Welsh Indians. I had never heard of them but clearly the allusion called for a footnote in my book. I directed my secretary, whose proper title would be research assistant, to spend a couple of hours finding out what she could about them. A week later she had a bibliography of some twenty items; presently the two of us had run it up to 370 items. She worked on nothing but the Welsh Indians for five months. I worked on them for two months and then took off on a number of new subjects which they opened up, all relevant to my book though I did not know how. I corresponded with other students, beat the underbrush, dug in the unlikeliest places, and swore at the loss of time. An uneducated man, I do not read Welsh and so I had to pay high to get a lot of letters, journals, and scholarly articles translated. Presently I knew more about the American history of the Welsh Indians than anyone before me had ever known —  all right, you name the others — indeed,  knew enough to lecture about them at Harvard and I did. So far as Lewis and Clark were concerned, the Welsh Indians were worth about two paragraphs, and the young man Jefferson had alluded to was worth about five pages. But by the time I was finished with them and ready for another time-consuming detour I understood why I had previously spent a good many months reading about mythical continents and islands, mythical people and cities, the delirious dreams of the conquistadors, El Dorado, the Amazons,  and so on and on and on.

I got used to having specialists of all kind;  after I had pumped them for hours, say, “Will you tell me what So-and-So has to do  with Lewis and Clark?”  Brazil wood, for instance. “My dear fellow, don’t you know that by the time of Lewis and Clark nobody supposed there was brazil wood in North America?”  Sure; I knew better than this chap did, for I had found out, whereas he was merely assuming; but I knew too that brazil wood had something to do with my book.  It is not even mentioned in the text but it led me to several detours that paid off, for instance a demonstration that a famous narrative of exploration which had always been accepted as fact was entirely fictitious.

There was a period when I was reading Spanish narratives of the sixteenth century.  I could not have said why but it seemed logical enough; by now, reading about the fall of Troy would have seemed logical preparation for Lewis and Clark. My intimates would inquire what the hell Cabeza de Vaca had to do with Lewis and Clark. Nothing, but maybe it would be fun to write that great story as a kind of introductory chapter. “See here, people who write history aren’t permitted to take time off to have fun.” That’s true, but how about letting the reader have some fun? But while I was reading about Coronado a figure clad all in white came in through the window and nudged my shoulder.  I perceived that Coronado was the first white man who had ever heard of the existence of  the Missouri River. (I needn’t say that he didn’t know what he was hearing about.) I am an ignorant and naive man; I supposed that I was the first person who had ever perceived that fact. Presently I found out that I wasn’t; but the figure in white, now wear-   ing an emerald star on the end of a chain,  came back and nudged me again and I picked  up some significances that had been disregarded.  I began to suspect that one theme of my book was the Missouri River. That would explain why I had been visiting it at  least once a year for a decade.


What was the importance of the Missouri?  Clearly that Lewis and Clark, about whom I was going to write a  short book, had gone up it. Well, you have to begin at the beginning. My training in geology can be described as imperfect but I  studied the geological history of the Missouri, which in some places is pretty hair-raising.  Maybe I’d better learn something about its  volume and seasonal flow; that took me to monographs that are even duller than those political historians write, which is high praise.  Either the Geological Survey or the Army Engineers, and I forget which, has a sectional  map of the Missouri, sixty or a hundred and twenty or five hundred sections. I sweated  that out. Every so often I get asked to speak  at some college; I usually find reasons to decline but I was accepting any offer that would  take me near the Missouri. So I accepted one from the University of South Dakota, which  is at Vermillion and near the river.

While I was at the university I cajoled a  historian, a geologist, and an anthropologist  into giving me a seminar on the local stretch  of the Missouri. In the course of it we drove  to a hill called Spirit Mound. Lewis and Clark had stopped for a day in order to look it over, having heard that the Indians of the region said a race of ferocious dwarfs lived there. I  had chased those dwarfs through a full century before Lewis and Clark; the French in Canada and Illinois had been hearing about them for a century. They were very interesting dwarfs and had a talent for rapid change; sometimes they were bloodthirsty cannibals, sometimes elegant and civilized, sometimes  Chinese. I had found that they tied in with a lot of things that had something to do with my book, with the Welsh Indians, the bearded  Indians, Deacon Arnold’s round tower at Newport, the Kensington Rune Stone, the Book of Mormon, and the Western Sea.  When our motorized seminar got to Spirit Mound I asked a rancher who lived nearby if he had ever seen any dwarfs there. He said he certainly had, he saw them frequently. They were, he explained, mirage. Why not?  And that put them square in the center of my book, which was full to the bung with mirages, including many of my own.

By 1948 I was ready to write my narrative account of Lewis and Clark, that is I would be as soon as I could tie up a few loose ends.  (Had I better read Marco Polo? Was it true that the big trees had been named for Sequoya? Who first expressed an intelligible idea of the continental divide?) In 1950 tt Army Engineers flew me and some of my friends, one of whom was Bud Guthrie the novelist, the entire length of the Missouri River in their tony DC-3. They took us on stretches of it in big boats and medium-size boats. I wanted to travel the upper stretch in a little boat. The idea shocked and frightened the Engineers — boats on the Upper Missouri? That would be dangerous, in places the river was four feet deep, they could not be responsible for our safety. Eventually they gave in, though they sent out their DC-3 twice every day to make sure we hadn’t been drowned.

We got only three days of navigating the Missouri but we shoved our steel dugout off as many sandbars as Lewis and Clark did and I learned more in those three days than I had in any of the fourteen years I had now been working on my short narrative. God bless, in a limited sense, the Army Engineers. At this moment the Saturday Evening Post, which I never did get round to editing, was printing an article of mine that put the slug on their flood-control activities. When the piece came out General Sturgis, our host, wrote me that he wasn’t feeling as sorry as he had been about the frequency with which writers were getting shot in Korea.


Shortly afterward a deep sleep came upon me and when I woke up I knew what the book said about the Missouri River. The Missouri was the Northwest Passage, it was the Passage to India, it was Bud Guthrie’s Way West. It had been entirely logical to detour through Verrazano, John Smith, Lahontan, brazil wood, dwarfs, the Jesuits in China — you can always trust the disorderly mind, it never errs. And sure enough the book was about Lewis and Clark.   I had merely misjudged their place in it by some hundreds of pages; they came at the end, not the beginning. Now when my friends  or my publishers asked me when I was going to start writing, I had a reasonable answer.  I would start writing as soon as I learned a  little more about Sir Humphrey Gilbert, James Cook, Columbus . . . and maybe I had  something there. Could I begin with Columbus?  As it turned out, no; I had to begin seven hundred years earlier. But if any reader  of the book, assuming that it finds some readers — if any reader thinks it a bit long-winded,  he may reflect on the fact that the first draft opened with a comparative study of interior North America in Late Ordovician and Middle Devonian times. Very logical too, for in both epochs there really was a Northwest Passage, but, I decided, somewhat far afield  for a short book.

I could keep this up indefinitely, telling you how I got started on Indian tortures for  instance, or bragging about the months of work I did on the Louisiana Purchase, some of which provided fully as much light as you can get from a match at five miles. Actually I  started writing a few months after I found out what the book was about, and starting to write was the biggest anticlimax since first love.  I finished the book last July. I finished  it again last January. With this advertising copy I finish it forever.

I understand that it is to be published in October and is to cost five or six dollars. Facing my obligation to pass judgment on books I discuss in the Easy Chair, I hesitate to say it is worth what it costs. Maybe, considering how the dollar has fallen off. Writing it certainly wasn’t worth what it cost.

I could formulate a lot of morals from the experience I have outlined here but most of them would not be trustworthy. This one may hold water: if the SRL had been able to sell a little more space in 1936 we might have been able to offer a hundred dollars for a Christmas piece, and in that event I would never have had the experience, which would be just fine. And I would like at least to break even on one part of it: anyone who wants my Coues’s edition of Biddle for $37.50   can have it by return mail.

The Life of Jonathan Dyer

   The Life of Jonathan Dyer

A Paragraph in the History of the West

(originally published as “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman,” in  Harper’s, September 1933)


Elders Jacob Gates and Martin Slack brought to Hertfordshire tidings of the wrath to come.  Curates, deans, even bishops were disturbed by the number of converts the American missionaries made.  They were Dissenters of a new and particularly objectionable kind, but their appeal was strong.  Sermons were preached against the “Mormonites”; riots began to occur at their meetings; here and there an elder was drummed out of town or set upon with eggs or thrown into a horse pond.  Employers were consulted, and some of them took action.  Mr. Young Crawley, the coachmaker of Hertford, discovered that an eighteen-year-old apprentice in his shop was explaining the new creed to his fellow workmen.  Mr. Crawley acted in the name of an Englishman’s religion, and Jonathan Dyer found himself without a job.

We are concerned with Jonathan Dyer not because he was persecuted for his faith but because that faith merged him with the strongest current in the New World from which the missionaries came.  Baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on the twenty-seventh of May, 1852, and discharged by Mr. Crawley almost at once, he did not at once yield to that current.  He got work in a linseed-oil mill, where his skill with machinery brought him advancement, and he began to advance also in the hierarchy of his Church.  Jonathan became a deacon, a teacher, and finally a fully ordained priest in the Order of Aaron.  He converted his mother and two of his brothers but, as a proselyter in the villages of High Cross and Collier’s End, found the opposition of the established church too vigorous for him.  At Roydon, however, the Paxman family listened to him and were convinced.  A daughter of the house was fair; during two years Jonathan found it desirable to visit Rhoda and instruct her in the Mormonite faith.  Both twenty-two years old, they were married at Roydon on the twenty-sixth of April, 1856.  They resolved to live their religion: to leave England and, joining the current, move westward to Zion.

Jonathan Dyer’s emigration is not explained beyond that sentence.  He was a mechanic; he had no trouble finding work; he was not interested in the cheap land that tempted millions to America.  He was an industrious, methodical, unimaginative young man – no restlessness for the road’s end and the far slope of the hill ever troubled him.  But for Elders Slack and Gates he would have stayed in Hertford, joined a workingman’s library, and ventured no farther from home than a holiday ride on the railroad would have taken him.  The voice the Lord called him eight thousand miles.  Of America he knew only what the elders told him and cared to know no more.  In a place called Jackson County, Missouri, the Garden of Eden had been planted.  The place was man’s lost paradise and would be restored to him in the Last Days, tokens of whose swift coming were on every wind.  Meanwhile the Saints were gathered in Deseret, “the land of the honey bee,” their present Zion, somewhere in a vastness known as the Rocky Mountains.  This too was a paradise, a land like Canaan, fertile and beautiful and walled away from the Gentiles.  God’s will was that the Saints should build up the Kingdom there and await the Last Days.

Passage to America cost from three pounds six shillings to four pounds, exclusive of food.  Jonathan’s savings were perhaps two pounds.  He borrowed two sovereigns from his wife’s parents and the rest from the Church.  The priesthood would lend money for emigration, the notes to be paid from the borrower’s earnings in Zion.  Jonathan and his wife and his brother Richard were to sail in the Horizon, Captain Reid, in May, 1856, but the ship was full when they reached Liverpool, and they had to await the forming of another company.  On June first, with one hundred and forty-three other Saints and lay emigrants to the number of three hundred and fifty, mostly Irish, they sailed in the packet Wellfleet, Captain Westcott.  Storms sickened most of the Saints; their provisions spoiled; there were quarrels with the ungodly about the cooking arrangements.  The superstitious Irish resented the Mormonite hymns.  The Irish too were lousy and within a week had infected the whole company.  On the tenth of July, one day short of six weeks after she was towed down the Mersey, the Wellfleet anchored off Quarantine at Boston.  At once a Negro sailor gave the pilgrims a symbol of the new civilization by stabbing the second mate.

The Church thriftily kept on the eastern seaboard all immigrants for whom work could be found until they had saved enough to pay their way westward.  The boom times of the early Fifties slackened toward the prostration of the next year, but the country proved able to absorb the Dyers.  Richard found work at Lexington, and the linseed-oil mill of Field, Fowler and Company, at Charlestown, took Jonathan in and made him foreman.  The summer of 1857 brought distress to the Saints and to the nation.  President Buchanan, a “mobocrat” and an enemy of God, rejected the counsel of Brigham Young, appointed a new Governor of Utah Territory, and ordered an army west to escort his appointee.  By the end of July the troops were marching, and soon afterward Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson took command of them.  The priesthood forbade women to cross the plains but welcomed men for the defense of Zion.  Richard Dyer left his wife to the care of Jonathan and departed, writing that it took him six weeks to cross Iowa, through sloughs sometimes so bad that they pulled the soles off his boots.  God moved swiftly to punish a nation of mobocrats.  On August twenty-fourth, the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company announced its insolvency.  Its failure carried with it the financial structure of the United States.  Banks failed everywhere, even in New England: it was believed that no bank was solvent.  The stock exchanges followed the banks.  By autumn unemployed men were rioting in the cities, farmers were abandoning their land, trade was prostrate, exchange was impossible.  Windows were broken in Charlestown and mobs surrounded the closed mills or surged sporadically in the direction of bakeshops.  Field, Fowler and Company shut down.  Jonathan peddled crockery.  The mill opened again, shut down, reopened.  But Jonathan was able to pay off his loans, to assist the emigration of another brother, and to lend the Boston branch of his Church fifty dollars.

Wages were very low in 1858, and the mill closed once more.  Jonathan moved to South Boston, where he worked as a glass packer.  The mill was running again by 1859, and Jonathan’s first son was born.  Jonathan now invented better valves and pistons for the mill’s machinery.  His employers promoted him and, the next year, sent him to Brooklyn to build and manage a new mill.  The Brooklyn branch of the Church received him as a man of substance.

Jonathan’s first daughter was born in March, 1861, on the day before Abraham Lincoln became President of a nation careening toward certain destruction.  Jonathan beheld passion, violence, and panic, and he knew that prophecy was on the march.  The nation which had spilled the prophet’s blood must now meet its doom.  On Christmas Day, twenty-nine years before, the blessed Joseph had foretold the rebellion of South Carolina, which Jonathan had now witnessed, and had said “the Southern States shall be divided from the Northern States” — which had come to pass.  The world spun toward the Last Days.  England too, Joseph had said, must join this apocalypse, and all Europe would follow till “war shall be poured out on all nations.”  Then famine and plague and earthquakes “and the fierce and vivid lightnings also,” and at last the terrible Day of the Lord.

Bishop Penrose had sung to the Church “Thy deliverance is nigh, thy oppressors shall die, And the Gentiles shall bow ‘neath thy rod.”  Jonathan’s residence in Brooklyn, his journal says, had been the happiest year of his life, but it was time to enter on the Kingdom. He sold all that he had and by the first of July reached Florence, Nebraska, where the ox trains formed.  With Brother Hudson he bought a wagon and two yoke of oxen.  Ten weeks of bitter marching through the desert, up the nation’s sternest trail, brought them to Great Salt Lake City.  Jonathan lived with Richard during the winter, working as a teamster when he could, although “no money to be earned.”  (Life was not so hard for everyone in Salt Lake, that winter.  “The Lady of Lyons” made a great success before crowded houses.  Everybody was reading Mr. Collins’s Woman in White.  Tickets to the Territorial Ball sold for ten dollars, and the Governor presided at a dinner whose menu lists four soups, nine roasts, nine boiled meats, six stews, nine vegetables, and fourteen desserts.)

In the spring of 1862 the Church rented Dyer forty-odd acres in the valley of Easton, thirty miles north of Salt Lake City, where the Weber River breaks through the Wasatch.  He had no voice in the selection of this land, but he wanted none – it was Zion and that was what counted.  So a migration of eight thousand miles ended amid sagebrush on a southern slope above the Weber.  The place possessed “a Dugout or a little room dug out of the bank.  Quite a contrast this is to my style of former living in Boston and Brooklyn, where I lived in a large house, carpeted rooms, etc., and it has tried my faith very much.”  The words are the only complaint that Jonathan Dyer ever expressed.

He had entered on the Kingdom.  And… Jonathan Dyer, of Hertford, had begun the most typical, most fundamental of American experiences: life on the frontier.


It is to be observed that Jonathan was a mechanic.  He had grown up in a town, he knew the qualities of woods and the tools that worked them, he was adroit with machinery and had invented valves and pumps, but he had never lived on a farm and was as unfitted as possible to exist by agriculture.  Commentators too often forget that the frontier held many like him.  We are familiar with the thesis – now favored because people who explain things feel that it has some bearing on these difficult times – that the free land of the frontier was a kind of economic safety valve or stabilizer.  When previous depressions came, this theory says, the man who was thrown out of work when the factories closed was not desperate, since he could always go west and, starting over, be sure of a living.  Just how he raised money for the emigration and just how city dwellers of mechanical training could expect to make their way in an alien trade remains unexplained.  The theory also omits to explain why, if the frontier was a sponge that absorbed social unrest, so much of the social unrest in America originated on the frontier.

Well, social unrest did not affect Jonathan Dyer.  Utah was not insulated from the nation, and many waves of resentment and discontent traveled across it during his lifetime, which covered the great revolution in our national life.  They touched Jonathan not at all.  Revolutions are always struggles between special groups; only propaganda tries to make them seem the will of people in action.  The people remain mostly unharried by them, neither willing nor acting, and in the end pay tribute to the old group, victorious, or to the new one which has cast it out.  Even agrarian revolt has little to do with the agrarians in the mass.  American history exhibits the farmers in revolt from the beginning up to now, and the farmers mostly have worked their land voiceless and unstirred, a mere name invoked by speculators who are their self-consecrated champions.  They have paid taxes, gone bankrupt for the profit of adventurers, and served as the stuff of financial and political exploitation.  From Rome to the valley of Easton there has been no change.

Jonathan’s dugout was in a hillside in the valley of the Weber, a valley which in two hamlets besides Easton held some two dozen families.  The squalor of those first years is now difficult to appreciate.  Life was possible only through a complete communism of the poor.  After a year he had a house, a one-room cabin of pine logs brought down from the canyons of the Wasatch, since only soft poplars and cottonwoods grew in the valley.  Its puncheon floor, built-in bunks, and rain-tight roof meant an advance over the dank clay of the dugout.  Lean-tos were added in time, but a good many years were to pass before Jonathan could build a farmhouse.  The cabin meanwhile filled with children; his generation all told was one son and seven daughters, of whom one died in childhood.  It is the children who most readily reveal to us the conditions of the frontier.

Sarah, the girl who was born in Brooklyn, was nine when she first wore shoes; the earliest pair were kept for display at Sabbath school or on the clapboard sidewalks of Ogden, eight miles away; they were not put on till one got out of the wagon, and they were passed on to the descending series of sisters.  Her clothes during that time, she remembered, consisted of apronlike garments cut from remnants which Rhoda had brought West with her, from the gunnysacking that also made containers for potatoes, and once from a bolt of calico.  She had no underwear, as a rule, but in the winter Rhoda would manage to fashion for her, out of God knows what, garments which failed to beautify her but helped against the canyon gales.  She anticipated the stockingless children and adolescents of the 1930’s – in that early time there were no sheep in Easton and no pennies to buy knitting wool in Ogden.  No shoes in winter, eight miles from a town?  Well, children have gone to school, gathered eggs and firewood, and played their games with their feet bound in sacking or rabbitskins.  Of those games Sarah remembered most pleasantly coasting down the winter hills in a grain scoop.  Once, disastrously, they caught a skunk in a “figger-4” which had been set for rabbits.  There was the river, the widening fields, the cottonwood groves – springs, ditches, haystacks – spelling bees, quiltings, Sabbath schools.  After a while rattlesnakes grew uncommon.

How did Jonathan bring them up at all?  At the end of 1863 he writes, “I raised this year a good crop of corn, some wheat, and some oats.” The sentence carries no overtone of the labor so strange to a mechanic.  Jonathan would have had trouble forcing this harvest from the earth anywhere, even in Illinois bottomland, where the soil is forty feet deep and is watered by generous summer rains.  But at Easton there were no rains and the thin soil was poisoned by alkali.  The sagebrush was the index.  Where sagebrush grew, there other stuffs would grow also, after heartbreaking labor had cleared it away.  Jonathan hacked at that hellish growth.  Spines and slivers that no gloves can turn fill one’s hands, the stench under the desert sun is dreadful, and the roots, which have probed deep and wide for moisture, must be chopped and grubbed and dragged out inch by inch.  Then, before anything will sprout in the drugged earth, water muct be brought.  Through a dozen years of Jonathan’s journal we observe the settlers of Easton combining to bring water to their fields.  On the bench lands above their valleys, where gulches and canyons come down from the Wasatch, they made canals, which they led along the hills. From the canals smaller ditches flowed down to each man’s fields, and from these ditches he must dig veins and capillaries for himself.  Where the water ran, cultivation was possible; where it didn’t, the sagebrush of the desert showed unbroken.  Such cooperation forbade quarrels; one would as soon quarrel about the bloodstream.  A man was allotted certain hours of water.  When they came, at midnight or dawn or noon, he raised the gates into his own ditches and with spade and shovel and an engineering sense coaxed the water to his planting.

During those first years there would be, besides the corn and wheat and oats of Jonathan’s note, potatoes and a few other garden vegetables – carrots no doubt, for this was Utah, perhaps cabbages and surely squash.  Brother Kendall, two miles down the valley, had been a farmer’s man in England and could help Jonathan with the mysteries of cultivation.  Brother Kendall or someone else had a cow to spare and chickens.  There was thus milk for the children, and Rhoda churned cream for butter, learned to make cheese, gathered eggs and set hens, acquired the myriad skills of the frontier farm wife who as yet has had no qualified celebrant in literature.  There had been settlers at Easton since 1849, but they had not yet been able to harness the Weber to a mill.  There was a small affair run by horse power (Jonathan improved the gears) and its crude stones ground the meal for the corn mush which Sarah remembered as the staple of her childhood.  The oats, of course, were dedicated to the horses, the wheat to the chickens.  Beef was out of the question – cows were too valuable to be slaughtered – but after a while there were hogs, which Jonathan killed and quartered.  He had no crop, he could have non till all his land was cleared.  Sometimes he would go into the high canyons for several days and fill his wagons with wood.  This could be sold in Ogden for the only cash that came to him; but everyone cut wood, and so it could not be sold for very much.

Still these years showed some progress.  He began to buy his land from the Church on generous but sternly enforced terms.  He cleared it.  He gridded it with ditches.  He put down larger crops, began to sell part of them, bought horses and some cows.  He lamented the failure of the Church to organize Easton – sometimes a month went by without a service and there was neither juvenile instruction nor priesthood meeting.  In view of the Mormon care to organize even the smallest and remotest settlements, this failure is strange.  But they made out.

The break came in 1868.  The crops were about three inches out of the ground when grasshoppers settled on them, as they had done before the historic miracle which Mahonri Young was to relate in bronze and granite.  Three-quarters of the green shoots were destroyed at once and ruin seemed inevitable.  But at once surveyors followed the grasshoppers to Easton, and suddenly most of the settlers there, Jonathan among them, were working for the Union Pacific Railroad, hauling timber for ties and construction or, as the year closed, rock and rubble for the grade.  For the first time there was money in the valley; Jonathan would now drive to Ogden on Saturday night and bring back milled flour, a few groceries, farm implements, cloth, buttons, a mirror.  Sarah’s first shoes date from this time.  She remembered also a strange pleasure surpassing anything she had imagined, rock candy.

By midwinter the rails came through Weber Canyon and the violent town called Hell on Wheels erected itself at Easton.  Jonathan says that there were “many bad men” in this company, who drank and gambled and whored to the disgust of the Saints, and says no more about them except that they burned his fences for firewood.  The fences had already been pierced, for the roadbed ran straight across his land, and he worked among the bad men as a teamster and did not scruple to sell them produce.  Sometimes he mounted guard with an enormous horse pistol to drive the boisterous Irish away.  Hell on Wheels passed rapidly on, to Corinne, to Promontory Point, but it had raised the valley out of squalor.  Also it had destroyed Easton by building a station two miles farther down the valley than the nucleus of houses that constituted “the settlement.”  The station was just a mile east of Jonathan’s house.  Its signboard wore a queer misspelled name which still remains: Uinta.

Sarah’s first candles came now – tallow had been too precious for such use – and later there was the magnificent new “rock oil,” much better than the rag floating in melted home-cured lard which she had known.  This marvel came westward on the “U.P.”, which also brought coal from Rock Springs, though Jonathan would not burn it for some years yet.  Stoves came too, and many marvelous new things.  All the children had shoes by 1870, and Rhoda could make excellent clothes for them.  But the railroad’s power was best shown by the impetus it gave religion.  Jonathan had long since organized a Sabbath school.  Now he could get books for it.  The valley’s new prosperity enabled him to raise, by dances and “entertainments,” a fund which, sent to Chicago, bought “between 130 and 140, which proved a blessing for the children.”

Now that all the children had shoes, Jonathan was clearly doing well.  To this time belongs a story which he remembered when he was nearly eighty.  The Bishop of the Uinta (the Church “ward” was now organized) came to Brother Dyer and suggested that since the Lord had rewarded his efforts, it was clearly his duty to take another wife and raise up more seed for Israel.  In the only rebellion against he teachers he ever experienced, Jonathan got out the horse pistol and ordered the Bishop off his land, and thereafter there was no mention of polygamy….  A grandson has seen the horse pistol but does not believe the story.  These folk at Uinta were the humble of Mormonry, and the humble had little to do with polygamy.  There seems never to have been a plural marriage in the valley.  The story merely means an old man’s memory that he had not believed in polygamy.  He was one of many Saints who did not.  But, be very sure, if the Bishop, a lineal descendant of Aaron, had commanded Jonathan to take another wife, then another wife would have come to share Rhoda’s labors and add children to Jonathan’s glory.


What can be said about Jonathan Dyer?  He was a first-class private in the march of America – a unit in the process that made and remade the nation.  Yet history can make singularly little of him.  You could not write the history of Utah or of the Mormon Church without mentioning, for instance, the “New Movement” which, from the point of view of historical forces, must have shaken this commonwealth to its base.  Its occurrence could be guessed from nothing whatever in Jonathan’s life and from only a single line in his journal which says that it began in 1869.  You could not write either of those histories without detailing the violent disturbance of the public peace which was called the “Morrisite war” – the appearance of a false prophet in Israel and his suppression by Brigham Young.  The prophet Morris and his followers pitched their camp across the narrow Weber from Jonathan’s lower field and there, a few rods from him, they were at last attacked by the army of the Lord.  After three days of rifle and artilery practice the false prophet and some of his flock were killed and their camp was scattered.  It may be that bullets kicked up dust in the field that Jonathan was plowing, it may be that the event was worth in his journal only one sentence and an aphorism about the stubbornness of evil.  Of the rest of history during his lifetime, nothing whatever appears.  Mormon and Gentile battled for supremacy, polygamists were hunted down, at last the whole Church was proscribed and its property was confiscated.  And all this was less than a shadow to Jonathan, who notes the fall of rain, which counts in a desert, and the annual increase of his crop.

History, it may be, is not of the humble.  Some millions of Jonathans were creating America.  Over all the empty land such minute nuclei as his stood out.  They grew by aggregation, while men made farms of what had been just wasteland, and then the land wasn’t empty any more.  The unit, the nucleus, the individual kept up his not spectacular warfare against anarchy, for self-preservation.  What had he to do with the currents of national life?  They weren’t, for him, currents at all.  They were waves perhaps, which flowed an unrecognized energy through or around him and on to his neighbor, lifting both and letting both fall back, their position in space unchanged, water still to be brought to the fields.  Occupied with his own struggle for survival, incapable of feeling himself a part of a nation, Jonathan had a further unawareness in his faith.  It was, the Mormon faith, a superb instrument for the reclamation of the desert, for the creation of the West.  It rewarded the faithful for industry and offered rewards for further effort.  It identified with heavenly grace the very qualities that were most needed in a new country: unquestioning labor, frugality, cooperation, obedience.  So long as the faithful worked to redeem the earth so long were they building up Israel and strengthening God’s kingdom.

So, though Jonathan was a religious emigrant, there was not even religion as philosophers know it in his life.  The Sabbath school which he established became the best in Weber County; it was commended in Quarterly and even Annual Conference, and was permitted to march in Pioneer Day parades.  Jonathan was sometimes called upon to advise other educators of the young.  He was made a high priest.  Sometimes he met dignitaries of the church and listened to counsel.  He was never promoted above his sergeancy, for in Mormonism as elsewhere the humble do not become leaders.  He accepted the hagiology of his Church and its dogmas and its expectations, but they were merely a background.  He did not think about them often or very deeply.  He was advancing Israel, making sure his glory, but – and this was what counted – his fields came under the plow and he was setting out fruit trees.  If religion was just smoke on the horizon, politics was even less.  The grandson who has been mentioned remembers asking Jonathan whether he was going to vote for a son-in-law who had been nominated for some office now forgotten.  Jonathan was not, he said. The son-in-law had been nominated by the Democrats, and the Bishop of Uinta had told Jonathan that it was best for the Republicans to be in power.  Didn’t the leading men in church and party know what was best?  You will not write political history by consulting the ideas of the humble.

These were just smoke.  It was real when Rhoda and all the children – five of them at that time – fell sick with smallpox.  We have forgotten the terror of that plague.  Neighbors whipped their horses to the gallop, passing by, averted their faces and held their breath against infection, burned smudges, wore amulets of vile smelling stuff.  No one dared to come to Jonathan’s help or even to bring a doctor from Ogden.  Somehow he nursed his family through till Rhoda was on her feet and then he too collapsed.  The well got contaminated one summer and they all had typhoid fever; there was help this time and they all survived.  One year Rhoda’s breast “gathered” and she had to drag herself about the grinding labor of a farm wife; she failed slowly, nothing could be done for her, but that also passed and she could go on.  One summer, chopping wood, Jonathan cut a gash in his leg.  For the rest of the year he could not work; Rhoda and the children shortened their sleep, carried on the irrigation, and brought in the crop.  The menace of such accidents was constant.  One Sunday noon Jonathan came back from Sabbath school and found that a mule had kicked his son, young Jonathan, in the head and “broke his skull.”  Jonathan went to Ogden, and by ten o’clock that night had brought Dr. Woodward back.  For five hours, by the light of a Rochester lamp in the kitchen, the doctor operated on the boy.  The doctor came twice more to dress the wound.  Jonathan paid him: “cash, $20; pig, $4; corn and corn meal, $2.70; wood, $6”  and, a month later, some more wood.  The boy had recovered four months later.  And so on…  “November 21st [1872].  This morning about 4 o’clock my wife confined and gave birth to a daughter; also I took a load of wood to Mrs. Savage.”

All that was real and so was the earth.  The desert yielded.  There was never to be ease or luxury at Uinta – what would a farmer do with either?  Education was impossible for the children.  The little school at the “settlement” was like its equivalents throughout rural America, and when Sarah wanted to learn more she had to go to Ogden, where she paid her board by housework and walked three miles each way to Professor Moench’s academy.  The children had to strike out for themselves as soon as possible, Jonathan as a telegrapher downstate, and Sarah as a waitress in a railroad lunchroom at Green River.  But, if not ease, comfort came to Uinta and security and the rude plenty of the farm.  The daughter whose birth is noticed came to a frame house painted green.  There was an ell later.  The dooryard had a small lawn – astonishing in the desert – and mulberry and walnut trees and Rhoda’s flower garden.  The ditch that paralleled the railroad tracks in front of it flowed beside Lombardy poplars of Jonathan’s planting.  There were wells and springs of mountain water.  Half a dozen cows and as many horses grazed in the west pasture, a few sheep were about, and annually Jonathan cured hams and bacon from his hogs.  These hung beside home-butchered beef and mutton and the children tended sizable flocks of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and guinea fowl.  Sheds multiplied, filling with cultivators, harrows, plows, and similar implements which the unseen America beyond the Wasatch was creating.  There were hay sheds, chicken houses, a “warehouse” (for Jonathan was English and his wagons were “carts”), an embryonic machine shop, a cider press.  The threshers harvested Jonathan’s wheat; it was stored in a granary with his corn and oats and barley.  Rhoda made cheese and butter; she “put up” vegetables from the garden and her jams and jellies are nostalgically remembered.  She baked every day.  There were eggs all winter long.

Is it clear that all this sprang from desert land, that Jonathan created it out of nothing at all?  That is the point.  Sometimes noticed, it is seldom realized in discussion of the frontier.  Some people are pleased by the frontier’s pageantry, and the literary are frantically ashamed of what they feel must have been its ugliness; but somehow the plain fact of creation gets overlooked….In 1862 a hillside in Utah, sloping down to cottonwoods along the Weber River, had been no more than sagebrush.  The sage, Artemisia tridentata, is glamorous in folklore, where it is called Heartsease, and it seems beautiful under distance to tourists of the tamed West, but it is the type-symbol of desolation.  There was here – nothing whatever.  A stinking drouth, coyotes and rattlesnakes and owls, the movement of violet and silver and olive-dun sage in white light – a dead land.  But now there was a painted frame house under shade trees, fields leached of alkali, the  blue flowers of alfalfa, flowing water, grain, gardens, orchards.

Especially orchards.  Under the sagebrush roots the earth held the ashes of a volcanic age.  When Jonathan brought water to it chemistry was set free.  Something in that volcanic ash gave a superb flavor to fruit.  All the Utah fruits are glorious, but especially the strawberries and apricots and apples, and most especially the peaches.  One who has not tasted, fresh from the tree, a peach grown on the eastern slope of the long valley that holds the Great Salt Lake may not speak of peaches.  All these fruits, together with cherries and plums and pears, came in time to Jonathan’s hillside.  How should this Hertford mechanic learn to divine the hidden necessities of trees?  The thing is impossible but it happened.  He was a farmer by virtue of blind strength and the mistakes of years, but he was a fruit-grower by divination.  He walked among his orchards and could read their needs.  So that as the years passed Jonathan Dyer’s orchards became the greater part of his farm, and they were known.

This in what had been a dead land.  Water flowed in his ditches, stock grazed his pastures, instead of desolation where were fields and orchards.  The children came in at nightfall to a house built from his lumber.  They ate bread made of his wheat, cheese from his milk, preserved fruit from his orchards.  There had been nothing at all, and here were peaches, and he had come eight thousand miles.  That is the point of the frontier.


Uinta was eight miles over the hills from Ogden – four hours when the road was in its April state the time Jonathan drove in for Dr. Woodward, seventy-five minutes in a buggy behind old Prince when the grandson’s memory of it opens (about 1903), and eleven minutes in 1933.  Those figures speak also of the frontier.  The 1903 memory preserves quiet and isolation – summer afternoons beside the beautifully sited canal in the shade of the poplars, a dusty road vacant of travel, sometimes a wagon climbing the immense hill which was named for Peg-Leg Labaume, sometimes rails humming before a U.P. train emerged from Weber Canyon, no other movement except that of clouds and wind, no other sound but cicadas and the whine of Jonathan’s mower in the alfalfa – the crest of Jonathan’s comfort and success.  The fields were clean, the orchards combed and trim, the sheds plumb.  Nondescript cows had given place to Jerseys; the hogs were now Poland Chinas.  A greengage tree rose in the dooryard; it was followed by Japanese plums and other foreign fruits whose growth endlessly interested Jonathan.  On Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the children and grandchildren gathered, Rhoda would spend the day cooking great dinners, and every item of them had grown under her eye.  Home-butchered roast beef with Yorkshire pudding is remembered, suckling pigs with Jonathan’s apples in their mouths, turkeys, butter and cheese from Rhoda’s milkroom, endless breads and biscuits and cakes from flour traded in grist a mile away.  Winters were snug; spring plowing turned earth that was ignorant of alkali.  This was Deseret, the land of the honey bee.

Yet even in 1903 its doom had been pronounced.  A large wagon – Jonathan called it a van – from the Kasius Grocery in Ogden began to make weekly visits to Uinta.  Jonathan and Rhoda were sixty-nine; soon it seemed foolish to butcher their own meat, churn their own butter, set rennet for their own cheese.  For the rest of his life Jonathan was more an orchardist, less a farmer.  Then another corporation asked for an easement over the farm, and steel towers rose carrying transmission lines from power plants deep in the Wasatch.  Jonathan and Rhoda were alone.  The four hours to Ogden had been difficult but not difficult enough, for none of the seven children had stayed on the land.  None had remained in the Mormon church.  None, even, had married a native of Utah.  Three of them had moved out of the state.  The twenty grandchildren were to be dispersed from San Diego to Boston, and though they were to take up trades as wide apart as boiler-making and novel-writing, not one of them was a farmer.  They were products of the frontier – which had fallen.

The plenty of 1903 lingered on.  But Jonathan and Rhoda grew old.  A farm requires vigor and, though Jonathan’s remained phenomenal, Rhoda’s failed, and it was not always possible to find a granddaughter in her teens who would live with them and help.  At last Jonathan began to show the strange mania that sometimes comes upon fruit-growers.  He would suddenly notice something wrong about one of his fruit trees and decide that it must make way for a new, young shoot.  He would get out his axe.  The glorious orchards began to fall.  So, a little dazed, uncomprehending, Jonathan made in 1917 the journey which during fifty-five years he had scorned to make – he and the rejoicing Rhoda moved the eight miles to Ogden to live with a daughter.  The farm was sold.  The buyer kept things as they were, but four years later some ass who had money to spare bought the place, leveled the orchards, let the fields perish, and began to raise silver foxes.  He was a Goth plowing the land with salt.

Rhoda died in 1919.  Jonathan lived four years more in a growing bewilderment.  Sometimes he would disappear from the daughter’s house.  A grandson would know where to look for him, for the old man would start out unerringly for Uinta but would grow confused and wait wretchedly for a known face.  When found he would explain that he was desperately needed at the farm.  He had not seen it again when he died, and of the children and grandchildren only the novelist, a romantic, has traveled those eight miles.

What can be said in judgment of Jonathan Dyer’s life?  In terms of money, his estate, after the expense of six years away from the farm, was about six thousand dollars.  He had come from Hertford and labored for fifty-five years to bequeath seven hundred and fifty dollars to each of his children.  Or, in different terms, he had raised seven children who, with their children, had merged with the frontier into the Republic.  Not much else can be said: an item in the history of America had fulfilled itself.  You must multiply Jonathan by several million, looking westward from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, across a space which your oldest maps will call “The Great American Desert.”

After that multiplication you see Jonathan Dyer as something else, and a carelessly parenthetical sentence in a letter from Ogden lights up with sudden meaning.  “They are farming your grandfather’s land again.”   So the fox farm has collapsed, with so much other obscenity that belonged to the boom years.  There will be crops again on that hillside which slopes downward to the Weber.  Alfalfa flowers will be blue in the north field once more and the canal will divert shimmering water to the kitchen garden.  Perhaps other orchards will rise in the places where Jonathan’s were uprooted; the volcanic ash will once more work its chemistry.

The earth was poisoned, and Jonathan made it sweet.  It was a dead land, and he gave it life.  Permanently.  Forever.  Following the God of the Mormons, he came from Hertford to the Great American Desert and made it fertile.  That is achievement.

Published originally as “Jonathan Dyer, Frontiersman” in Harper’s, September 1933; reprinted in Forays and Rebuttals, 1936.

from The Year of Decision: 1846

from:  The Year of Decision: 1846

This book, first published in 1943 and still in print today, was the first volume in Bernard DeVoto’s trilogy about the discovery and opening of the American West.  It is dedicated to Katharine Grant Sterne, a woman whom he never met in person but with whom he exchanged more than 800 letters and memoirs over a period of eleven years, before her death in 1944.


Chapter 1:  Build Thee More Stately Mansions

The First Missouri Mounted Volunteers played an honorable part in the year of decision, and looking back, a private of Company C determined to write his regiment’s history. He was John T. Hughes, an A.B. and a schoolmaster. Familiarity with the classics had taught him that great events are heralded by portents.  So when he sat down to write his history he recalled a story which, he cautions us, was “doubtless more beautiful than true.”  Early in  that spring of 1846, the story ran, a prairie thunderstorm overtook a party of traders who were returning to Independence, Missouri, from Santa Fe. When it passed over, the red sun had sunk to the prairie’s edge, and the traders cried out with one voice. For the image of an eagle was spread across the sun. They knew then that “in less than twelve months the eagle of liberty would spread his broad pinions over the plains of the west, and that the flag of our country would wave over the cities of New Mexico and Chihuahua.”

Thus neatly John T. Hughes joined Manifest Destiny and the fires that flamed in the midnight sky when Caesar was assassinated. But he missed a sterner omen.

The period of Biela’s comet was seven years. When it came back in 1832 many people were terrified for it was calculated to pass within twenty thousand miles of the earth’s orbit. The earth rolled by that rendezvous a month before the comet reached it, however, and the dread passed.  In 1839 when the visitor returned again it was too near the sun to be seen, but its next perihelion passage was calculated for February 11, 1846.  True to the assignment, it traveled earthward toward the end of 1845.  Rome identified it on November 28 and Berlin saw it two days later. By mid-December all watchers of the skies had reported it. The new year began, the year of decision, and on January 13 at Washington, our foremost scientist, Matthew Maury, found matter for a new report.

Maury was a universal genius but his deepest passion was the movement of tides.  In that January of ‘46 he was continuing his labor to perfect the basis for the scientific study of winds and current.  Out of that labor came the science of oceanography, and methods of reporting the tides not only of the sea but of the air also that have been permanent, and a revolution in the art of navigation. But he had further duties as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, and so by night he turned his telescope on Biela’s comet. That night of January 13, 1846, he beheld the ominous and inconceivable. On its way toward perihelion, Biela’s comet had split in two.


This book tells the story of some people who went west in 1846. Its purpose is to tell that story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western frontier experience, which is part of our cultural inheritance, as personal experience. But 1846 is chosen rather than other years because 1846 best dramatizes personal experience as national experience. Most of our characters are ordinary people, the unremarkable commoners of the young democracy. Their story, however, is a decisive part of a decisive turn in the history of the United States.    Sometimes there are exceedingly brief periods which determine a long future. A moment of time holds in solution ingredients which might combine in any of several or many ways, and then another moment precipitates out of the possible the at last determined thing. The limb of a tree grows to a foreordained shape in response to  forces determined by nature’s equilibriums, but the affairs of nations are shaped by the actions of men, and sometimes, looking back, we can understand which actions were decisive. The narrative of this book covers a period when the manifold possibilities of chance were shaped to converge into the inevitable, when the future of the American nation was precipitated out of the possible by the actions of the people we deal with. All the actions it narrates were initiated, and most of them were completed, within the compass of a single calendar year. The origins of some of them, it is true, can be traced back as far as one may care to go, and a point of the book is that the effects of some are with us still, operating in the arc determined by 1846. Nevertheless, the book may properly be regarded as the chronicle of a turning point in American destiny within the limits of one year.

This is the story of some people who went west in 1846: our focus  is the lives of certain men, women, and children moving west. They will be on the scene in different groupings: some emigrants, some soldiers, some refugees, some adventurers, and various heroes, villains, bystanders, and supernumeraries.  It is required of you only to bear in mind that while one group is spotlighted the others are not isolated from it in significance.

Our narrative will get them into motion in the month of January, 1846. But the lines of force they traveled along were not laid down on New Year’s Day, and though our stories are clear and simple, they are affected by the most complex energies of their society. They had background, they had relationships, and in order to understand how an inevitability was precipitated out of the possible, we must first understand some of the possibilities. We must look not only at our characters but at their nation, in January, 1846.


The nation began the year in crisis. It was a crisis in foreign relations. The United States was facing the possibility of two wars —  with Great Britain and with Mexico. But those foreign dangers had arisen out of purely domestic energies. They involved our history, our geography, our social institutions, and something that must be called both a tradition and a dream.

Think of the map of the United States as any newspaper might have printed it on January 1, 1846. The area which we now know as the state of Texas had been formally a part of that map for just ; three days, though the joint resolution for its annexation, or in a  delicate euphemism its “reannexation,” had passed Congress in February, 1845.  Texas was an immediate leverage on the possible war with Mexico. Texas had declared itself a republic in 1836 and ever since then had successfully defended its independence. But Mexico had never recognized that sovereignty, regarded Texas as a Mexican province, had frequently warned the United States that annexation   would mean war, and had withdrawn her minister immediately on the passage of the joint resolution which assured it.


Two years before, in the summer of 1844, the first telegraph line brought word to Washington that the Democratic convention, meeting in Baltimore, had determined to require a two-thirds vote for nomination. The rule was adopted to stop the comeback of ex-President Martin Van Buren, who had a majority. That it was adopted was extremely significant — it revealed that Van Buren had  defeated himself when he refused to support the annexation of Texas.   The convention was betting that the spirit of expansionism was now fully reawakened, that the annexation of Texas was an unbeatable issue, that the Democrats would sweep the country if factionalism could be quelled. Smoke-filled rooms in boarding houses scorned  President Tyler (whose renomination would have split the party in two), and would not take General Cass, John C. Calhoun, or Silas Wright, all of whom were identified with factions that were badly straining the party. Factionalism, it became clear, was going to be quelled by the elimination of every prominent Democrat who had ever taken a firm stand about anything. So presently the telegraph  announced that George Bancroft, with the assistance of Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson and the indorsement of Old Hickory in the Hermitage, had brought the delegates to agree on the first dark horse ever nominated for the Presidency, Mr. Pillow’s former law partner,  James K. Polk.

“Who is James K. Polk?” The Whigs promptly began campaigning on that derision, and there were Democrats who repeated it with a sick concern. The question eventually got an unequivocal answer.  Polk had come up the ladder, he was an orthodox party Democrat.  He had been Jackson’s mouthpiece and floor leader in the House of  Representatives, had managed the anti-Bank legislation, had risen to the Speakership, had been governor of Tennessee. But sometimes the belt line shapes an instrument of use and precision. Polk’s mind was rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first-rate. He sincerely believed that only Democrats were truly American, Whigs being either the dupes or the pensioners of England— more, that not only wisdom and patriotism were Democratic monopolies but honor and breeding as well. “Although a Whig he seems a gentleman” is a not uncommon characterization in his diary. He was pompous, suspicious and secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains. He was a representative Southern politician of the second or intermediate period (which expired with his Presidency), when the decline but not the disintegration had begun.

But if his mind was narrow it was also powerful and he had guts.  If he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one  moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore, he knew  how to get things done, which is the first necessity of government, and he knew what he wanted done, which is the second. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to  stand by them through as strenuous an administration as any before Lincoln’s.  Congress had governed the United States for eight years  before him and, after a fashion, was to govern it for the next twelve years after him. But Polk was to govern the United States from 1845 to 1849. He was to be the only “strong” President between  Jackson and Lincoln. He was to fix the mold of the future in America down to 1860, and therefore for a long time afterward.  That is who James K. Polk was.

The Whigs nominated their great man, Henry Clay. When Van Buren opposed the annexation of Texas, he did so from conviction.  It was only at the end of his life, some years later, that Clay developed a conviction not subject to readjustment by an opportunity. This time he guessed wrong — he faced obliquely away from annexation. He soon saw that he had made a mistake and found too clever a way out of the ropes which he had voluntarily knotted round his wrists. Smart politics have always been admired in America but they must not be too smart. The Democrats swept the nation, as the prophets had foretold.  It was clear that the Americans wanted Texas and Oregon, which the platform had promised them. Polk, who read the popular mind better than his advisers did, believed that the Americans also wanted the vast and almost unknown area called New Mexico and California.        […]

Shortly after he was inaugurated, he explained his objectives to George Bancroft, the scholar, historian, and man of letters who had been a Democratic Brain-Truster since Jackson’s time, and whom Polk would make acting Secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy, and finally Minister to Great Britain.  His objectives were: revision of the protective tariff of 1842, the re-establishment of the independent treasury, the settlement of the Oregon question, and the acquisition of California.  He was to achieve them all.


Chapter 2: The Mountain Man

Outline of American history.  James Clyman was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1792, during the administration of George Washington, on a farm that belonged to the President, whom he saw in the flesh. He died on his ranch at Napa, California, in 1881, during the administration of Chester Arthur. Jim Clyman was a man who went west.

He was fifteen when his father became a mover, first to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio. The family settled in Stark County just when William Henry Harrison shattered the Shawnee under the Prophet at Tippecanoe, in 1811. Next year the Indians were up again, and Clyman, already a practised frontiersman, became a ranger. This war merged with the troubles of 1812-1814, and he was both a volunteer and a regular.  After the war his needle settled west. He cleared a planting in Indiana and traded with the local Indians. By 1821 he was a surveyor, working toward the Vermillion River of Illinois. Alexander Hamilton’s son, who was running government surveys, hired him to make traverses along the Sangamon. Clyman was back on the Sangamon the next summer, 1822.

In the spring of 1823 he went to St. Louis to collect his pay. There he met William H. Ashley, whose company of trappers and traders was to open the Great Basin. Clyman joined the Ashley expedition of 1823, the second one. Thus he began to shape the future of the United States. And thus he became a mountain man.

Foremost of all American explorations was the one begun by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at St. Louis just nineteen years before Clyman went there to get his pay. Second only to it in brilliance and importance were the explorations made by the employes of William Ashley—lead miner, lieutenant governor of Missouri, general of its militia, member of Congress, student and propagandist of the West, expansionist— during the two years after Clyman joined him.  And during the following fifteen years these explorations became, as Ashley’s employes bought him out, set up their own businesses, and interchanges and joined other firms, the discovery, the exploration, and the possession of the big unknown. Of the country we have sketched in names.

Between Benton or Polk or Longfellow and the West stretched a black curtain of the unimaginable, but the mountain men knew the country. They took Frémont across it in comfort, showing the Pathfinder paths they had had by heart for twenty years. They took Lansford Hastings through the West, and Kearny, Abert, Cooke, all the officers, all the travelers. They made the trails.

From 1823 to 1827 Clyman was in the mountains with Ashley’s men. He fought in the battle with the Aricara that made Ashley determine to forsake the known road to the West, the river route which Lewis and Clark and their successors had traveled, and to blaze a trail south of the dangerous Indians, an overland trail, the trail up the valley of the Platte by which the entire emigration was to move.  He was with Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick when they | made such a trail possible by finding South Pass, the one opening through which wagons could cross the mountains, the door to Oregon and California, the true Northwest Passage.  He was one of the  party of four who paddled round Great Salt Lake, and so laid forever the old myth of the River Buenaventura which was supposed to flow salt water westward to San Francisco Bay— though the Pathfinder still half believed it twenty years later. . . .  But these are details and the whole is vastly greater than its parts. From 1823 to 1827, Clyman was a mountain man and a good one, a peer of Carson, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Harris, Provost, Ogden, the Sublettes,  Fontenelle, or any of the other resounding names. It is enough to say, without decoration, that he was a mountain man.

Unlike most of his fellows he saved money and came out of the mountains. He bought a farm near Danville, Illinois, and set up a store. This is the phase of prairie farming while the land fills up.    Then Illinois rose to the Black Hawk War, and Clyman joined Captain Early’s company. This is an outline of American history: another private in Captain Early’s backwoods fusileers was named Abe Lincoln. Still another private of that company is a person of our drama, James Frazier Reed.  Born in Ireland of a noble Polish line, Reed settled near the Sangamon, made money, and in 1846 helped a townsman of his, George Donner, organize a wagon train for California. In June we shall see Clyman, moving eastward, meet him    after fourteen years, in a moment of decision at Fort Laramie.


In February they tried to cross the range but could not and moved southward looking for a gap. (This was  the trip that, as an incident merely, was to reveal South Pass.) One morning Jim and the Bill Sublette whom he was to meet again at  Independence in ’44 saddled their winter-worn horses and went out  to hunt. Nothing showed in that arctic air till at sundown they sighted some buffalo. Their horses were too broken-down to make a  run and they had to crawl on their bellies for nearly a mile over frozen snow. The buffalo scented them and bolted but they wounded  one. Sublette went back for the horses and Clyman followed the wounded buffalo, finally killing it in a small arroyo, whence he could  not get it out alone. Sublette came up at nightfall, they got a small  fire going, and were able to butcher some meat. But a blizzard came  out of the north. There was no wood and but little sage; their fire was blown away. They pulled their robes over them and the gale battered them till morning. At daylight Clyman was able to pull some sage but they could not ignite it, either by flint and steel or by rifle fire. Jim got the horses.  Sublette was too weak to mount. Jim found a single live coal left from their fire of the night before and got the sage lighted. They warmed themselves and Sublette was able to mount his horse — but soon turned numb and began to die. Jim dismounted and led his friend’s horse through snow a foot deep into the teeth of the gale. Four miles away he found a patch of timber where one wall of an Indian bark lodge was standing. Behind this shelter he got a fire going at last, then “ran back and whoped up my friends horse assisted him to dismount and get to the fire he seemed to [have] no life to move as usual he laid down nearly assleep while I went Broiling meat on a stick after awile I roused him up and gave him his Breakfast when he came to and was as active as usual.”

Jim says, “I have been thus particular in describing one night near the sumit of the Rockey mountains allthough a number simular may and often do occur.”

The following June, coming east, Clyman pushed ahead of his companions, among them Fitzpatrick, and moved down the Sweetwater to wait for them on the Platte. Near Devil’s Gate he suddenly found Indians on all sides. He holed up like a prairie dog in the rocks for eleven days, the Indians having set up their village. Then he “began to get lonesome.” He had “plenty of powder but only eleven bullets.”  Since this was a wholly new country he did not know “whether I was on Platt[e] or the Arkansas,” but he decided to get out. Note his course: “On the 12th day in the afternoon I left my lookout at the mouth of Sweetwater and proceeded downstream knowing that civilization could be reached Eastward.”  Eastward about six hundred miles in an air line.

He started out. He killed a buffalo. He kept close to the streams.  He found an abandoned bull boat and so knew that either whites or Indians had passed this way. Once he saw some martins and lay listening to them — “it reminded me of home & civilization.”  Encountering some wild horses, he tried to crease one but broke its neck. Some Indians overtook him, robbed him of his blanket, powder, and lead, and bore him to the village, intending to kill him. But  a friendly chief led him out of camp, restored his rifle, and gave him some parched corn. Game failed, water failed, and Clyman grew weak. He saw two badgers fighting. His gun misfired but he picked  up some bones, “horse brobly,” and killed the badgers. It rained for some days and the wet grass made walking easier but brought out  the prairies’ deadliest wild life, the mosquitoes. The going was  harder, food scarcer, time stretching out:

I could not sleep and it got so damp I could not obtain fire and I had  to swim several rivers at last I struck a trail that seamed to lead in the  right direction which I determined to follow to its extream end on the  second day [on this trail] in the afternoon I got so sleepy and nervous  that it was with difficultly I kept the trail a number of times I tumbled down asleep but a quick nervous gerk would bring me to my feet again  in one of these fits I started up on the trail travelled some 40 rods when I hapened to notise I was going back the way I had come turning right around I went on for some time with my head down when raising my  eyes with great surprise I saw the stars and stripes waving over Fort Leavenworth [really Fort Atkinson, 150 miles up the Missouri from Fort Leavenworth] I swoned emmediately how long I lay unconscious I do not know. . . .

So there entered into Captain Bennett Riley’s quarters a bearded, hatless, all but starved mountain man, his buckskins and moccasins in tatters, his powder used up, after eighty days and at least seven hundred miles of solitary journeying. Ten days later Fitzpatrick and two others reached the fort after even harder going. . . .  This was misadventure after accident, a commonplace risk in the mountain trade.

Much of the routine could be repeated here from Clyman’s recollections: drifting downstream with a log to escape the Aricara, watching a Dakota tear the flesh of a dead enemy with his teeth, sewing Jedediah Smith’s scalp and ear in place after a grizzly had lacerated them, starving in winter canyons, purged by alkali water, feasting with the Crows on a buffalo hunt, battling the Arapaho on Green River, captured by Blackfeet but escaping the, But the routine may be assumed.


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