Utah’s very interesting path to statehood

On this day in 1896, Utah became the 45th state, after numerous attempts over nearly 50 years to achieve statehood.

The Salt Lake Temple in 1897, draped with the U.S. flag used in the 1896 statehood celebration. Source: George Reed Collection, University of Utah.

Between 1847 and 1868, about 60,000 Mormon emigrants traveled across the country, most on foot in handcart companies.

When the initial company arrived in what is now the Salt Lake Valley, their leader, Brigham Young, declared, “This is the place.” The area they began to settle was soon claimed as U.S. territory as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.

The Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had traveled westward in search of religious and political freedom, and many felt statehood was the path to ensure those freedoms.

The steps for creating a new state are outlined in Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution.

In 1849 those living in the Utah Territory petitioned to become part of the Union as the state of Deseret. Congress denied their request, primarily because the population was too small and the boundaries were too large (it covered not only present-day Utah but most of Nevada and Arizona and parts of several other western states). In 1850, Congress created the Utah Territory, which was smaller than the proposed Deseret.

Statehood petitions were also submitted in 1856, 1862, 1867, 1872, and 1882. But the Mormons, the majority residents of the territory, faced several challenges.

Most significant was lawmakers’ and others’ hostility toward the church’s practice of polygamy, which the Republican Party had denounced as one of the “twin relics of barbarism” along with slavery. (The church opposed slavery.)

Polygamy was forbidden by a series of federal laws. In addition, a Supreme Court decision in 1879, Reynolds v. U.S., ruled against a Mormon husband who called plural marriage his religious duty as protected by the First Amendment. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite wrote:

“Can a man excuse his practices…because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land.”

In addition, the politics of the territory, which included a Liberal Party made of mostly non-Mormon voters and a People’s Party of mostly Mormon voters, was not clearly aligned with national politics. Also, many non-Mormons disliked Mormons’ dominance in local politics.

The issue of partisan politics was addressed as local leaders encouraged voters to divide along national party lines.

As for the issue of polygamy, in 1890 church president Wilford Woodruff issued a statement officially disavowing the practice of plural marriage by church members.

The statement finally cleared the way for Utah’s statehood. The enabling act for admission was passed in 1894 and required that the state constitution ban polygamy.

On January 4, 1896, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state of the Union.

Holly Munson is assistant editor of Constitution Daily and programs coordinator at the National Constitution Center.

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