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The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Studies in Legal History) [Kindle Edition]

Sarah Barringer Gordon
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

From the Mormon Church's public announcement of its sanction of polygamy in 1852 until its formal decision to abandon the practice in 1890, people on both sides of the "Mormon question" debated central questions of constitutional law. Did principles of religious freedom and local self-government protect Mormons' claim to a distinct, religiously based legal order? Or was polygamy, as its opponents claimed, a new form of slavery--this time for white women in Utah? And did constitutional principles dictate that democracy and true liberty were founded on separation of church and state?

As Sarah Barringer Gordon shows, the answers to these questions finally yielded an apparent victory for antipolygamists in the late nineteenth century, but only after decades of argument, litigation, and open conflict. Victory came at a price; as attention and national resources poured into Utah in the late 1870s and 1880s, antipolygamists turned more and more to coercion and punishment in the name of freedom. They also left a legacy in constitutional law and political theory that still governs our treatment of religious life: Americans are free to believe, but they may well not be free to act on their beliefs.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While numerous studies have examined life in plural marriage, this is the first to explore how the Mormon practice of polygamy transformed the U.S. legal system. Gordon, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, deftly handles complicated issues of religion, states' rights, constitutional theory and the separation of church and state. When Mormons fled to Utah in the 1840s, they brought with them a deep suspicion of "local sovereignty," feeling that individual states had persecuted them terribly while a weak federal government did nothing to protect them. In Utah, however, they turned this local sovereignty principle to their own advantage, publicly revealing their polygamous society in 1852 and taking measures to ensure the seamless fusion of church and state. Anti-polygamist legislators, novelists and activists were galvanized to subdue both the Mormons' political power and their polygamous unions even if this meant reversing longstanding constitutional precedent by centralizing power in the federal government rather than the states. Gordon does an outstanding job of clarifying complex legal issues and demonstrating change over time. At no point was the anti-polygamists' eventual victory a foregone conclusion; as this study shows, the Mormons had powerful legal precedent on their side, and they proved to be tenacious opponents until they abandoned the struggle in 1890. Gordon is a fine scholar whose penetrating research and interdisciplinary approach break new ground in the fields of Mormon studies and legal history.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Sarah Barringer Gordon has written an important interdisciplinary study that provides new perspectives on the impact of the Mormon practice of plural marriage on American constitutional thought. (David J. Whittaker, Curator of Western and Mormon Manuscripts, Brigham Young University)

Product Details

  • File Size: 7001 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; 1 edition (January 21, 2002)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001KBYA3G
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #889,335 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars ... April 23, 2015
Format:Kindle Edition
I have just finished the book. It is well done, and very enlightening

I have not yet finished the book, and it is very enlightening. It is interesting that in that period The U.S. Government held strongly that marriage was a contract between one man and one woman. Today in the battle the U.S. Government is very much on the other side, as tho any thing goes. There is a lot of history in this book that i have not known.
Howard H. Johnson
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5.0 out of 5 stars Polygamy and constitutional laws are addressed. June 15, 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book covered the topic of polygamy and constitutional laws. I used this book for Political Science paper. The book had great information useful for my research paper.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly December 28, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Gordon's book is an excellent review and commentary on the relationship between polygamy and the constitution. If you are interested in this stuff be sure to buy it.
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5 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great, scholarly December 16, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
i got this book for a legal history research paper on the free exercise clause. it was easy to read, interesting, and well cited. i highly reccomend it.
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More About the Author

Sarah (Sally) Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches in the areas of church and state, property, and legal history in the law school, and American religious and constitutional history in the history department. Sally is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and The Spirit of the Law Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010), and "The New Age and the New Law: Malnak v. Yogi," in Leslie Griffin, ed., Law And Religion: Cases in Context (Aspen Publishers, 2010). Sally is a regular commentator in print, radio and television on law and religion. She serves on the boards of Vassar College, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, and is the incoming co-editor of the American Society for Legal History's book series Studies in Legal History.


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