You are here


Racial revenge and the anti-Mormon ban on polygamy

Seminar magazine
By Professor  

INDIA is currently in the midst of a roiling debate about the constitutionality of polygamy for Muslims. The government and its supporters claim that polygamy must be outlawed in the interests of gender justice. Many arguments concerning the oppression of Muslim women are canvassed by the champions of a ban on polygamy. The opponents of such a proposed ban are decried as antediluvian obscurantists, clinging to outdated notions of religious patriarchy.

However, if the experience of the Mormon polygamy ban in the United States is anything to go by, this Manichean picture is not an accurate reflection of ground realities.1 Judging by the treatment meted out to Mormons in the 19th century, the motivations for a ban on polygamy were far more complex. Similar to the discourse currently taking place in India, the Americans were very exercised and agitated about questions raised by the ‘minority’ practice of polygamy on religious grounds. Nevertheless, it is not clear that the subsequent ban introduced on polygamy was a result of unmixed motives and pure desire to do right by Mormon women. There may have been far more at stake for anti-Mormon sentiments than the welfare of women or women’s rights.

I wish to suggest that the vigour and fervour which characterized the drive to ban polygamy was a product of racially motivated thinking by white Americans concerning the Mormon practice of polygamy. That is to say, the concern for women was a screen for far deeper and more insidious motivations which had to do with complex racial insecurities. White Americans had a contempt for polygamy, not because it harmed or discriminated against women but because it punctured their racist self-image of whites as people of better and more evolved cultures than people of colour. To regain their self-worth and sense of superiority over other cultures of the world, they had to institute a ban on the ‘foreign’ practice of polygamy. In other words, the feeling was that white Mormons had deeply embarrassed their racial peers by behaving in a way previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of degenerate non-whites. For this transgression, they had to endure punishment and revenge.

Polygamy first made its appearance in the United States in the first half of the 19th century and eventually came to be associated with the Mormon sect in the state of Utah. The U.S. government was hostile to the practice almost from the start. The nascent Republican Party platform in 1856 included a strong condemnation of polygamy. Subsequently, the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws designed to curtail and abolish this incongruous form of marriage. In the words of one legal scholar, ‘…the government would systematically attempt to ban the practice of polygamy by prosecuting polygamists, disenfranchising Church members, and financially crippling the LDS Church itself.’2 This rash of anti-polygamy activity reached its apex with the Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. United States, wherein the court upheld the constitutionality of the ban.3

As indicated above, one way of interpreting this wave of anti-polygamy sentiment was to couch it in terms of gender justice. However, it is difficult to persuasively make this case given the structural inequalities pervading American law when it came to women’s rights. The system of coverture severely constrained even the legal recognition of women as separate beings in the 19th century – they were viewed instead as the property of their husbands. It will no doubt shock many to learn that the remaining vestiges of such a legal paradigm were fully dismantled only in the 1970s with the final removal of restrictions placed on women while on jury service.

At the same time there were many other features or aspects of American history and politics in the 19th century that made the Mormon practice of polygamy odious and dangerous for reasons other than gender. When polygamy was officially recognized as a creed of Mormonism in the 1850s, the United States was still a young nation that hadn’t been fully formed. It had succeeded in securing its independence from the British but in the process of establishing its foothold had also wiped out nearly the entire Native American population (which incidentally practiced polygamy). Notably African slaves too had been pressed into service to build the new nation.

Despite their centrality to the American nation, these people of colour (both native and Afro-American) were excluded from any place in the new Union. This was a fundamental feature of American life – the exclusion of non-whites from political equality and participation. The justification given for the subjugation of these racial groups was that they were inherently incapable of practicing the exalted form of republican self-government that had been brought into existence by white Americans. Moreover, their continued exploitation, aided and abetted by their political exclusion, was central to the economic prosperity of the United States.

Such a jaundiced and self-serving view of non-whites informed racist American notions about people of colour around the world. So when non-whites from other parts of the world began to immigrate to the United States in the 19th century, they too were subjected to similar exclusion on the ground that they were incapable of republican self-rule.

This racist outlook about people of colour around the world was fuelled by a belief among whites that all these groups practiced polygamy, which condemned them to eternal despotic rule. As one scholar has noted, ‘In anti-Mormon rhetoric, the multiplicities of the non-western world were homogenized into a singular body of cultures thought to be unaffected by the progress of western civilization, a lack of progress marked by the practice of plural marriage.’4

 In other words, when it came to the inferiority of non-white cultures on account of their inability to go beyond despotic rule, polygamy was to blame. The historical record provides many instances of this connection being drawn between polygamy and inability to practice republican self-government. The famous 19th century political theorist, Francis Lieber, asserted that polygamy creates a conducive atmosphere for despotism, which cannot thrive under conditions of monogamy. This is because of the ‘patriarchal principle’5 which creates submissiveness at home to the family patriarch and in society to the despot.

Conversely, it was also believed that polygamy made men effeminate, thereby also making them prone to accepting despotic rule. Incidentally, children too were not exempted from this analysis either. Polygamy was said to produce racially inferior children who would grow up to be weak adults, too weak to engage in the hardy tasks of republican self-rule. As one government official noted, ‘The results of polygamy would shortly manifest in the rapid degeneracy of the races.’6

White Americans who gloated at the base inferiority of non-whites, expectedly felt betrayed when their own racial brethren espoused polygamy. For whites, polygamy was a primary insignia of non-white inferiority. But by behaving like non-whites, the Mormons showed that whites too could descend to their level, thus invalidating the central tenet of white superiority that justified the exclusion of non-whites from the body politic. In order thus to reinstitute the legitimacy of the ideology of white supremacy, polygamy had to be eradicated.

Moreover, the record also reveals a deep fear of Mormon proclivities towards despotism. The fear was that this culture would spread as a ‘contagion’ to the rest of the country, thus imperilling the democratic and republican traditions of the nation.7 Polygamy, therefore, represented a threat to the survival of the nation’s most cherished ideals, carefully nurtured by white Americans. Its extirpation was necessary in the national interest.

Thus we see something that is ignored in conventional discourse – a link between polygamy and race which provides a non-gender based reason for white disdain of polygamy. The campaign against Mormon polygamy was, therefore, more driven by considerations of race than gender. Mormon racial treason had to be avenged.

Wilting under the pressure of such a campaign of hate, the Mormon Church announced in 1890 through its president Wilford Woodruff that it would be abandoning the practice of polygamy. It was only once this white flag of defeat was raised that the national government softened its stance towards Mormonism. The Church’s surrender kindled a process of reconciliation with the rest of the country. The territory of Utah, which had repeatedly been denied statehood, was finally granted admission into the Union in 1896 upon condition that ‘polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.’8


1. Mormons are a religious community centred in the American state of Utah. ‘The faith’s initial migration to Utah consisted mainly of New Englanders, and its immigrant population came mainly from Western Europe.’ See Christine Talbot, ‘Turkey is in Our Midst: Orientalism and Contagion in Nineteenth Century Anti-Mormonism’, Journal of Law and Family Studies 8, 2006, pp. 363, 379.

2. See S. Crincoli (Sigman), ‘Everything Lawyers Know About Polygamy is Wrong’, Journal of Law and Public Policy 16, 2006-07, pp. 101-103.

3. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S.145.

4. Talbot, supra note 1, p. 378.

5. Ibid., p. 379.

6. See Martha M. Ertman, ‘Race Treason: The Untold Story of America’s Ban on Polygamy’, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 19, 2010, pp. 287, 313.

7. Ibid., p. 380.

8. See S. Crincoli (Sigman), op. cit., pp. 101, 131.