April 2009, Volume 95, Issue 2|
Marriage & Redemption: Mormon Polygamy in the Congressional Imagination, 1862-1887
95 Va. L. Rev. 435 (2009)
How did nineteenth-century federal legislators imagine Mormon polygamy as they debated and adopted harsh anti-polygamy enforcement laws? Republican anti-polygamists in the Reconstruction era called polygamy and slavery the “twin relics of barbarism,” analogizing polygamous husbands to Southern slaveholders. By the 1880s anti-polygamists in Congress rooted their arguments in Chinese Exclusionism and avoided divisive references to Southern slavery. They compared Mormon polygamy to “despotic” cultural practices popularly associated with Chinese immigrants, like concubinage, prostitution, and “coolieism.” White cultural nationalism mobilized support for the first effective anti-polygamy statutes in 1882 and 1887. These changing representations of polygamy illustrate how the Republican party came to terms with the South's legacy of slavery and rebellion by embracing a unified white cultural identity. Metaphorical comparisons to Southern slavery and “oriental paganism” not only vilified polygamy, they also justified federal intervention into local affairs. The these vivid metaphors arose from the Republican party's shifting ideology, not the lived experience of polygamy's perceived “victims”: the plural wives.
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