Interview: Thomas G. Alexander
Thomas G. Alexander is a Professor of History at Brigham Young University. The author of numerous books on Utah and the West, he is also the author of Utah's official statehood centennial history. In the production of Joe Hill Professor Alexander addresses the social and political climate in Utah at the time of the Hill trial.
Following is a full transcript of producer Ken Verdoia's interview with Alexander.
Q: A simplistic reading of Utah history seems to "misplace" the chapter between 1896 and statehood and the outbreak of World War I. Was it, in fact, that uneventful?
A: I think it's absolutely a misreading of the period. If you look at what happened during that time, you have sort of a winding down of the old politics from the nineteenth century which were essentially religious politics and the winding up of a the new politics that are like politics in most other states. Where you have issues that separate the two parties and the two parties working out issues within those parties.
If you look at what happens during this period, you have the Reed Smooth investigation beginning in 1903 and that lasts until 1907. It's extremely divisive, it brings about the organization of a new anti-Mormon political party that's successful here in Salt Lake City and that continues to govern the city from 1905 to 1911. You have all sorts of progressive issues that begin to develop during those periods. How are you going to deal with the problem of large organizations of large businesses, like the railroad, like the mining companies and large organizations like labor unions. People have to deal with those kinds of questions. In the cities you have to deal with problems like sewage, water services, fixing the streets, dealing with problems of poverty, how you care for children that don't have anything to eat, that don't have any place to stay. How do you deal with those kind of problems. Do you zone in the cities so that you don't have large businesses next to homes. How do you deal with those kinds of problems, all of those things become important issues during this period. It's a- an extremely active period in Utah politics.
Q: On one side you have, of course, the strong social/theological role of the Mormon church. On the other side, you seem to have a non-Mormon mining/business interest. Are these the two centers of power that exist in Utah?
A: Well, they're important centers of power but they're not always in opposition to one another. The LDS Church got along quite well with the Utah Copper Company for instance. And with the Union Pacific railroad, the Southern Pacific railroad. I wouldn't say that they were particularly in opposition to one another, and I wouldn't say that you can actually find that divide clearly between mormon and gentile, because there's a lot of cooperation in the business community. If you look at the organization for instance of the Utah Idaho sugar company, you a- have outside non- Mormon investment in that company and then you have the LDS church that's involved in it as well. So they're a cooperating together. I think that the division which is most important in Utah is not during that period, isn't especially the division between the church and others. It's the division between progressive and anti- progressive forces.
Q: Describe that for me.
A: Well, you have in Utah an interest in trying to deal with these problems of large organizations. For instance, what do you do when you have businesses like mining companies that hire people in dangerous jobs, how do you deal with that kind of problem. Well there's one way to deal with it, you have mine inspection, you require the companies to have safety devices and things of that sort. You a do these things a to try to make sure that the work place is a little safer. Who do you make responsible if there's an accident in the work place. Is the company responsible. Do they have to carry insurance to make sure that their employees have medical services if they have accidents in those businesses. Your struggling over that issue as well. And then there's the moral issues that you're dealing with.
Q: Such as.
A: Such as prohibition. I think that's the major issue during this period and it's not really solved successfully until 1917 when Utah adopts state-wide prohibition. And that's an issue that's very divisive within the Republican party. The Republicans tried to steer away from the issue of a statewide prohibition until they're forced to deal with it in 1916.
Q: So, we're talking about a state that is wrestling with some mighty issues, and you talk about a progressive inclination to say that - yes, there is a responsibility, even in some cases a moral responsibility to protect safety of the worker. Tell me about the flip side of that, those that would not be viewed as progressive, that might seek to resist the progressive tendency.
A: Essentially the argument that they use is that this is a matter of contracts between workers and employers. And employees understand when they go to work that they're working under certain conditions. You protect the property rights of those who own the the businesses and argue that a what you have are two people making agreements about how the working conditions are going to be and the state has no business in interfering in that matter.
Q: Let's consider the political makeup of Utah. We have the full force of the national Democrat and Republican parties, even the Socialist and Progressive parties. How can we characterize the partisan nature of Utah in the first decade or two decades of a new century?
A: Well one of the things that happens because of-- what took place during the early 1890s, the LDS church was relatively successful in dividing its membership between the other two political parties, between the Republicans and Democratic parties. But because you have a number of non-Mormons, a most of whom are Republicans, the Republican party then emerges in Utah as the majority party after statehood. And it remains the majority party until the depression. Now, there are some times when the Democratic party's successful in overturning Republican rule, after 1896 for instance, between 1896 and 1900 and then again in 1916, when the Democratic party succeeds in capturing the legislature a- and then capturing the governorship. And Utah went Democratic in the national elections in 1916 for the first time since 1896. So you have that kind of national a- split that takes place here. Now, within the political parties you also have a some changes that are a taking place. These progressive issues that I talk about divided the Republican party in 1912 and you have the organization of a Progressive party. That a parallels the national Progressive party. Republicans were concerned about that, particularly in the 1914 election when Reed Smooth ran for the Senate against James H. Moyle and Smoot came closest to losing that election of any election he ran until he was defeated in 1932, and it was largely because the Democratic party was successful in pulling some Progressives into the party. The Republican party then succeeded in pulling itself back together in 1916 but it was badly divided internally. A-- the progressive candidate from 1912 was the republican party nominee in 1916. But I think prohibition and these progressive issues that I talked about simply defeated the party and so the Democratic party was successful in electing Simon Bamberger as the governor in 1916.
Q: It seems to me what you are describing economically, socially, politically is that Utah was far from a monolithic one- direction state.
A: Oh, I think there's no question about that. There are a lot of different interests in Utah during this period. It's it's not simply the LDS church verses everybody else. Though that is an issue, you see in the organization of the American party in 1905.
Q: Reed Smoot. You alluded to this earlier, but I'd like to spend a little bit more time talking about Smoot's confirmation. He experiences one of the most contentious and extended battles for taking a seat in the United States Senate in the annals of the senate. What were the most off-cited reasons for his confirmation hearings being so contentious?
A: I think that the questions that are involved here are questions of a church and state, questions of the status of the Mormon church, the question of whether you can elect somebody whose a high official in the Mormon church to the senate. That is a can a prince in God's kingdom be a senator in Caesar's.
Q: The hearings seem to evolve and become broader than Reed Smoot, and they seem to probe the Mormon church itself: Has the church abandoned the practice of pleural marriage. . .is the church truly loyal to the American experience in the constitution. Are these issues that are also considered?
A: Oh, they're extremely important in those hearings. The charges that were made against Smoot had to do with the church's continued practice of plural marriage. The role that the church was playing in the state and the question of whether Smoot's allegiance to the LDS church made it impossible for him to observe the oath that he was to take as a senator.
Q: So, we've talked about the overt and even sub-textual issues. Is the Smoot confirmation really some form of a test for the LDS church, testing its patriotism, testing its loyalty?
A: Yeah, I think there's no question about that. The LDS church is on trial in the Smoot hearings as much as Smoot is. I- it's not though a question of whether a Mormon can be elected to office, Mormons have been elected before. Most of those who were elected previously had been Latter Day Saints. It's a question of the role that the LDS church is playing in Utah's political and economic system.
Q: Is there a turning point in this process?
A: Yes there is. A one of the things that happened, you see Smoot was seated in 1903. And, Smoot was successful in ingratiating himself with the republican power structure. A, he was a conservative, he succeeded in showing that he could play the game in the senate the way other senators did, and he got along very well with the senate republican leadership, the republican party was the majority party during this period and he was also able to convince Theodore Roosevelt, who was president during this period. But he was not a polygamist and to show him that he was loyal to the president as well as to the Republican party. He did this in a number of ways. One of the things that he did during this period and it's not too well known about Reed Smoot was that he served on the senate committee on public lands and surveys. He was a a key figure in supporting Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt's interest in creating forest reserves throughout the United States and in supporting the national forest system. Roosevelt showed his appreciation by appointing Smoot as chair of one of the committees in the 1908 conference on conservation. Smoot was very successful in helping Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot during this period in the senate.
Q: Smoot, and the Mormon Church both eliminate any doubt in the people's mind about their commitment to American principles and the constitution.
A: Well there was still a lot of opposition to him. You had petitions coming in from the Women's Christian Temperance movement. You have a all sorts of petitions coming in opposing Smoot, but Smoot succeeded in showing that he was a team player, that he was a conservative senator, that he supported the administration. And a was successful I think for reason.