“Burst the Other Day at Washington, D. C.”

May 6, 1882

Thomas Nast

“Burst the Other Day at Washington, D. C.”

Congress; Religion, Mormon Church; Sexual Morality, Polygamy; Symbols, Columbia; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American West; Utah;

No caption

This cartoon dramatizes the ejection of George Q. Cannon, the Utah delegate, from his seat in Congress because of his practice of polygamy (he had four wives).

Since being founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (informally, the Mormon Church) was one of the most controversial groups in nineteenth-century America.  Central to that concern was the official Mormon doctrine of blessing and encouraging polygamy (husbands having more than one wife concurrently).  During the antebellum era, disputes with their neighbors forced the Mormons to flee from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, Illinois, and finally the Western territory they called Deseret (Utah). 

During the second half of the nineteenth century, tensions mounted between the Mormons in Utah and the federal government.  In the winter of 1857-58, President James Buchanan dispatched federal troops to Utah to ensure that federal law was enforced.  In 1862, Congress passed a law outlawing plural marriage (having more than one spouse concurrently).  To implement the law in the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered federal marshals to Utah, where they arrested hundreds of Mormons for practicing polygamy.  In 1879, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Congressional statute.  Chief Justice Morrison Waite, using the fateful metaphor "a wall of separation between church and state," argued that the First Amendment did not protect religious activities that violated the public interest.

Mormon juries and officials in the Utah Territory, however, refused to comply with the federal ruling.  In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes recommended that, as a last resort, Mormons be disfranchised in Utah.  His immediate successors, Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur, also vehemently condemned polygamy as a morally repugnant crime that undermined the family unit and the social order.  Hundreds of petitions and dozens of bills were introduced into Congress on the Mormon Question.

The only bill to make it out of committee was drafted by Senator George Edmunds of Vermont.  He had visited Utah and reported his findings and recommendations in the January 1882 issue of Harper's Monthly (the sister publication of Harper's Weekly).  The Edmunds Bill extended the 1862 Congressional law, which deemed plural marriage a felony, by prohibiting polygamists from voting, serving on juries, or holding public office.  It also established a five-member Utah Commission to be appointed by the president for the purpose of registering and certifying elections.

Democratic opponents argued that it was a Republican ploy to gain political control of Utah, and that it violated due process rights.  The Mormon Church strongly denounced the measure.  The Edmunds Bill, however, passed both houses, and President Arthur signed it into law on March 22, 1882.  Nast's cartoon depicts one of the first consequences of the Edmunds Act:  the firing of Cannon, Utah's Congressional delegate.

Mormons in the Utah Territory continued to resist federal intervention, polygamy flourished, arrests continued (with few convictions), and Congressmen proposed harsher penalties.  Finally, in 1890, Wilfred Woodruff, president of the Latter-Day Saints, issued a statement that the Mormon Church no longer condoned the practice of polygamy.  In 1896, Congress admitted the Utah Territory to statehood.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Burst the Other Day at Washington, D. C.”
December 6, 2023

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