A little history lesson, which of course you can interpret any way you like, but I think at least it’s a reminder that social-issue controversy – and strong rhetoric about the importance of marriage – is not a totally new thing in national politics. Here’s a passage from Grover Cleveland’s first State of the Union message, in 1885, at the height of the federal government’s effort to stamp out polygamy (some seven years after the US Supreme Court in Reynolds v US held that it was constitutional to ban polygamy). Mind you, this is a Democratic president who had just been elected in a campaign that featured extensive criticism of the unmarried Cleveland for fathering a child out of wedlock. It’s also an interesting reminder that the Mormon church was compelled, rather literally at gunpoint by the federal government, to abandon its original definition of marriage.
The last line gives you a sense of exactly how hard-line Cleveland was on this issue.
In the Territory of Utah the law of the United States passed for the Suppression of polygamy has been energetically and faithfully executed during the past year, with measurably good results. A number of convictions have been secured for unlawful cohabitation, and in some cases pleas of guilty have been entered and a slight punishment imposed, upon a promise by the accused that they would not again offend against the law, nor advise, counsel, aid, or abet in any way its violation by others.
The Utah commissioners express the opinion, based upon such information as they are able to obtain, that but few polygamous marriages have taken place in the Territory during the last year. They further report that while there can not be found upon the registration lists of voters the name of a man actually guilty of polygamy, and while none of that class are holding office, yet at the last election in the Territory all the officers elected, except in one county, were men who, though not actually living in the practice of polygamy, subscribe to the doctrine of polygamous marriages as a divine revelation and a law unto all higher and more binding upon the conscience than any human law, local or national. Thus is the strange spectacle presented of a community protected by a republican form of government, to which they owe allegiance, sustaining by their suffrages a principle and a belief which set at naught that obligation of absolute obedience to the law of the land which lies at the foundation of republican institutions.
The strength, the perpetuity, and the destiny of the nation rest upon our homes, established by the law of God, guarded by parental care, regulated by parental authority, and sanctified by parental love.
These are not the homes of polygamy.
The mothers of our land, who rule the nation as they mold the characters and guide the actions of their sons, live according to God’s holy ordinances, and each, secure and happy in the exclusive love of the father of her children, sheds the warm light of true womanhood, unperverted and unpolluted, upon all within her pure and wholesome family circle.
These are not the cheerless, crushed, and unwomanly mothers of polygamy.
The fathers of our families are the best citizens of the Republic. Wife and children are the sources of patriotism, and conjugal and parental affection beget devotion to the country. The man who, undefiled with plural marriage, is surrounded in his single home with his wife and children has a stake in the country which inspires him with respect for its laws and courage for its defense.
These are not the fathers of polygamous families.
There is no feature of this practice or the system which sanctions it which is not opposed to all that is of value in our institutions.
There should be no relaxation in the firm but just execution of the law now in operation, and I should be glad to approve such further discreet legislation as will rid the country of this blot upon its fair fame.
Since the people upholding polygamy in our Territories are reenforced by immigration from other lands, I recommend that a law be passed to prevent the importation of Mormons into the country.