Revisiting Reynolds: Mormon Polygamy, Natural Law, and Whiteness
(cross-posted at the Juvenile Instructor)
Nathan B. Oman, Visiting Professor at Cornell Law School and Associate Professor at William & Mary Law School, posted an article last week at SSRN (available for download here) that reconsiders the context and historical significance of the Reynolds v. United States, the famed 1879 Supreme Court case that
Reynolds within the context of what immediately proceeded it (abolitionism and Reconstruction) by exploring how the decision handed down in the case “also drew on international narratives, using analogies to British imperial law to interpret the scope of the first amendment” (p. 4). As part of this budding imperialist reasoning, Mormons, along with Catholics, Jews, and Italians, were racialized as something other than white. As Nate notes, though, “The logic of Mormon racial identity, however, was slightly different. According to the standard racial logic, behavior resulted from racial identity. … For Mormons, however, the logic moved in the opposite direction. A new race arose precisely because of the unnatural behaviors of the Latter-day Saints” (p. 22). Nate’s exploration of the legal implications of the racialization of Mormons dovetails nicely with Paul Reeve’s current research that situates the Mormon struggle for acceptance and Utah's quest for statehood as a social and cultural struggle for whiteness (as well as that of Sam Houston State grad student and Juvenile Instructor blogger Ed Jeter). Collectively, these scholars are taking Mormon history in new, exciting, and important directions that should interest legal historians and religious historians alike.