King Brigham! (Also, Dogs)

A couple taxable nuisances. Photo by ipet photo on Unsplash

Last week, for various reasons that involve research and things, I fell down the rabbit hole of nineteenth-century dog taxes in the U.S. I looked through tons of archival newspapers to see why U.S. cities and states imposed taxes on the ownership of dogs. (Short answer: nineteenth-century Americans often—though not always—considered dogs nuisances. In a lot of cases, the justification was that dogs attacked farmers’ sheep; sometimes it was the risk of rabies (“hydrophobia”). In any event, people believed that a tax on dogs, by raising the price, would reduce the number of dogs in the town.)

In my initial Googling, I learned that the Bloomington, IL, Pantagraph was particularly anti-dog. So I decided to take a look at its dog-related articles. Imagine my surprise when, in the April 1, 1857, edition, I saw an article on Utah. It read:

The New York Herald learns from Washington that Judge Drummond of the United States Court in Utah, has written to the Department at Washington, saying that men are imprisoned and murdered in Utah solely for questioning the authority of the church; that every man holds his life at the will of Brigham Young, &c. A passage is [sic] said letter is as follows:

“The leading men of the church are more traitorous than ever. Only a few days since all the papers, records, dockets, and nine hundred volumes of the laws, were taken out of the Supreme Court Clerk’s office and burned. And this is not the only instance of the kind, and I say to you again, and through you to the President, it is impossible for us to enforce the laws in this Territory.”

The Herald’s correspondent says the administration will soon appoint a Governor, who will take a sufficient military force into the territory to carry out the laws to the fullest extent.

We doubt whether the President and his advisers will dare to do anything of the sort. It would be manifestly flying in the face of that half Divine authority, Judge Taney of the Supreme Court. If the General Government has no power over any of the territories which were not possessed by the United States at the adoption of the Constitution, we want to know what right the President has to interfere with King Brigham in Utah? Ah, ye teachers of bloody instructions: are the ingredients of your poisoned chalice already being commanded to your own lips?

The story[fn1] stands on its own (especially where it refers to “King Brigham in Utah,” which may be my favorite sarcastic remark I’ve seen in a while). But I thought I would provide two bits of annotative gloss:

(1) Note the date. (No, not April Fools’ Day: April 1, 1857.) Less than four months after this article was published, President Buchanan did, in fact, send troops to Utah to replace Brigham Young as governor and to enforce federal law.

(2) And what about the “half Divine authority,” Judge Taney? On March 6, 1857 (that is, less than a month before this article), Justice Taney announced his majority opinion in the now-infamous Dred Scott case. Remember that one? Where the Supreme Court held that (a) Scott, as an African American, had no right to sue in federal court, and (b) Congress couldn’t exclude slavery from federal territories?

Well, part of how Taney arrived at that decision was by limiting the constitutional scope of Congress’s authority over the territories:

The counsel for the plaintiff has laid much stress upon that article in the Constitution which confers on Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States,” but, in the judgment of the court, that provision has no bearing on the present controversy, and the power there given, whatever it may be, is confined, and was intended to be confined, to the territory which at that time belonged to, or was claimed by, the United States, and was within their boundaries as settled by the treaty with Great Britain, and can have no influence upon a territory afterwards acquired from a foreign Government. It was a special provision for a known and particular territory, and to meet a present emergency, and nothing more.

(emphasis added.) It’s worth keeping in mind that, while we think of polygamy as the point of contention between Mormons and the federal government, the question of territorial sovereignty was a huge issue. And it was a huge issue, not just between Utah Mormons and the government; with the addition of each new territory came questions of slavery and of popular sovereignty.

So anyway, there you have it: a dog tax rabbit hole led me to rumors of the Utah War and a dig at the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott.

[fn1] Does it seem weird to you that the Pantagraph is citing the New York Herald‘s correspondent? To me, too. In fairness, based on my searching through old newspapers, it was pretty common for them to copy other papers’ stories. That said, I did searches for “King Brigham,” for Taney, and for Drummond of New York papers, and of the Herald in particular, in the month leading up to the story, and couldn’t find a matching story. Of course, the OCR for old newspapers isn’t perfect, so who knows if this story was lifted or not. (I mean, maybe somebody does, but I don’t.)


  1. Fun!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    How fun!

    I assume the dog taxes were eventually repealed…

  3. Kevin, most people I’ve talked to on Twitter think they probably morphed into current pet licensing fees.

  4. Mark B. says:

    Gotta love that backhanded swipe at Roger Taney! The reference in Judge Drummond’s letter to the burning of the law library stirs up an ancient memory of something Ardis Parshall posted at Keepapitchinin. If I find it, I’ll post a link.

  5. Thanks, Mark!

  6. One of my favorite article titles was written by the late Ronald Walker, ““‘Proud as a Peacock and Ignorant as a Jackass’: William W. Drummond’s Unusual Career With The Mormons”, pp. 1-34, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 42 No. 1, 2016.

    Mark B., Frankly, I’d take a front-handed swipe at Taney if I had the chance.

  7. As to the issue of Sovereignty, “Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory” Univ. of Nebraska, 2017, is a great read.

  8. Extranea says:

    These articles are one more reason I keep coming back to BCC.

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