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The Mormon Question
by Prof. Sarah Barringer Gordon
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The Supreme Courtís opinion in the case was handed down in early 1879. The decision held that Mormon polygamists had no constitutional right to engage in a form of marriage directly prohibited by Congress. In the process, the Court explored the interdependence of marriage and political structures, and the importance of religion to both. Subsequent decisions sustained and amplified the essential premise of Reynolds, which remains a frequently cited precedent. The staying power of antipolygamy jurisprudence is remarkable, for many nineteenth-century cases were buried under the weight of twentieth-century rights doctrines that consciously eschew the nineteenth-century Courtís restrictive interpretation of civil rights.21

At the time, and for many decades afterwards, Reynolds was a popular and politically important decision. It marked a watershed in anti-polygamy activity and theory, galvanizing reformers, politicians, and lawyers into renewed commitment to the cause. The carefully crafted jurisdictional arguments of the Mormons evaporated in Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waiteís analysis for the Court. They were replaced with a lesson in historiography that has dominated the constitutional analysis of law and religion ever since.

Reynolds used historical analysis of the legal experience of the states in the service of federal power. The decision translated the politics and jurisprudence of disestablishment and free exercise at the state level into a mandate for dismissing the constitutional claims of George Reynolds. The research that went into the Reynolds opinion raises interesting questions about the institutional stature of the Supreme Court in the 1870s, and the relationship of the federal Supreme Court to state jurisprudence. Until recently, the postwar Court has not been viewed as any great improvement over what came before. And before the Civil War, of course, there was Dred Scott. The apparent rigidity and class bias of the Courtís decisions, legal scholars maintain, revealed a deep concern with formal distinctions between public and private life that frequently obscured basic questions of justice and humanity. Certainly most Mormons at the time, and legal historians of Mormonism since, have echoed those sentiments.22

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