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Book review: Complicated relationship between Mormons, feds explored in 'Unpopular Sovereignty'

"Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory" is by Brent M. Rogers.
"Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory" is by Brent M. Rogers.
University of Nebraska Press

"UNPOPULAR SOVEREIGNTY: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory," by Brent M. Rogers, University of Nebraska Press, $32, 383 pages (nf)

When looking back at the many struggles early Mormon residents of Utah endured, one among them is their complicated relationship with the federal government. Just like a state, territories are subject to federal laws and regulations. In Utah, however, Mormons passionately objected to the idea of total federal control. Seeking to maintain local control over governing, legal, social and cultural matters, the conflict went on for many years.

In "Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory," Brent M. Rogers, historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, contrasts the use of popular sovereignty in Utah with the issue of slavery in Kansas. Popular sovereignty first became an issue in the United States during the American Revolution, though its roots go as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The idea is that an entire group, rather than a single person, can exercise the nation's sovereign will through a constitution. As the United States continued to expand further and further west, the question of expanding slavery into these new areas arose.

Democrats came up with a middle-ground approach, wherein new territories would be able to set policies on slavery and other domestic issues at the local level. Rogers primarily focuses on three areas and how they played a role in Utah's ability to exercise self-governance, including the implementation of a republican form of government, the administration of Indian policy and Native American affairs and the controversial practice of plural marriage. Rogers further explores the impact of the national debate over popular sovereignty and Utah's place in it.

"Unpopular Sovereignty" is a balanced account that expertly covers issues faced by Mormons, the Great Basin's indigenous population, Democrats, Republicans and all Americans as the United States descended into Civil War.

The book doesn't contain any sexual content or swearing, but it has some scenes of violence.

Ryan Curtis is a proud seventh-generation Utahn and writes for Utah Political Capitol and KSL.com. In his spare time, he enjoys doing family history research and listening to '70s and '80s music. You can contact him at ryancurtis4218@gmail.com.