The Story of Reynolds v. United States: Federal "Hell Hounds" Punishing Mormon Treason
Family Law Stories
Part of the “Law Stories” series published by Foundation Press, this chapter in Family Law Stories tells the back story of the 1878 US Supreme Court case Reynolds v. U.S.. While the case held that Mormon polygamy was not protected as the free exercise of religion, this chapter shifts our focus away from sex and religion and toward the Court’s language linking Mormon polygamy with “Asiatic and African” peoples as well as political despotism. This close examination of the historical record shows that 19th century concerns about Mormon separatism – commercial, social and political separatism as well was religious – were as important, or even more so, than plural marriage itself. To make its case that antipolygamists of the day viewed Mormon polygamy as both politically and culturally treasonous, the chapter describes George Reynolds’ career, marriages, and imprisonment, including how his life-long devotion to the Mormon Church led to him to be the defendant in this test case. In conclusion, this chapter suggests that Reynolds reliance on political claims of treason (as well as white supremacist views of Mormon polygamy as race treason) may limit the precedential value of the case. In particular, if Reynolds is really about Mormon’s treasonous establishment of a separatist theocracy, it has little applicability to current discussions of same sex marriage since same sex marriage is an assimilationist project.