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Utah’s Road to Statehood: Political Obstacles

Maren Peterson
May 5, 2021

As we continue our series on Utah’s Road to Statehood, we will explore the obstacles that prevented Utah from becoming a state until 1896. In early Utah, religion and politics were so closely intertwined that Congress refused to entertain the idea of statehood until the 1890s.

Council of Fifty

When the Territory of Utah was created in 1850, President Millard Fillmore chose Brigham Young to be the territorial governor. Almost all of the white settlers who came to the Salt Lake Valley were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They had fled to Utah after their founder, Joseph Smith, was killed. The Latter-day Saints were devout believers who wanted to establish the Kingdom of God: a religious, economic, and political utopia. Brigham Young was the spiritual leader of the Latter-Day Saints, and upon arrival in Utah, also assumed political leadership. Under his territorial governorship, politics and religion were so conjoined that the Church History Library continues to hold most of the records from his governorship within his office files.

The Council of Fifty was formed in Nauvoo, Illinois on March 11, 1844, by Joseph Smith, the first leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In Nauvoo, the Council sent memorials to Congress to address their grievances as a people and to research unsettled land in the west. Once moved to Utah, the Council of Fifty organized themselves into a legislature and sent the petition for statehood to the federal government, which resulted in territorial status in 1850. Members of the Council were elected to the territorial legislature by the Latter-day Saint population, who fully believed that Brigham Young held both religious and political power. Because members of the legislature looked to Brigham Young as their prophet, he also conveyed his own political views to them and therefore held immense political power even after he was no longer the Governor. 

Series 364, Lieutenant Governor Election Returns. 1851 returns for the Utah Territory legislature. Includes three apostles, one of whom would become Young’s counselor in 1854, another whom would become the Prophet of the church in 1889.

From 1850 to 1869, Latter-day Saints who ran for office generally ran unopposed and church members dominated the elected positions. However, this gradually started to change with the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and local railways in the 1870s. The mining industry was booming in Utah, bringing workers who did not subscribe to the beliefs of the main population. With the arrival of non-Latter-day Saints, two political parties arose in the territory.

Series 3942, Territorial Supreme Court Declarations of intention and certificate of citizenship record books, Book 1. Missionaries went overseas and sent converts back to Utah to gather the members of the church together.

People’s Party vs Liberal Party

The People’s Party was made up of mostly Latter-day Saints, and dominated elections from 1870 until it was dissolved in 1891. The Liberal Party was the minority, made up of the “gentiles,” or those who were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The People’s Party elected Latter-day Saints to the office of delegate to Congress almost every term. (There was one gentile delegate, but he had the full support of the Church). The People’s Party also controlled city and county governments. On the other hand, all judges, attorneys and governors were appointed by the federal government. This provided a counterbalance to the religiously controlled local government. The Church desperately wanted statehood in order to elect their own governor and judges and attorneys, hopefully ones who were Latter-day Saints themselves.

Once the Church ended the controversial practice of polygamy, which will be discussed in the next post, they also made a concerted push to abandon the People’s and Liberal Parties and adopt the national political parties. One of the main complaints about Utah was that it was too insular and not interested in American politics on the whole. By shifting into the national parties, the people of Utah were signaling the federal government that they were conforming.

Series 364, Lieutenant Governor Election Returns, an affidavit stating that the Republican party is now formed in Utah.

From Democrat to Republican

In the 1880s the Republican and Democrat parties were balanced in the federal government, with the Democrats holding the House and the Republicans controlling the Senate. Both parties were looking to tip the scales in their favor, and a good way to do this was to admit new states. Latter-day Saints had settled in the territories around Utah, and both parties were trying to win their favor. Winning the vote of a large religious community in the west would give a party a definite advantage. Republican leaders of Utah Territory had strongly opposed the Church’s practice of polygamy and left a sour taste in the mouths of most Latter-Day Saints. The majority of the religion identified as Democrats. Church leaders bartered with President Cleveland at the end of his first term, trying to convince him to back them in granting Utah statehood. They told him that the Church could influence elections towards the Democrats in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, and also had major influence in Nevada and Colorado. Ultimately this sixth attempt at statehood didn’t go anywhere.

In 1890, George Q. Cannon was sent to Washington D.C. by Church President Wilford Woodruff to advocate for statehood. When the Democrats made no move to help Utah into the Union, Cannon turned to the Republican party. He made friends among some of the more influential of them and used those friendships to defeat a Republican-sponsored bill that would disenfranchise all Latter-day Saints. Cannon remained a stalwart Republican and started to shift the allegiance of the church members. Republican members of Congress started to lobby for Utah Statehood, believing that if they were the responsible party for bringing Utah into the Union they would also hold the votes of the Latter-Day Saints. After becoming a state in 1896, Utah elected its first Senators and Representative to Congress; all three identified with the Republican party. However, in the next election Democrats were elected to be Utah’s Representative and to fill the open Senate seat. The two parties had fairly equal forces in Utah until another strong shift towards Republicanism in the mid 20th century.

Series 364 Lieutenant Governor Election Papers. Statewide returns for 1896, showing the Representative seat going back to the Democrats.


Clark, James R. “The Kingdom of God, The Council of Fifty and the State of Deseret.” Utah Historical Quarterly 26: No. 2 (April 1958): 131- 148.

Lyman, Edward Leo. Finally Statehood! Utah’s Struggles. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2019.

Lyman, Edward Leo. “Statehood, Political Allegiance, and Utah’s First U. S. Senate Seats: Prices for the National Parties and Local Factions.”  Utah Historical Quarterly 63: Vol. 4 (Fall 1995): 341-356.

“Party Politics and Utah Statehood.” The History Blazer, July 1995.

White, Jean Bickmore. “Prelude to Statehood: Coming Together in the 1890’s.” Utah Historical Quarterly 62: Vol. 4 (Fall 1994): 300-315.