Letter to Hyrum Smith and Nauvoo High Council, 5 December 1839
JS and , Letter, , to and Nauvoo high council, [, Hancock Co., IL], 5 Dec. 1839. Featured version copied [between Apr. and June 1840] in JS Letterbook 2, pp. 85–88; handwriting of ; JS Collection, CHL. For more complete source information, see the source note for JS Letterbook 2.
On 5 December 1839, JS and wrote to —the remaining member of the in , Illinois—and the to inform them of their safe arrival in a week earlier. JS and Higbee apprised Smith and the high council of their recent efforts to obtain redress from the federal government for the persecutions members experienced in and described their meeting with President , in which the president declined to help the Saints.
JS and , accompanied by representative , went to the President’s House on 29 November seeking a meeting with . In the 1830s, visitors commonly arrived at the President’s House without an appointment. Many Americans, including legislators and office seekers, discussed their business with the president in social settings, and Van Buren frequently met with guests in the parlor outside his office for hours at a time. In this setting, JS and Higbee would have had to compete with other visitors for the president’s attention, which may explain why Reynolds introduced them.
It is unclear what JS and asked to do to support their petitioning efforts. They may have requested an executive order that would result in redress and reparations for church members’ losses, but no documentary evidence exists to support this possibility. It is unlikely that Van Buren would have considered executive action to force , a state led predominantly by Democrats, to restore the Saints’ property rights. Van Buren was a staunch advocate of states’ rights and was at this time widely considered the architect of the Democratic Party, which had elected his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, to two consecutive presidential terms. However, JS and Higbee possibly believed Van Buren was amenable to lending his political influence to the church’s memorial for redress to Congress. Evidence suggests they tried to enlist him to assist in their appeal. In their ongoing correspondence while in , members of the church’s delegation indicated they were awaiting publication of the president’s annual message to Congress, hoping that Van Buren would therein urge Congress to act in the Saints’ behalf.
JS and also described their plan to meet with all the congressional delegates the following day, mentioned the delayed travel of and , and asked and the high council to help expedite financial arrangements for the delegation. They then requested that the Saints continue their efforts to encourage influential men in Illinois and to write letters to Congress in support of the church. After closing by asking that the letter be forwarded to their wives, JS and Higbee included a postscript that criticized the behavior of Congress and recounted more of their travels.
received the letter by 2 January 1840. The original letter is not extant. The version featured here was copied into JS Letterbook 2 by between April and June 1840.
An account of an April 1840 JS discourse states that JS met with Van Buren at the President’s House over two successive days, whereas according to this letter to Hyrum Smith—the earliest extant account of the meeting—and a March 1840 discourse, the parties met at the President’s House only once. All three of these accounts, however, reported the same sentiment in Van Buren’s response. (Discourse, 7 Apr. 1840; Discourse, 1 Mar. 1840.)
Presidents rarely issued executive orders during this period. Van Buren’s seven predecessors in office had issued a combined total of thirty executive orders over forty-three years. Van Buren issued ten executive orders during his term as president. (Peters and Woolley, “Executive Orders,” in American Presidency Project.)
Peters, Gerhard, and John T. Woolley. “Executive Orders.” In The American Presidency Project, 1999–. Hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php.
Dear . and to the Honorable of the . To whom be fellowship, love and the peace of Almighty God extended and the prayer of faith forever and <ever> Amen, Your fellow labourers, Joseph Smith Jr, and , as well as the servants that are sent by you, to perform one of the most arduous and responsible duties, and also to labour in the most honorable cause that <ever> graced the pages of human existance; and respectfully show by these lines, that we have taken up our cross thus far— and that we arrived in this on the morning of the 28th. of November, and spent the most of that day in looking up a boarding house which we succeeded in in finding. We found as cheap boarding as can be had in this city.
On friday morning 29th we proceeded <to> the house of the — We found a very large and splendid palace, surrounded with a splendid enclosure decorated with all the fineries and elegancies of this world we went to the door and requested to see the ; when we were immediately introduced into an upper apartment where we met the and were introduced into his parlor, where we presented him with our Letters of introductions;— as soon as he had read one of them, he looked upon us with a kind of half frown and said, what can I do? I can do nothing for you,— if I do any thing, I shall come in contact with the whole State of — But we were not to be intimidated, and demanded a hearing and constitutional rights— Before we left him he promised to reconsider what he had said, and observed that he felt to sympathise with us on account of our sufferings,— Now we shall endeavor to express our feelings and views concerning the , as we have been eye witnesses of his Majesty— He is a small man, sandy complexion, and ordinary features; with [p. 85]
JS and Higbee composed the letter at the boardinghouse in which they were staying on the corner of Missouri Avenue and Third Street in Washington DC, which was approximately four miles from the President’s House.
Van Buren was criticized by several of his political rivals for the opulent way in which he remodeled and decorated the President’s House during the early part of his term in office. (Seale, President’s House, 214–215, 221–224.)
Seale, William. The President’s House: A History. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
The meeting most likely occurred in an upper-floor room adjacent to the president’s office where the president regularly received large groups of visitors. According to architectural plans of the President’s House, that room was called the Audience Room at the time. (Phillips-Schrock, White House, 157–161.)
Phillips-Schrock, Patrick. The White House: An Illustrated Architectural History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.