Alexander William Doniphan: Portrait of a Missouri Moderate. By Roger Launius. (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1997. xiv, 316 pp. Acknowledgments, forward, photos, bibliography, index).
The city of Liberty, Missouri, boasts a street, a park, and a school named in honor of Alexander Doniphan, and Doniphan’s statue stands on the courthouse square in the nearby town of Richmond. However, most Missourians are unaware of the significance of this mid-nineteenth century attorney who also served as military leader, politician, and businessman. His biographer, Roger Launius, believes Doniphan’s importance lies in the fact that he was a political moderate during a turbulent period of history. According to the author, Doniphan had “the ability to appreciate a diversity of opinion, even while holding specific ideals, and to find a position somewhere in the middle that all [could] accept” (xi). In the current atmosphere of increasing polarization on important political issues, Launius argues that Doniphan’s ability to compromise is relevant today and that it “speaks to the present crisis in American politics at the end of the twentieth century” (xiii).
In the author’s judgment, the most important events of Doniphan’s career occurred during his service in the Mexican War of 1846-48. About half the book is devoted to his years as a soldier. Launius asserts that “no one . . . captured the American imagination more effectively than Doniphan” (161) except for Zachary Taylor, the leading commander in the conflict who later became president of the United States. Doniphan also achieved prominence in the period immediately before the Civil War when he worked to avoid the conflict by participating in a peace conference held in Washington, D.C., to seek an acceptable compromise position. During the war he remained on the sidelines in Missouri, abhorring the idea of secession despite his pro-slavery stance. From the viewpoint of Missouri Baptist Historical Society members and associates, however, the most interesting aspect of Doniphan’s career is undoubtedly his vigorous defense of religious liberty. While he had no sympathy whatsoever with the beliefs of the Mormons, a religious minority that was very unpopular in Missouri at the time, Doniphan repeatedly agreed to represent church members including Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter Day Saints. Even when the Mormons themselves sometimes provoked attacks, he defended their right to be free from threats and persecution.
His involvement with the group began in October 1833 when Mormon settlers were violently expelled from Jackson County. They were particularly attached to the land there because Smith had identified it as the Garden of Eden. Representing the Mormon defendants, Doniphan attempted to prosecute those who attacked them and worked to reach a settlement regarding property despite his legitimate fear that his burgeoning law practice might be ruined because of his association with the group. In the end the legal actions he took on the Mormons’ behalf were futile. They lost everything when they refused to compromise because none of the proposed settlements would restore their property in full. Surprisingly, Doniphan himself came out a winner: The Mormons believed that he had done everything possible for them, and non-Mormon observers admired his courage and aggressive representation.
A second and more crucial confrontation came in 1838. By informal agreement, Missouri Mormons had settled in Caldwell County, a district created specifically for them in which they controlled the government and the local militia. When they spilled over the borders of their “reservation” into adjoining territory, their non-Mormon neighbors reacted strongly. Shootings ensued, and both sides suffered losses. At the time, Doniphan was serving as commander of a Missouri militia unit. That position proved to be even more crucial than his role as a defense attorney, at least initially.
The governor of Missouri had already issued an infamous order that Mormons should be “exterminated or driven from the state” (57) when Doniphan’s troop was sent to confront the group. In the midst of the escalating violence, the part-time soldier was able to negotiate a deal in which Mormon leaders surrendered to face charges. At the ensuing court martial, Smith and six others were sentenced to be shot. Doniphan was ordered to carry out the sentence. In direct defiance of the command, he refused and marched his men home. Subsequently, Doniphan’s furious denunciation of the illegality of the proceedings apparently influenced his superior to cancel the executions.
Then attorney Doniphan went into action, agreeing to represent Joseph Smith as well as other Mormon leaders. In a series of proceedings, he fought the charges against his clients and eventually triumphed. Although Smith and his cohorts spent an uncomfortable winter in the Liberty jail, they were eventually released and made their way to Illinois, the next stage of their odyssey. When Doniphan visited Salt Lake City forty years later, he received a “hero’s welcome” (277) because of his defense of the Mormon leaders.
Launius’ portrait of the barrister is admirably realistic. He points out that Doniphan always collected substantial fees from the Mormons for his efforts. In addition, he acknowledges the fact that Doniphan was aware that his law practice might benefit from such high profile cases. He knew they could solidify his reputation as a man of courage and determination who vigorously defended his clients. Despite these observations, the author clearly believes that Doniphan held genuinely principled positions that were not altered by convenience or political expediency. He admires Doniphan for his willingness to defend religious liberty even for those whose beliefs he “loathe[d]” (14).
Launius deserves additional kudos for thoroughly researching his biography. In the sections on Doniphan’s dealings with the Mormons, for instance, the author refers to non-Mormon accounts as well as to extensive Mormon sources to give a well-balanced perspective. His primary fault is that he tends to overemphasize his subject’s importance, a common problem among biographers. Standard accounts of the Mexican War do not consider Doniphan the major figure that Launius asserts he was. Despite this drawback, the book reads well for both information and entertainment. Launius has an expert eye for the illustrative quote and the fascinating anecdote. This study is worth reading because it brings to dramatic life an historical figure of some mystery and extols the virtues of moderation in contentious times.
Thomas Howell William Jewell College