Thursday, October 2, 2008
Ertman on the History of Polygamy as Race Treason
Posted by Mary L. Dudziak
'They Ain't Whites; They're Mormons': An Illustrated History of Polygamy as Race Treason is a new paper by Martha M. Ertman, University of Maryland Law School. The political cartoons alone in this fascinating paper make it worth a look. Here's the abstract: Legal doctrines banning polygamy grew out of nineteenth century Americans' view that Mormons betrayed the nation by engaging in conduct associated with people of color. This article reveals the racial underpinnings of polygamy law by examining cartoons and other antipolygamy rhetoric of the time to demonstrate Sir Henry Maine's famous observation that the move in progressive societies is "from status to contract." It frames antipolygamists' contentions as a visceral defense of racial and sexual status in the face of encroaching contractual thinking. Polygamy, they reasoned, was "natural" for people of color but so "unnatural" for whites as to produce a new, degenerate race, licentious and submissive to despotism. The article suggests that the tension between status and contract, together with anthropologist Edward Said's concept of Orientalism, bridge the seemingly separate issues of Mormon polygamy and racial inferiority. In particular, Orientalism explains how the nation deprived overwhelmingly white Mormons of citizenship rights such as voting on grounds of racial inferiority.