That is the premise of a paper prepared for the 47th annual Mormon History Association Conference, which convened this weekend on the University of Calgary campus.
Ronald W. Walker, professor emeritus of history at Brigham Young University, authored the paper, but illness precluded his being present at the conference to deliver it. So it was read and summarized during the session by Matthew J. Grow, LDS Church History Department, who is co-authoring a book with Walker on the topic.
Walker noted that James Buchanan won the election on the issue of "local" or "popular" sovereignty. The Republican Party attacked this central plank of the Democratic Party, which was designed to allow the Western territories to make their own decision about slavery.
But before the campaign ran its course, Mormon polygamy became an issue, with Republican newspapers and politicians attacking the Democrats for supporting legislation that in theory might allow the Utah Territory to favor plural marriage, Walker wrote.
The Republican Party platform thus denounced what it called "the twin relics of barbarism": the extension of slavery in the territories and Mormon plural marriage.
"Part of Ron's argument is that the election of 1856 plays a much more important role in the causation of the Utah War than we have traditionally understood in our history," Grow explained.
Buchanan had stayed mostly in the shadows during his political career, unwilling to attach his name to any important legislation, Walker wrote. "Instead he preferred to work behind the scenes, perhaps in small groups or at one of his celebrated dinner parties, where he was at his best. He earned the nickname 'friend of the obvious.' "
One of Buchanan's opponents for the Democratic Party nomination was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. His plan was to let the people of the territories decide for themselves regarding the issue of slavery, a policy he dubbed "popular sovereignty."
At the party national convention that summer, delegates accepted the doctrine of popular sovereignty as the centerpiece of their platform. The leading candidates were incumbent President Franklin Pierce, Douglas and Buchanan, who prevailed on the 16th ballot.
During the election, Buchanan had two opponents: former US President Millard Fillmore of the American Party and John C. Fremont of the Republican Party.
"For Republicans, popular sovereignty was a dodge to avoid making hard moral decisions about the extension of slavery," Walker wrote. "For their presidential candidate, the new party overlooked some of its most able and experienced members in favor of pathfinder John C. Fremont, famous for four explorations of the American West."
By the beginning of 1856, John Bernhisel, Utah's territorial delegate, knew that the opposition to his people was strong and growing. Bernhisel knew Congress would never reconfirm Brigham Young as Territorial Governor and its bid for statehood was doomed.
"It was probably inevitable that polygamy would find its way into the Republican Party's platform in 1856," Walker wrote. "Californian John Willes was given the task of writing the plank on federal authority of the territories. He decided to join slavery and polygamy together 'to make war upon polygamy,' he said, 'and at the same time strengthen the case against slavery.' "
His resolution declared: "Resolved: that the Constitution confers upon Congress sovereign power over the territories of the United States for their government and that in the exercise of this power it is both the right and the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery."
The phrase "twin relics of barbarism" became one of the most popular and famous slogans of American presidential and political history, Walker wrote.
For example, a rally in Indianapolis depicted Brigham Young with six wives fashionably dressed in hoop skirts "each with a little Brigham in their arms" occupying one parade wagon drawn by pioneer oxen.
The parade reportedly attracted a crowd of 60,000.
A handbill supposedly written by Mormons was distributed at a pre-election rally in Philadelphia. It purported to support "the domestic institutions of slavery and polygamy as established by the patriarchs of old." The flyer was allegedly ordered "by the presidents and rulers at Great Salt Lake."
"It was an unquestioned fake, certainly the product of Republican operatives who hoped to use anti-Mormon prejudice to peel votes from Buchanan, what we would call dirty tricks," Walker wrote.
But leading opinion makers took the bait.
Walker explained that the "twin relics" slogan threw the Democrats back on their heels and they were no longer willing to help the Latter-day Saints. Church leaders complained to their old friend Douglas in the Senate. In fact, some politically fearful Democrats were now showing an anti-Mormon zeal that put the Republicans in the shade, Apostle John Taylor wrote to Douglas.
The senator appeared sympathetic, but he told Utah delegates if they insisted on submitting their petitions for statehood, they would pay a heavy price. They would be handily defeated, and anti-polygamy legislation would have a greater chance of passage.
They accepted his advice, but the "Mormon question" had already become too much a part of the election campaign.
For their part, the Mormons were outraged at the national political sentiment against them. John Taylor wrote to Brigham Young: "Talk about us entering the Union? There is no union. There is a nominal, patched up, national, growling, disunited, quarreling confederacy, but no union."
He believed the nation was coming apart, Walker wrote, everything a boiling cauldron as old political alliances were breaking down and new ones rising.
"With the election finally ended, Buchanan had the White House and the Democrats enjoyed majorities in the new Congress, but no one could doubt there was a new political landscape," Walker remarked. "Clearly the Republicans had every reason to feel good about their first try at national politics and for their future."
"In short, both national sentiment and political calculations became parts of the mix that led to the Utah expedition against Utah in 1857-58 and both came from the recent presidential campaign," he summarized.