The Nauvoo Expositor was a newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois that published only one issue, which was dated June 7, 1844. Its publication set off a chain of events that contributed to the death of Latter Day Saint movement founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. The Expositor was founded by several disaffected associates of Smith, some of whom claimed that he had attempted to seduce their wives in the name of plural marriage.
The bulk of the maiden issue of the Expositor was devoted to criticism of Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement and the mayor of Nauvoo. After two days of consultation, Smith and the Nauvoo city council voted on June 10, 1844 to declare the paper a public nuisance, and ordered the paper's printing press destroyed. The town marshal carried out the order that evening. These actions generated considerable disturbance, and culminated in Smith's death by a vigilante group while he was in legal custody and awaiting a trial in nearby Carthage.
The paper's criticism of Smith was focused on three main points: (1) the opinion that Smith had once been a true prophet, but had become a fallen prophet because of his introduction of plural marriage, exaltation and other controversial doctrines; (2) the opinion that as church president and Nauvoo mayor, Smith held too much power and desired to create a theocracy (see also Council of Fifty, Theodemocracy); and (3) the belief that Smith was corrupting young women by forcing, coercing or introducing them to the practice of plural marriage.
Nauvoo's charter granted the city council powers equal to the Illinois legislature within the jurisdiction of Nauvoo. Power was granted to the city council to pass ordinances for the order and welfare of the city. For two days, Smith and the city council debated and discussed the matter. Ultimately, after considering William Blackstone's canon, the council declared the press a nuisance and ordered Smith, as Nauvoo's mayor, to order the city marshall to destroy the paper and the press.
Since the events there has been much discussion as to whether the council's actions were legal insofar as the law would have been contemporarily understood. In any event, whether or not the council's actions were strictly legal, there is general agreement among historians that the press's destruction escalated the continuing conflict between the Mormon community and their critics, leading ultimately to Smith's assassination.
Origin of the paper and reasons for its destruction
A group of former members of the church were in open conflict with Smith for various doctrinal, economic, and political reasons. William Law, a member of the First Presidency, joined this group and became the head of it. According to William Law, Smith had made several proposals to Law's wife Jane, under the premise that Jane Law would enter a polyandrous marriage with Smith. Law's wife later described Smith's proposals, saying that Smith had "asked her to give him half her love; she was at liberty to keep the other half for her husband."
The Expositor was published by Law and six associates. The Expositor was planned as an exposé of the church's practices which Law and his associates opposed.
The Expositor was declared a nuisance and destroyed. In a letter to Governor Thomas Ford written four days after the destruction of the press, Smith described the city council’s opinion of the paper and its authors:
In the investigation it appeared evident to the council that the proprietors were a set of unprincipled men, lawless, debouchees, counterfeiters, Bogus Makers, gamblers, peace disturbers, and that the grand object of said proprietors was to destroy our constitutional rights and chartered privileges; to overthrow all good and wholesome regulations in society; to strengthen themselves against the municipality; to fortify themselves against the church of which I am a member, and destroy all our religious rights and privileges, by libels, slanders, falsehoods, perjury & sticking at no corruption to accomplish their hellish purposes. and that said paper of itself was libelous of the deepest dye, and very injurious as a vehicle of defamation,—tending to corrupt the morals, and disturb the peace, tranquillity and happiness of the whole community, and especially that of Nauvoo.
Legal opinions and analyses
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Apart from its ethical implications, there has been some debate about whether the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor was legal. At the time, the United States Constitution did not prohibit states and local governments from infringing the freedom of the press. This First Amendment protection only applied to the federal government until the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was enacted in 1868, and U.S. courts did not consistently enforce the First Amendment against states and localities until about 1931.
Thus, whether or not the destruction of the press was legal depends primarily on the laws of the state of Illinois and the Nauvoo Charter. Among the rights enacted in the 1818 Constitution of Illinois were a prohibition against ex post facto laws and a provision for the freedom of the press. It is clear that the city of Nauvoo's actions against the Expositor violated the Illinois constitution's freedom-of-press provision. This provision read as follows:
- "22. The printing presses shall be free to every person, who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the general assembly or of any branch of government; and no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.
- "23. In prosecutions for the publication of papers investigating the official conduct of officers, or of men acting in a public capacity, or where the matter published is proper for public information, the truth thereof may be given in evidence. And in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right of determining both the law and the fact, under the direction of the court as in other cases." (Art. VIII, cl. 22–23).
The destruction may also have violated Illinois' prohibition against ex post facto laws. Even without a specific ordinance, the city of Nauvoo could have tried to rely upon the existing common law doctrines of nuisance and libel, but it is doubtful whether they were applicable. The city might also have acted under the common law doctrine of eminent domain, which allows the government to take private property for public use. Such a taking, however, would have required, under the Illinois "Takings Clause", that the taking be approved by the Illinois general assembly, and that just compensation be given.
A detailed legal analysis of the Nauvoo City Council's actions was undertaken by Dallin H. Oaks, then a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Oaks opined that while the destruction of the Expositor's printing press was legally questionable, under the law of the time the newspaper certainly could have been declared libelous and therefore a public nuisance by the Nauvoo City Council. As a result, Oaks concludes that while under contemporaneous law it would have been legally permissible for city officials to destroy, or "abate," the actual printed newspapers, the destruction of the printing press itself was probably outside of the council's legal authority, and its owners could have sued for damages.
- "Polygamy, Persecution And Power", Salt Lake Tribune, June 16, 1996, paragraph 16, 17
- History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volume VI (1912), pp. 430-432. The council met on June 8 and June 10 to discuss the matter.
- History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volume VI (1912), p. 432: "The Council passed an ordinance declaring the Nauvoo Expositor a nuisance, and also issued an order to me to abate the said nuisance. I immediately ordered the Marshall to destroy it without delay." – Joseph Smith
- "Wife no. 19", Ann Eliza Young, 1875, page 61
- Letter from Joseph Smith to Thomas Ford (14 June 1844)
- Art. VIII, clause 11.
- Oaks has since become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- Oaks, Dallin H. "The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor." Utah Law Review 9 (Winter 1965):862-903.
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