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Natural Law and the Rhetoric of Empire: Reynolds v. United States, Polygamy, and Imperialism


Nathan B. Oman


William & Mary Law School

February 26, 2010

William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-43

Abstract:     
In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court construed the Free Exercise Clause for the first time, holding in Reynolds v. United States that Congress could punish Mormon polygamy. Historians have interpreted Reynolds and the massive wave of anti-polygamy legislation and litigation that it midwifed as an extension of Reconstruction into the American West. This Article offers a new historical interpretation, one that places the birth of Free Exercise jurisprudence in Reynolds within an international context of Great Power imperialism and American international expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. It does this by recovering the lost theory of religious freedom that the Mormons offered in Reynolds, a theory grounded in the natural law tradition. It then shows how the Court rejected this theory by using British imperial law to interpret the scope of the first amendment. Unraveling the work done by these international analogies reveals how the legal debates in Reynolds reached back to natural law theorists of the seventeenth-century such as Hugo Grotius and forward to fin de siècle imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt. By analogizing the federal government to the British Raj, Reynolds provided a framework for national politicians in the 1880s to employ the supposedly discredited tactics of Reconstruction against the Mormons. Embedded in imperialist analogies, Reynolds and its progeny thus formed a prelude to the constitutional battles over American imperialism in the wake of the Spanish-American War. These constitutional debates reached their dénouement in The Insular Cases, where Reynolds and its progeny appeared not as Free Exercise cases but as precedents on the scope of American imperial power. This Article thus remaps key events in late nineteenth-century constitutional history, showing how the birth of Free Exercise jurisprudence in Reynolds must be understood as part of America’s engagement with Great Power imperialism and the ideologies that sustained it.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 44

Keywords: legal history, polygamy, constitutional law, free exercise, first amendment, race, imperialism, Insular Cases, Reynolds v. United States, Reconstruction, Mormons, Latter-day Saints, law and religion, natural law, progress

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Date posted: February 28, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Oman, Nathan B., Natural Law and the Rhetoric of Empire: Reynolds v. United States, Polygamy, and Imperialism (February 26, 2010). William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-43. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1560015

Contact Information

Nathan B. Oman (Contact Author)
William & Mary Law School ( email )
South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
HOME PAGE: http://nboman.people.wm.edu
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