Race Treason: The Untold Story of America's Ban on Polygamy

81 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2008 Last revised: 22 Apr 2010

See all articles by Martha M. Ertman

Martha M. Ertman

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: 2010


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. It concludes by paralleling the status-based, white supremacist rejection of polygamy and today’s arguments against same-sex marriage.

Keywords: polygamy, Mormon, race

Suggested Citation

Ertman, Martha M., Race Treason: The Untold Story of America's Ban on Polygamy (2010). U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-37; Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 19, 2010, p. 287-. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1270023 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1270023

Martha M. Ertman (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

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