This post in our ongoing series on the George Q. Cannon diaries, which are now published on the Church Historian’s Press website, comes from Jed Woodworth. Jed currently works at the Church History Library.
The quarter century between the end of Reconstruction and the U.S. presidency of Theodore Roosevelt stands out as a great anomaly. As John Pettegrew has observed, it is the only periodization in American history with a pejorative title. Other periods have been given benign or complementary monikers like “Early National America” or the “Progressive Era.” Not so with the Gilded Age. That historians adopted the name of the satirical 1873 novel written by Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain speaks to the problematic character of this period. Excess, tawdriness, and corruption have come to define this time.
The diary of George Q. Cannon roughly spans the Gilded Age. Begun in 1849, the same year tens of thousands of Americans flocked to California in search of gold, the diary ends in 1900, the year Roosevelt unexpectedly ascended to the U.S. presidency. During this period, Cannon accumulated great wealth and prominence. He edited newspapers, built the largest publishing house in Utah, and promoted railroads, mines, and public utilities. What does his diary tell us about the Gilded Age? Does he confirm the standard picture of powerful white men behaving badly? Does he do anything to revise what we know about the era?
The Gilded Age has been conceived, first and foremost, as the beginnings of big business. Railroads, oil, steel, and other heavy industry brought new comforts to many and enormous wealth to a small few. The typical narrative involves the tensions between capital and labor and corruption on the part of the few—the monopolization of industry, the defrauding of common people, and the gouging of labor. The abuses were so widespread that the equation of corruption with power have gone virtually unquestioned.
The Cannon diary shows that this black hat/white hat narrative is too simplistic. Powerful men everywhere were jockeying for wealth, leading inevitably to claims of unfair profiteering. Unsurprisingly, Cannon’s extraordinary success did lead to claims that he had rigged the system for his own personal gain (Oct. 11, 1888; Jan. 20, 1890). Still, none of the claimants argued that Cannon had sided with capital at the expense of labor, and the charges were later dropped as being the result of misunderstanding (March 22, 1888; April 10, 1889; April 10, 1890). Large wealth accumulation, even if morally ambiguous, need not be construed as inherently corrupt.
The profit motive has traditionally explained the rise of big business in the Gilded Age. In Cannon, altruism is the more potent factor. The diary may be our best source for understanding Mormon involvement in its first truly large-scale business venture, sugar. Cannon shows that the motive for the corporate Church’s backing of sugar beet manufacturing in the 1890s was not rooted primarily in a desire to maximize profits. Rather, Church leaders like Cannon got involved because they wanted to help Mormons who were out of work or who would be looking for work in the future (Jan. 31, 1891; June 1, 1893). Utah lacked a dependable export, and if the First Presidency did not intervene, young Mormons were sure to move away from Utah in search of better opportunities. Untethered from Mormon congregations, young Mormon families would fall away from their faith, Cannon and others predicted.
Besides creating hundreds of factory jobs, the Mormon sugar industry aimed to promote self sufficiency and to provide a cash crop for struggling farmers in Utah and Idaho. But the sugar beet industry in the arid West was largely untried and fraught with questions. Unsure if their entry into the industry would prove profitable, Cannon and other members of the First Presidency risked their reputations by signing their names to hundreds of thousands of dollars in notes. They were willing to risk their good names in order to advance the fortunes of the common people they had committed to serve.
Likewise, in managing his personal businesses Cannon sometimes acted like a profit motive did not exist. He willingly kept unprofitable businesses afloat when he felt they were beneficial to the community. The Juvenile Instructor, the Sunday School periodical Cannon founded in 1866, was frequently in debt during Cannon’s ownership. But he kept it alive despite heavy obligations because he felt it had proven to be a great moral aid to Latter-day Saint children over the years (Jan. 28, 1897; April 26, Oct. 8, 1899). In this case as in many others with Cannon, altruism proved to be more powerful than self-interest.
In an era where wealthy men were monopolizing power, Cannon showed himself willing to decentralize. To be clear, Cannon’s diary does document the rise of the First Presidency as a self-consciously separate quorum with business dealings unknown to the Quorum of the Twelve. Cannon readily defended oligarchy, a dynamic that created tension between the quorums. But Cannon also rejected luxuriousness among the oligarchy. He advocated a salary limit “beyond which no one shall go, and that limit should be fixed by each of the Apostles saying what he thought he could live on, and for him to draw as much less than that as possible” (May 5, 1898). Moreover, under Cannon’s urging the First Presidency showed its nimbleness by adapting policy to benefit common people. When property values in Salt Lake City soared in the late 1880s, Cannon argued that the First Presidency’s longstanding policy of advising Mormons to sell only to other Mormons was outmoded. Mormons ought to be able to sell to the highest bidder, thus benefitting those who were “aged and in indigent circumstances” (Feb. 27, 1890).
The Gilded Age has come to stand for political corruption and influence peddling. The Cannon diary shows how widespread this corruption was and how even well-meaning constituents had to play along with the system. In the early 1890s, as Utah made its final push towards statehood, the First Presidency retained several influential outsiders to lobby for statehood within the halls of the United States Congress. These lobbyists, apparently unbeknownst to Cannon, promised financial gifts and favors in exchange for the votes required to carry Utah’s admission over the top (Aug. 14-17, Sept. 18, 25, 1894).
Cannon expressed dismay over the extent of this back-room dealing. “Promises have evidently been made immeasurably beyond any right which we would have assumed in the name of our people,” he later told one of the lobbyists. “Years ago we determined to ask no more for statehood, because we saw that such application to be successful must be accompanied by barter, against which our souls would revolt” (Sept. 24, 1894). But the First Presidency did ask again, which implied that its members were willing to countenance practices “against which our souls would revolt” so long as they could find a way of keeping their consciences clear. And the way to do that was to outsource the lobby and remain willfully ignorant about its practices. As a politician who had served in Congress, Cannon well knew that barter was the way politics got done in the Gilded Age. Neither political evil nor political good could be accomplished without becoming a pawn in a corrupt system.
Despite his misgivings about the way statehood came about, Cannon was convinced Utah’s admission into the union was the Lord’s will. On the day Utah became a state he reflected: “To me it has always appeared clear that we never could be the people that the Lord had predicted and we never could perform the work that had been prophesied concerning our uph[o]lding the constitution of the United States, unless we should be recognized as a sovereign state. It is a happy day for Utah” (Jan. 4, 1896). Cannon’s conscience would not permit him to advocate corruption, but it could be sacralized in hindsight.
Better for the Mormons to suffer on the altar of Gilded Age politics, Cannon believed, than for an entire nation to dwindle in unbelief.