Scholarly Inquiry: Brent Rogers and Unpopular Sovereignty

By July 25, 2017

Brent M. Rogers is the author of Unpopular Sovereignty: The Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017). He holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is currently an associate managing historian for The Joseph Smith Papers and he has co-edited four volumes in the series. Brent agreed to participate in our semi-regular series, Scholarly Inquiry, by answering the following questions.


What led you to write Unpopular Sovereignty:  Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory?

This was a fun question to think about. The seed was planted as I read a couple of influential books in undergraduate courses and early in my graduate career that had me thinking about Mormons and Utah in the antebellum era (Sarah Gordon?s The Mormon Question and Will Bagley?s Blood of the Prophets). But, the book project, if I were to pinpoint its true beginning, emerged out of a research seminar I took on war and expansion in nineteenth-century America. Because there seemed to be a lack of western facing history in the course, I decided to examine the role of the western territories in antebellum political discourse. As I dug into the newspaper and congressional sources, substantive discussion about Utah emerged more prominent than I originally anticipated, so I keyed in on that discussion. Secondary sources hadn?t considered the territory west of Kansas as important, but the primary sources said otherwise. After I wrote and presented that research paper, and after subsequent conversations I convinced my dissertation committee that it was worthwhile to pursue a dissertation that placed Utah squarely in the narrative of antebellum political discourse within the context of sovereignty, territory, and power. In the few years following the completion of that dissertation I revised and enhanced that work to produce Unpopular Sovereignty.

In two sentences, what is the argument of the book?

At its highest level, using Utah Territory as the case study, the book argues that competing sovereignties within the American territorial system revealed fundamental flaws in the doctrine of popular sovereignty. This in turn stimulated fears about power dynamics in the United States at a time that such discourse drove a wedge deeper into an already dividing nation. The reverberations from the imperfect nature of federal-territorial governance and the fitness of Mormon self-government in Utah Territory influenced national thinking on sovereignty and concurrently initiated changes on the ground in the Great Basin. Beyond that, I argue (as subtext) that territorial history is sexy.

Why do we need to read Unpopular Sovereignty?

Unpopular Sovereignty will teach you something new about the nature of sovereignty and competing sovereignties in antebellum America. Readers will also learn something about the interplay of federal-territorial (national-local) power dynamics that reveal the difficulties in balancing power in a republican nation. On a different level, this book contains new research and insights on Mormon-Indian relations and federal Indian affairs, Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln?s debates on popular sovereignty, and the dynamics of masculinities in Utah Territory, the West, and nation.

When and why did you decide to become a historian of Mormonism in the West?

A single moment doesn?t come to mind. I trained as a 19th century U.S. and western historian and as a public historian. But, as one of my favorite professors once told me, the skills of the historian transcend categorization. And I believe that. I am a historian and decided to become a historian while I was an undergrad at San Diego State University. I have, however, focused most of my research and writing on Mormon history. I like to think about the ways in which the Mormon past fits into broader trends and themes of the history of the United States and the West. And that interest really started in the graduate seminar on war and expansion that I mentioned earlier. I definitely solidified categorization of myself as a Mormon historian when I took a job working for the Joseph Smith Papers six years ago. So, I am firmly entrenched in my historical interest and will continue to study Mormon history and Mormons in the West, but I also plan to research and write on other topics that interest me for years to come.

What is your next monograph?

My most immediate book project examines the historical intersections of William F. ?Buffalo Bill? Cody and the Latter-day Saints from the 1850s through 1917 (the year of Cody?s death). Between Buffalo Bill and the Mormons there seems to be a reciprocal impact. By that I mean Cody?s image-making and personas influenced cultural development in Mormonism while Mormon environmental and physical developments in the Great Basin influenced the ways in which Cody and others in the arid West thought about and then physically developed and altered the region over this period. Writing about these interactions and junctions, I think will prove instructive for better understanding the political and cultural perceptions of Mormons and the American West, as well as interpreting physical, environmental, and economic developments of the Intermountain West within the contexts of reconstruction, nationalization, urbanization, and industrialization. In another longer-term project, I plan to re-examine the territorial West and the process and growth of nineteenth-century federal power in the West. Remember, territorial history is sexy and it is time to bring it back!!


These questions were adapted from Professor John Fea’s Author’s Corner series.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Scholarly Inquiry


  1. Thanks for participating Brent. I think Unpopular Sovereignty is an important corrective to recent scholarship on the 1850s and is probably the best book on the subject since Furniss’s The Mormon Conflict (1960). I really like how you’ve integrated Utah into broader debates over federal expansion and local autonomy. The Buffalo Bill book sounds great–do you have a target date for completion?

    Comment by David G. — July 29, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

  2. Thank you, Brent! I’m always fascinated by the paths people take that lead them to their research interests–so often, you take one class or read one book and you discover your passion. Your next book sounds amazing and I look forward to reading it.

    Comment by Saskia — July 29, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

  3. This is excellent stuff, Brent. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

    I echo David’s question and add another: do you have a target press?

    Comment by J Stuart — July 30, 2017 @ 10:59 am

  4. Thanks, Brent. We have a number of converging interests and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Do you think that your corrective to the literature abolishes donut theories of the American West? Does it pull the whole donut into whatever the east is supposed to be in that analogy?

    Comment by JJohnson — July 31, 2017 @ 12:31 am

  5. Thank you all, for the kind words and thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Q&A. This was a fun exercise! On the Buffalo Bill book, the research is still fairly young, but I am aiming to finish the research and writing in the next three years. As for a press, I’m not sure. I want to start shopping it around this fall and see the interest level of a few university presses and maybe even explore the process of a trade press. Stay tuned!

    Comment by Brent — July 31, 2017 @ 8:55 am

  6. I read Potter’s Impending Crisis some time ago and it struck me that he seemed to maneuver around the western territories for some reason and that there were important and relevant things happening in with Utah, etc., particularly with political strategies around polygamy and slavery (besides the later Republican banner). Looking forward to getting into the book, Brent!

    Comment by wvs — July 31, 2017 @ 4:12 pm


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