Not long ago I attended a conference sponsored by the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, during which Professor John W. Welch presented a lecture outlining a perspective on Joseph Smith's vision of the Constitution of the United States of America. In this lecture, Professor Welch provided explicit statements of Joseph Smith on the Constitution as well as possible interpretations concerning Joseph Smith's understanding of the Constitution. During the lecture, Professor Welch also asked the audience to keep in mind the declarations regarding government in section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
In 1836, during the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith prayed: "Have mercy, O Lord, upon all the nations of the earth; have mercy upon the rulers of our land; may those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever." (D&C 109:54) Professor Welch argued that "those principles" which are referred to are to be found in the Declaration of Independence and more particularly in the Preamble to the Constitution. From his detailed research, Professor Welch reached the conclusion that for Joseph Smith, the essence of the Constitution was to be found in the Preamble: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." In Professor Welch's own words: "For Joseph, the Preamble was not mere window-dressing or literary prologue. It was the sum and substance of the law of the land. While the various articles and provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were important instrumentalities, they merely articulated and implemented the purposes set forth in the Preamble." In fact, as Professor Welch pointed out, Joseph Smith quoted the Preamble in its entirety at the beginning of his 1844 presidential platform.
Joseph Smith gave the following reasons for submitting his candidacy for President of the United States: "I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens, even those rights which the Constitution guarantees unto all her citizens alike. But this as a people we have been denied from the beginning. Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion; and no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief. And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence; and if I lose my life in a good cause I am willing to be sacrificed on the altar of virtue, righteousness and truth, in maintaining the laws and Constitution of the United States, if need be, for the general good of mankind."
Not only was Joseph Smith willing, but he eventually did offer his own life as a sacrifice for truth. On another occasion, the Prophet Joseph Smith told his people that: "As I grow older, my heart grows tenderer for you. I am at all times willing to give up everything that is wrong, for I wish this people to have a virtuous leader. I have set your minds at liberty by letting you know the things of Christ Jesus. … I have nothing in my heart but good feelings."12
Of course, Joseph Smith's run for the presidency was cut short by his martyrdom on June 27, 1844. In fact, some of the people who fomented the violence that led to the assassination may have been concerned with Joseph Smith's views on government. But whatever the motives were that led to his martyrdom, Joseph Smith left behind a legacy of virtue and the love of liberty that could not be cancelled by his death nor erased by the passage of time.
The question that remains is how we, the inheritors of this legacy, will respond to the challenges of our time to defend and preserve the precious gift of liberty.