Utah Commission

Agency History #1249


The Utah Commission, formally known as the Board of Registration and Election in the Territory of Utah, was established by the United States Congress through enactment of the federal Edmunds Act on 22 March 1882. After twenty years of unsuccessful effort to stamp out the practice of polygamy among the Mormon people in Utah Territory, the Edmunds Law made the offense of unlawful cohabitation much easier to prove than misdemeanor polygamy and made it illegal for polygamists or cohabitants to vote. Given sweeping oversight authority, the five-member Utah Commission was charged to develop, administer, and enforce the election provisions of the law. Although Senator George F. Edmunds (R-Vermont), author of the Edmunds Act, envisioned that the commission would last only one year it endured for fourteen years. It was dissolved only when Utah became a state in 1896.


The Edmunds Act vacated all elective offices in Utah and prevented polygamists from registering to vote, voting, or holding office. Charged with the management of all aspects of territorial elections in Utah, the commission's responsibilities originally were broadly defined in the Edmunds Act as "each and every duty relating to the registration of voters, the conduct of elections, the receiving or rejection of votes, and the canvassing and returning of the same, and the issuing of certificates or other evidence of election."

Initial confidence by members that the commission could achieve its objectives "without resorting to measures destructive of local self-government, punishing the whole people . . . with political ostracism" gradually disappeared. By 1887 the commission proposed direct federal control of Utah by appointing a legislative commission in addition to the governor. It also supported implementation of a compulsory test oath patterned after the 1885 Idaho Test Oath law, which practically disfranchised all Mormons in Idaho.

The powers of the commission were expanded through passage of the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Law, which introduced a test oath administered by the commission. The Edmunds-Tucker Act further limited the Mormon voting population by rescinding woman suffrage which had been in effect since 1870 and abolishing the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company which had brought thousands of European converts into the territory. It also disincorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and escheated most of its property to the United States. In later years the commission also appropriated funds for the employment of U.S. marshals and irregular bands of "spotters" who assisted the marshals in discovering "cohabs."

The 1895 Enabling Act authorized and required the commission to undertake "a new and complete registration of voters" to elect delegates to a constitutional convention. Qualified voters would also be entitled to vote "directly for or against the proposed Constitution" as well as officers for a full state government.

The commission submitted regular annual reports to the Secretary of the Interior from 1882-1896 as well as interim reports in 1882 and 1884. The Secretary of the Interior subsequently transmitted the reports to Congress. Reports reviewed the commission's work and accomplishments for the previous year and made recommendations for additional measures commissioners believed should be enacted for the solution of the Utah problem. In its first report the commission informed the Secretary that members had "reason to believe that it is expected by the Executive that this commission will make suggestions as to any additional legislation that may be needed to carry out the principles of the law under which the commission was organized." Recommendations of the commission with respect to the courts were widely adopted.


Members of the five-man, bipartisan Utah Commission were appointed by the president of the United States. Although the administrative organization of the commission remained unchanged throughout its existence, its composition corresponded with changes in the presidency. The chairman of the commission was elected by the members but always was a member of the party controlling the White House. Retiring chairmen were required to relinquish both the chairmanship and membership on the commission. Commission decisions were made on the basis of majority vote. The Secretary of the Territory served as ex-officio secretary of the commission and kept a journal of its proceedings and attested to board actions.

The commission was characterized by a distinct "carpetbags" nature as non-Utahns were appointed exclusively until 1894. Seeking "home rule," the territorial legislature petitioned Congress to discontinue the practice of appointing governors and judges in Washington as well as abolishing the commission. An 1893 federal law left the governmental structure and commission in place but specified that commission members must be residents of Utah. The national Republican and Democrat parties controlled the commission for approximately seven years each. A total of sixteen different individuals, eight Republicans and eight Democrats, served on the board. The longest tenure was that of George L. Godfrey (R) who served twelve years. The shortest career was experienced by Henry C. Lett (D), the first Utahn appointed to the commission, who died after one year in office.

Congress originally contemplated that the costs of the commission would be paid by the territorial legislature, however it decided to appropriate federal funds to operate the commission. The overall cost was $748,000. In order to attract men of experience and reputation, Congress increased the initially prescribed salary of $3,000 per year to $5,000 per year (equal to the salary of Congressmen), plus traveling expenses. Following the promulgation of the Manifesto (an official announcement by the president of the Mormon Church in 1890 that it had abandoned the practice of polygamy), there was in 1892 a sufficient number of Congressmen who thought the commission should be abolished. The House of Representatives adopted a measure to cut off the salaries of the commissioners and transfer their functions to a three-member board composed of the Governor, the Secretary, and the Chief Justice of the Territory. Although the commission survived the salaries of commissioners were reduced to $2,000 per year. The commission's administrative routine was well established by 1884. Commissioners spent an average of 182 days (six months) per year in travel and work. A typical business day lasted no longer than five hours, seven when the schedule was heavy.


Because of the seasonal nature of the commission's work, a simple organizational structure sufficed. The commission operated by appointing and supervising all personnel. A small staff, a secretary and usually one or two clerks, was employed at commission headquarters. Election personnel in the field consisted of registrars and judges who were subject to reappointment from year to year, thus requiring little effort on the part of the commission. When new deputy registrars and election judges were to be selected, the process was made relatively simple for the commission as names were submitted by county registrars. Inasmuch as the election staff was in the "employ" of the commission such short periods of time each year, there was no clearly defined organization. No regional offices were established. Registrars and judges communicated directly with the commission and vice versa. Appointments of election personnel by the commission were predicated upon partisanship. Liberals who would not further the cause of People's Party or the Mormon Church received the majority of available slots.

Ambrose B. Carlton (D-Indiana) 1882-1890
George L. Godfrey (R-Iowa) 1882-1894
Jerrold R. Letcher (D-Salt Lake City, Utah) 1894-1896
Henry C. Lett (D-Utah) 1893-1894
John A. McClernand (D-Illinois) 1886-1894
A. G. Norrell (D-Salt Lake City, Utah) 1894-1896
Algernon Sidney Paddock (R-Nebraska) 1882-1886
James R. Pettigrew (D-Arkansas) 1882-1886
Alexander Ramsey (R-Minnesota) 1882-1886
R. S. Robertson (R-Indiana) 1889-1894
Alvin W. Saunders (R-Nebraska) 1889-1893
Hoyt Sherman, Jr. (R-Salt Lake City, Utah) 1894-1896
Erasmus W. Tatlock (R-Salt Lake City, Utah) 1894-1896
George W. Thatcher (D-Logan, Utah) 1894-1896
Arthur Lloyd Thomas (R-Pennsylvania) 1886-1889
Abner B. Williams (D-Arkansas) 1886-1894

Alexander Ramsey (R-Minnesota) 1882-1885
Ambrose B. Carlton (D-Indiana) 1885-1889
George L. Godfrey (R-Iowa) 1889-1893
Abner B. Williams (D-Arkansas) 1893-1894
Jerrold R. Letcher (D-Salt Lake City, Utah) 1894-1896

Arthur Lloyd Thomas, 1882-1885
William C. Hall, 1885-1889
Elijah Sells, 1889-1893
C. C. Richards, 1893-1894, 1894-1896

COMPILED BY: W. Glen Fairclough, Jr. , November 2002


Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of Utah: 1540-1886. New York: Arno Press in cooperation with McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Grow, Stewart L. A Study of the Utah Commission, 1882-1896 (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 1954).

Poll, Richard D., ed. Utah's History. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978.

Roberts, B. H. Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century I. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930.

United States. Utah Commission. Minute books, 1882-1896. Series 1126.

United States. Utah Commission. Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1882-1896. Series 85194.

Whitney, Orson F. History of Utah. Salt Lake City : G. Q. Cannon & Sons Co., 1892-1904.

Page Last Updated June 2, 2009.