Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Miles Harvey on the Life of James Jesse Strang


by Frank Boles

Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence, a recently published biography of James Jesse Strang, spoke online on the evening of November 5.

James Jesse Strang was a nineteenth-century figure who, as a teenager, would write in his diary he wished to become “a Priest, a Lawyer, a Conqueror, and a Legislator.” His early life did little to suggest he would succeed in any of his ambitions. Charismatic and incredibly persuasive, he nevertheless failed as a lawyer, a newspaper owner, and as a real estate speculator. 

In 1844, however, his life changed when he traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, talked into a trip by a friend who said he should hear the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, preach. Strang, in his own words, arrived “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” He left a professed Mormon.

As Harvey documents, Strang’s career from that point forward became one of increased complexity, great success that in many ways matched his teenage dreams, and great failure. Between 1844 and 1856, he lived an extraordinary life – among other accomplishments he led a break-away Mormon colony on Beaver Island where he was proclaimed an earthly king, he became a member of the Michigan legislature where he was an ardent proponent of abolition, and he persuaded a jury to find him innocent when tried in federal court. On June 16, 1856, James was shot and mortally wounded.

What to make of such a career? Harvey places Strang in the context of two nineteenth-century traits: a fluid sense of reality and the confidence man. America was rapidly changing in the 1830s and Americans were not always sure what to make of it. In this ambivalent situation, reality seemed to bend, and new ideas and ways of looking at the world were quickly, and often fervently, embraced. Individuals who could reshape reality, who had confidence in a vision of the future, could begin with seemingly nothing, yet swiftly rise to the highest levels of wealth and social standing.

Although this fluidity could lead to the best of results, it could also lead to disaster.

Con men radiate confidence and use any device they can to convince someone to see the world as they do and to persuade someone to give them what they want. Americans understood this, but nevertheless accepted the con man as embracing a positive aspect of American culture, a person who in the vocabulary of the day was “smart.”

Charles Dickens, who toured America, found himself both appalled and fascinated by Americans’ reaction to these individuals. Dickens would approach an American about a con man with the following words:

“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and not withstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?” “Yes, sir.”

 “A convicted liar?” “Yes, sir.”

“He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?”  “Yes Sir.”

“And he is utterly dishonourable, debased and profligate?” “Yes, sir.”

“In the name of wonder then, what is his merit? “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

Dickens claimed to have had a discussion like this a hundred times, and every time the American, admitting all of the confidence man’s sins, nevertheless admired his ability to shape reality and  succeed—to be a “smart man.” Harvey, in the end concluded that Strang lived in an era of fluid reality and that James Jesse Strang was one of those smart men who created a reality. To hear Harvey’s presentation, click here .