There are some very sharp essays in the first section of six essays in Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries (OUP, 2009). I particularly liked Richard H. Brodhead's "Prophets in America circa 1830: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nat Turner, Joseph Smith," which provides surprising biographical comparisons you won't find in any religious history survey. But I'll talk a bit about James B. Allen's "Joseph Smith vs. John C. Calhoun: The States' Rights Dilemma and Early Mormon History."
It's not easy for present-day readers to get a handle on the political or religious culture of the first half of the 19th century. The Civil War casts a long shadow that obscures much of what came before. In particular, it is difficult for those who grew up in the 20th century and live in the wake of the New Deal and the Great Society to recognize how limited were the powers of the national government during the early years of the LDS Church during the 1830s and 1840s. The states had greater autonomy back then. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce the court-mandated integration of public schools. But, short of invasion by a foreign enemy or outright rebellion, no president of the early Mormon era had authority to send federal troops into states — even if a president had had a desire to intervene on behalf of Mormons who had been ejected, injured, or dispossessed in Missouri and then again in Illinois.
Allen's chapter makes this quite clear, as he recounts the several efforts of Joseph and his advisors to present petitions for redress to federal officials, including President Van Buren and the influential Senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun. Van Buren declined to provide any assistance to the Mormons, pleading lack of authority to act but also citing more pragmatic political considerations. Politicians facing future elections are generally averse to alienating the electorate of an entire state. (Van Buren did carry Missouri in 1840, but lost the election decisively to the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison.)
The most interesting section of the essay detailed the interactions between Calhoun and Joseph Smith. Calhoun, once Andrew Jackson's VP, became the leading advocate of states' rights. He of course opposed any federal intervention in a state's internal affairs, consistent with his goal of preventing the federal government from altering or abolishing slavery in the Southern states. Later, Calhoun was one of three potential 1844 presidential candidates to respond to Joseph's letter requesting a statement of their intentions vis-a-vis the Mormons. Allen summarizes Calhoun's reply:
Calhoun responded that he would try to administer the government according to the Constitution and laws of the country and would make no distinction between citizens of different religious creeds. He added, however, "candor compels me to repeat what I said to you in Washington, that, according to my views, the case does not come within the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, which is one of limited and specific powers."
Joseph and William W. Phelps authored a long reply to Calhoun, citing passages in the U.S. Constitution that, they felt, authorized the federal government to intervene when a state abridged the rights of its citizens. Shortly thereafter, Joseph put such views into print as part of his own presidential bid in 1844. But Joseph was ahead of his time in making such an argument: only after the Civil War did the 14th Amendment lay the groundwork for such an expansion of federal power.
This essay brings a slice of Mormon history into close contact with the surrounding political events. That approach, to my mind, is one of the better advances in the recounting of LDS history to emerge from the "New Mormon History." As I've said before, it's always nice when LDS history is written by trained historians.