Saturday, June 10, 2006

Historic parallel: The Haun's Mill Massacre

    "You become a human being at birth. Did you ever hear of a fetus getting a birth certificate.? I don't make these rules..the government pick on the government..not me."

Thus endeth a post at the old Pro Life Forum.

I think this fellow is sawing off the limb upon which he perches, declaring that the government, and the government alone, has the moral legitimacy to decree who is human and entitled to protection from slaughter. After all, prior to Roe, it wasn't legal to go about killing fetuses. By arguing that the government has the moral legitimacy to decree who is human, this fellow is conceding that prior to Roe, fetuses were indeed people and it was indeed wrong to kill them. But let's leave that aside and look at the underlying premise: that the government has the moral legitimacy to decide who is a person, entitled to the protection of the law, entitled to keep his or her life.

Prolifers tend to throw up the Nazi regime's declarations that Jews were not fully human, but that's so inflammatory and emotionally charged that few people can set aside the emotions and consider the political philosophy behind the debate. I'd like to look at something closer to home, a lesser-known situation, that perhaps can tolerate a more dispassionate examination: The Haun's Mill Massacre of 1838.

On October 27, 1838, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri issued an Extermination Order, declaring that "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace...." Most Missouri citizens backed the order (although some did question or denounce it). The Mormons were, in the simplest of terms, "unwanted."

On October 30, with the Extermination Order as justification, a band of the Missouri Militia launched an attack on a small Mormon settlement at Haun's Mill, killing 17 Mormons, including a 10-year-old boy who was shot in the head as he cowered under the bellows of the blacksmith shop, and a 78-year-old man who was shot after he had surrendered his musket.

For a more detailed account of the events, see the links in the sidebar on this page. For a rare and recently unearthed first-person account, see The Reminiscence of Willard Gilbert Smith.

Several years ago, I spoke with a Latter-Day Saints historian, who told me that survivors of the Massacre sued the state of Missouri over the deaths of their loved ones, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court, he said, backed the state on the grounds that the killings were perfectly legal.

Meanwhile, the Extermination Order remained on the books in Missouri until recinded by executive order of Governor Christopher S. Bond on June 25, 1976. So until 1976, it was perfectly legal to kill a Mormon in Missouri. Did that make it right?

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