(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) Solomon Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found,” an unpublished novel by the 18th and 19th century minister, is a topic of interest to anti-Mormons. In 1834, Eber Howe, author of “Mormonism Unvailed,” claimed that “The Book of Mormon” plagiarizes Spaulding’s novel. What’s left of the Spaulding manuscript was found in the late 19th century, and cannot support any claim that Spaulding wrote the Mormon scripture. Some still stick to the theory that a lost version of Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found” contains a “Book of Mormon” template.
In the Fall 2012 “Journal of Mormon History,” Adam Jortner, assistant professor of history at Auburn University, posits an alternative reason to value the Spaulding manuscript. (“Solomon Spaulding’s Indians, Or, What the ‘Manuscript Found’ Really Tells Us”) Rather than putting primary emphasis on its relationship to the Mormon scripture, it should be examined as part of a utopian, Jeffersonian vision of assimilating American Indians through moving them from hunting to farming.
Some background on Spaulding. (All information is attributed to Jortner’s article): He was born in 1761, graduated from Dartmouth, and became a minister. He was not a financial success. Late in his life, living in Ohio, Spaulding wrote “Manuscript Found,” which he hoped would make him wealthy. It did not; only one publishing house even had a copy, and that was likely ignored. However, his novel was popular among his neighbors in Ohio. Before dying in 1816, Spaulding often recited, and had friends recite, from his novel. He also apparently produced many drafts of the story, which is why some speculate the one surviving copy is not the finished product.
The novel’s plot involves Romans who are settling to the new world (America). Led by Fabius, the pre-Columbus group lands in America and encounters “the Deliwares” tribe of natives. The Deliwares are described as savages who engage in strange ceremonial dances. Nevertheless, there is little hostility between the settlers and the natives, and Fabius’ group buys land from the Deliwares.
It isn’t long before sex enters Spaulding’s tale. One settler suggests marriage with the Deliware women. The tale becomes infused with racial bigotry. As Jortner recounts, “Fabius and his commander allow this ‘experiment’ to go forward, thus establishing interracial sex as a kind of second-class intimacy, although with considerable reservations and the explicit object of literally ‘whitening’ the resulting children.”
Later in the novel, Fabius travels west and encounters the “Ohons” tribe. The Ohons become more advanced than the Deliware. They have lighter skin, practice farming and animal husbandry instead of primarily hunting, and live, as Spaulding wrote, with an (architecture) “founded upon the true principles of Reason.” The Ohon also have a form of religion traditional to the early 19th century that Spaulding lived in. Much of Spaulding’s novel contrasts the customs, family and religious practices of the Ohon and the Deliware, to the detriment of the Deliwares. Ironically, the Ohon dynasty begins its slow deterioration after an Ohon prince improperly marries a princess from an inferior tribe. The upheavel leads to a more dogmatic theology, that takes reason away from the Ohon culture and beliefs.
What makes Spaulding’s manuscript an example of Jeffersonian idealism is that at the time it was written, there was a theory that American Indians could be assimilated into a western lifestyle through the purchasing of farmland and the subsequent transfer of Indians from hunting to farming.
As Jortner writes, “Much more striking than any parallels to LDS scripture or teachings, however, is the resemblance between the “Manuscript Found” and the idealism of Jeffersonian republicanism. The Jeffersonian dream of assimilation and the fear of prophetic response both appear in “Manuscript Found:” A white man shows up, teaches the Ohons deistic ideas and monogamy , and watches them become civilized — and whiter in color. Jeffersonian assimilation is also the plan of the Romans regarding the Deliware: intermarry, raise the children as Christians, and, in the ugly racist language of the time, ‘wipe clean’ both their savagery and their dark skins.”
Frankly, as racist as that seems today, such a policy with Indians was considered, 200 years ago, a progressive alternative to the prevailing, equally offensive, theory that Indians were incapable of change and needed to be conquered by force.
As Jorner writes, “Manuscript Found” … echoes the events in the Ohio country after Spaulding’s arrival in 1809.” These events included efforts to recruit Indian chiefs to follow the Jeffersonian ideal of moving to farmland and becoming “civilized,” which was defined by following the culture and customs of the white, Christian settlers. Not surprisingly, this effort met with strong resistance from many Indian chiefs. It’s probable that Spaulding, while writing his novel, was influenced by conflict between rival Indian leaders who resisted the Jeffersonian idealism, and other chiefs less resistant to the efforts.
As Jortner writes, “Given the context of the time of its creation, it is difficult not to see in “Manuscript Found” an ideological Jeffersonian commentary on the events of the day mixed in with the romance, adventure, and faux-travel narratives of a nineteenth-century novel.” Spaulding, it seems, was an advocate of a Jeffersonian solution for the American Indians.
“Manuscript Found” disproves most of the claims by Mormon opponents, such as Howe. There are no trips from Jerusalem. No “Nephis” or “Lehis” in Spaulding’s work; only the thin claim that lost versions include these “facts.” A far better historical context for Spaulding’s sprawling novel is offered by Jortner in the JMH. As he writes, “… the ‘Manuscript Found’ dreamed a different kind of dream — a frontier narrative that eulogized a utopian vision of Jeffersonian Indians happily engaged in the civilizing process.”
A racist fantasy? Of course, but a common one during Spaulding’s era. After 180 years of attempting to tie “Manuscript Found” to “The Book of Mormon,” it’s time to place Spaulding’s manuscript, which earned him fame instead of riches, into its proper context. (To read “Manuscript Found,” go here.)