A few days ago, I had the rare experience of actually having enough time to sit in my study and read. I pulled my copy of John Adams’s legal papers (I only have volume I, if you have volumes II or III and are interested in selling, contact me), and read through a couple of his cases. Adams, of course, was a lawyer, and in his time he was one of the busiest and most successful lawyers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He kept notes on most of the cases that he argued, and these generally consist of a short hand account of the trial and occasionally research notes for his arguments. The legal papers consist of transcripts of these notes, with each case being proceeded by a few paragraphs explaining the basic issue in the controversy as well as a little background on the time and place of the trial.
The Adams legal papers have the advantage of being an easily identifiable corpus. You open the book and you read Adams’s notes. A part of the project to publish Joseph Smith’s papers consists of several projeced volumes of Joseph Smith’s legal papers. An article in the most recent issue of BYU Studies, which was generated by work on this project, suggests to me that that Joseph’s legal papers are, in some ways, going to be much more difficult than Adams’s papers. The article is a treatment of an action in Ohio that Joseph Smith instituted against an early anti-Mormon named Hurlburt, who had threatened to kill Joseph. It is a good article. It is based on documents produced during the course of the trial, contemporary newspaper articles, local histories, diary entries, and minutes of church proceedings. It obviously represents a lot of painstaking and comprehensive research, and that, it seems to me, is the problem.
Joseph was not a lawyer, and he does not seem to have kept detailed notes about his various legal proceedings. So what exactly constitute “The Legal Papers of Joseph Smith”? With Adams it was easy to identify the scope of these “papers,” but not so with Joseph. It seems to me, that there are two poles in answering this question. The minimalist pole would say that Joseph Smith’s legal papers consist only of actual legal documents related in some way to Joseph Smith. Hence, one could include court documents — pleadings, records of verdicts, affidavits, etc. — and non-court legal documents such as contracts, real estate deeds, negotiable instruments (notes), wills, etc. At the other extreme one could define legal papers as including any document that would shed light on Joseph Smith’s legal affairs. Hence, we would include letters, diaries, minutes, newspaper articles, and the like referencing Joseph’s legal troubles.
It seems to me that there is a second issue in compiling Joseph Smith’s legal papers and that is the question of annotations. If you look at the volumes of Joseph Smith papers produced thus far by Dean Jesse, what you notice is that that they contain fairly detailed annotations, including a biographical sketch of every person referenced in the papers, extensive footnotes on chronology, etc., and introductory material suggesting interpretations of various documents. Are the Joseph Smith legal papers to be accompanied by similarly lavish annotations?
The answers to these questions are important, because depending on what answers one gives the final publication of Joseph’s legal papers could be put off by years and even decades. Which brings up the even more fundamental question of why it is that these papers are being published. Thinking through this issue, however, suggests — to my mind — that less is more.
Mormon legal history is just beginning to get done. Thus far, virtually all of the serious academic attention has been focused on the Utah period and the anti-polygamy battles and their aftermath. With a few exceptions, very, very little has been done on Mormon legal history during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. Given this scholarly reality, I think that it is absolutely vital to think about the Joseph Smith legal papers as the very beginning of the research and not as some sort a grand summation of an intellectual project that by and large has not yet occurred. What this means, in my view, is that the papers should NOT try to offer a comprehensive view of Joseph’s legal experience. They should NOT try to offer ambitious interpretations of that experience. They should NOT attempt to nail down all of the details of that experience. Rather, they should be viewed as a catalyst for a new conversation, a resource of important documents but NOT a repository for ALL of the relevant documents. Because the conversation on Mormon legal history is still in its first faltering stages, it is more important to get a core set of documents published as soon as possible to encourage that conversation, rather than labor for decades to produce a massive set of volumes that aim at definitively documenting and interpreting it.
Hence, it seems to me that Mormon history is best served by a narrow definition of “Joseph Smith’s Legal Papers” and a commitment to light annotations that will allow the volumes to be produced relatively quickly. Once the core set of purely legal documents are published, scholars can go to work on tracking down the letters, diaries, minutes, and newspaper articles that can fill in the details and begin writing the articles and books that will offer interpretations of the bare bones published in the legal papers volumes. This work, however, need not be done in the volumes of the legal papers themselves. It is best left for journal articles and books. Furthermore, a minimalist approach to editing the legal papers will free up those interested in such things from the task of compiling the papers and will let them get down to the as yet largely undone work of writing Mormon legal history.