Joseph Lafayette Rawlins was born 28 March 1850 near Millcreek in Salt Lake City. He was the son of Joseph Sharp Rawlins and Mary Frost Rawlins, who were among those following Brigham Young on the trek to Utah in 1849. Rawlins was one of the early students to attend the University of Deseret and was an excellent student. He also attended Indiana University, where he was a charter member of Beta Theta Pi and president of the debating society. It was while studying law that Rawlins first had thoughts about drawing Utah into the national mainstream. He knew that polygamy would need to be eliminated and political parties drawn along national party lines rather than the religious lines of the anti-Mormon Liberal party and the pro-Mormon Peoples party. He organized the Democratic Club of Utah in 1884, but its existence was short-lived.
The issuance of the Manifesto in 1890 discouraging future polygamy greatly affected Utah's party system. Leaders in the two opposing political camps realized that local parties stood in the way of the territory's progress toward statehood. In 1891 both the Democratic and Republican parties were organized in Utah; Rawlins was an active Democrat.
In 1892 Rawlins was elected as Utah's Delegate to Congress. He took his seat on 4 March 1893 and became actively involved almost immediately. His first speech dealt with the silver question--an important issue of the day and of special interest to Utah, a silver-producing territory. He introduced a number of bills: one granted the University of Utah sixty acres of the Fort Douglas military reservation; another provided for the return to the Mormon Church of its property seized under the Edmunds-Tucker Act.
The most important piece of legislation that Rawlins introduced was the Enabling Act ,which provided for Utah's admission into the Union. It was introduced on 6 September 1893 and, with able and hard work on Rawlins's part, the bill passed the House on 13 December with only two negative votes. On 10 July the bill was passed by the Senate, and on 16 July 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed the Enabling Act, providing for Utah's admission. This did not make Utah a state, but it set in motion the process by which it became one. Rawlins was hailed for his efforts though even this achievement was not enough to get him reelected in 1894--a Republican year.
In a bitterly fought election, Rawlins became Utah's first Democratic senator and first senator to serve a full six-year term. He took his seat in the Senate on 4 March 1897 and was active in introducing legislation for Utah as well as the nation. He introduced the first joint resolution declaring war on Spain. After the war, he argued against retention of the Philippines. He also made an important speech on the Nicaragua Canal bill.
Rawlins ran for reelection in 1903 but lost to Reed Smoot; Republicans swept the state as they did the nation. For the remaining twenty-three years of his life, he maintained his interest in politics, his legal practice, and involvement in civic affairs and affairs at the University of Utah. He served as president of the alumni association and was awarded the first honorary Doctor of Law degree ever conferred by the university. He died on 24 May 1926, leaving a wife, Julia Davis Rawlins, and five children--Leda, Alta, Athol, Lara, and Boyce. He was eulogized in the Deseret News, and a Tribune editor called him the "father of Utah." That is perhaps giving him too much credit; but to call him the father of Utah statehood is not, for he did as much as any man to bring Utah into the Union.
Joan Ray Harrow