A Forgotten Hero: Book Review

Reviewed by Will Bagley


Robert Newton Baskin and the Making of Modern Utah
By John Gary Maxwell
Arthur H. Clark Company, 2013
408 pages, $45


LIFE, MOTHER SAID, is not fair. Indeed, no one person should be as intelligent, talented, eloquent, diligent, tall, and handsome as poet-historians such as Wallace Stegner or Dr. John Gary Maxwell. The latter, an emeritus professor of surgery in both Utah and North Carolina, began practicing history during his retirement. His deep research, nuanced understanding of a peculiar time and culture, and engaging prose indicate that he has mastered the craft of history. (Disclosure: I am Dr. Maxwell’s friend and acolyte.)

Robert Newton Baskin and the Making of Modern Utah is Maxwell’s second biography of a forgotten hero of the “Americanization” of the Beehive State. It continues his study of the state’s turbulent nineteenth-century history brilliantly begun with Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake: George R. Maxwell, Civil War Hero and Federal Marshal among the Mormons.

Between R. N. Baskin’s 1865 arrival in Utah and its eventual admission as a state in 1896, apostle-counterfactual historian Orson Whitney accused Baskin of being the “human mainspring of nearly every anti-Mormon movement that Utah has known.” But, as Maxwell reveals, Baskin was actually a friend to the Latter-day Saints, who eventually elected him the state’s Chief Justice. A peacemaker, Baskin convinced Utahns (if not their aristocracy) that he was no Mormon-hater, but a friend who had “openly, and above board honestly and untiringly strove to Americanize theocratic Utah; because I knew that that was indispensably necessary to stop the lamentable conflict and establish peace in the distracted Territory.”

No historian has provided a more balanced or sympathetic analysis of the long struggle between God’s law and man’s law in Utah Territory than Maxwell. He handles the contradictions in Baskin’s life—he was a Harvard-educated attorney who killed an Ohio neighbor, and common-law husband who wrote the laws that made cohabitation illegal—with refreshing forthrightness. Especially delightful is his catalogue of sixty euphemisms for murder, ranging from “pickled down in Salt Lake” to “send him duck hunting.” Maxwell’s lively prose shows a wit and love of wordplay that rarely crop up in local histories.

The depth of Maxwell’s research is revelatory, showing how Utah’s one-party rule, celestial marriages, religious violence, public lands and education, and “states’ rights” debates played out in the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News during the second half of the nineteenth century. Much of this book challenges long-held views on Utah’s history (views made popular by Whitney’s whitewashed History of Utah, which Baskin challenged).

My sole complaint is that, perhaps out of deference to the sensibilities of delicate readers and faithful critics, the book doesn’t include one of the best Baskinisms: the judge’s observation (which appeared in both of Baskin’s books) that he battled theocracy to give Utah citizens “an equal chance by personal worth or dint of honest effort to attain the highest social, political and business advancement” without having to “kiss the great toe of some pretended prophet.”

I, for one, am glad he won the battle.