Joseph Smith and a small team including Sydney Rigdon (suffering from malaria at the time) departed Commerce for Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1839, intent on gaining audience with President Martin Van Buren to request protection and compensation for Mormon losses in Missouri. But, at a time when Federal power over the states was severely limited, Van Buren could offer little more than his sympathies for the plight of the Mormons. A discouraged and financially burdened Smith returned home in the spring of 1840, resolved to take whatever measures necessary to ensure the safety and stability of the Latter Day Saints. In the same year, brigadier general John C. Bennett moved to Hancock County and quickly became attracted to Mormonism. His influence with the Illinois state legislature made him a powerful ally for Smith who befriended the new convert. Smith renamed the Mormon city Nauvoo (a Hebrew term meaning “beautiful”) and, with Bennett, began drafting a city charter.
Although not unusual in its form, the Nauvoo Charter secured for the Latter Day Saints legal protections that would ultimately put Hancock County residents at odds with the Mormons. The charter granted the city rights to build its own court and school systems as well as sanctioned a private militia, called the Nauvoo Legion, with Smith as its lieutenant general. Bennett was elected as quartermaster general of the Legion and, a year later, given assignment in the First Presidency of the church, made chancellor of the University of Nauvoo, elected as the town’s Mayor and, finally, appointed as Grand Secretary of Nauvoo’s newly chartered Masonic Lodge—all positions Bennett held for less than one year prior to being excommunicated for adultery; after which, he became a staunch enemy of Smith and the Mormons. After the expulsion of Bennett, Smith was elected as Nauvoo’s Mayor. However, Smith’s political and military control over such an immense population began to greatly concern local non-Mormon residents in Hancock County, particularly as Mormons tended to influence local politics.