Senators Worth Remembering
The Third in a Series…
If Reed Smoot, the Utah Republican who represented the Beehive State in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, is remembered much today it is for his role in passing what is now widely regarded as the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
The tariff legislation, passed in 1930, put in place historically high import duties in the interest of protecting American farmers. Many historians now say that Smoot-Hawley contributed to prolonging the Great Depression.
Smoot was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in 1930 and generally supported protectionist measures. He never really admitted that the tariff that has carried his name into history might have been a contributor to prolonging the world-wide economic collapse.
Beyond tariff legislation, Smoot is a senator worth remembering for at least two other significant reasons. He sponsored the legislation in the Senate that created the National Park Service and he championed legislation to create two of the great National Parks – Zion and Bryce. He also suffered through one of the most protracted and nasty episodes in Senate history when his first election to the Senate was contested on the basis of his religion.
Smoot came to the Senate in 1903, elected by the Utah Legislature, not long after being named to one of the most senior positions in the leadership of the LDS Church. Smoot was an apostle of the Mormon Church and, as a result, some of his fellow Senators – Idaho’s Fred DuBois one of the most prominent – held him responsible for the fact that polygamy was still practiced by many of the faithful, including some church leaders. Even though the church had formally repudiated plural marriage in 1890, the practice was still widespread in the early years of the 20th Century and, while clearly not a practitioner himself, Smoot was, in some eyes, guilty by association with his church.
Unbelievably, the celebrated Smoot hearings went on for four years with the investigating committee eventually voting in favor of expelling the Utah Senator. Cooler heads prevailed when Smoot’s fate was finally considered by the full Senate and his opponents failed to muster the necessary two-thirds vote to expel him.
In her excellent 2004 book, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, historian Kathleen Flake examines the issues that Smoot confronted during his long Senate ordeal and concludes, persuasively I think, that “a broad coalition of American Protestant churches,” acting through their leaders, sought to expel Smoot from the Senate for his religious views. The professed concerns about polygamy provided a convenient pretext. Flake also argues that the ordeal actually served to strengthen the LDS Church in the United States and in Europe.
One of Smoot’s defenders was Sen. Boies Penrose, a Republican of Pennsylvania, who made fun of several of his Senate colleagues that he suspected of being less than straight arrows in observing their own marriage vows.
Penrose, in defending Smoot, said, “As for me, I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monag.”
Smoot lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elbert Thomas in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He returned to Salt Lake City where he continued as a top leader of the LDS Church. He was third in line for the presidency of the church when he died in 1941. Utah historian Milton R. Merrill has written the definitive biography of the church leader and politician, appropriately entitled Reed Smoot – Apostle in Politics.
Reed Smoot of Utah was another United States Senator worth remembering.