The Protectionist Who Nearly Wrecked America
The man behind the most famous protectionist tariff in U.S. history was a religious freedom icon and crusader against smut.
When Utah Senator Reed Smoot moved to Washington in 1903, he endured an even harsher welcome than Donald Trump’s.
This Mormon apostle—elevated in 1900—and first LDS senator had to battle anti-Mormon prejudice for four years until President Theodore Roosevelt bullied Republican senators into seating him formally. Smoot inspired what became a classic headline—“SMOOT SMITES SMUT”—with an anti-obscenity crusade that prompted the poet Ogden Nash to mock “Smoot of Ut.” This priggish protectionist co-sponsored 1930’s destructive, ultra-nationalist, anti-Free Trade, Smoot-Hawley Tariff. So, with apologies to Nash, because he wasn’t economically astute, “Smoot of Ut” made the Depression more acute.
Although Smoot’s name remains a punchline among geeks, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revere this pathbreaker whose success in secular America helped Mormons go mainstream. When this 41-year-old Republican banker and businessman reached the Senate, most Americans considered Mormons un-Christian and un-American polygamists. Typical was the sermon the Presbyterian minister Charles H. Parkhurst preached in 1904 in New York on “The Mormon Peril.” Opposing Smoot continued resisting “the reckless granting of statehood” to Utah in 1896, despite what Parkhurst called the Mormons’ “essential vileness.”
The LDS church banned polygamy in 1890 and Utah’s state constitution outlawed it. Still many Protestants—and early feminists—considered Mormons “moral lepers.” More than 3 million people signed petitions encouraging what became a two-year Senate investigation into whether Mormonism imposed “an obligation of hostility to the United States.” One newspaper, hoping Smoot would get the boot, demanded: “Scoot Smoot scoot.” The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections agreed in June 1906.
The haters targeted the wrong Smoot. Smoot’s father, a former Salt Lake City mayor, had six wives and 27 children. Theodore Roosevelt later reported (PDF)—too candidly—that the lean, severe, younger Smoot, “not only assured me he was not a polygamist,” but “assured me that he had never had any relations with any woman excepting his own wife.” TR endured “cussing up-hill and down-dale” for supporting Smoot and Mormons’ religious freedom. The Republican-dominated Senate finally seated Senator Smoot on Feb. 20, 1907.
This ordeal scarred Smoot and his wife Alpha. Serving as senator until 1933, including chairing the finance committee for 10 years, he never stopped trying to prove himself. He was extra diligent, pure, pious, patriotic—and smug.
In November 1917, when the Senate voted to enter the Great War, Smoot became the first senator ever to pray formally on record in the Senate chamber. “God bless and approve the action to be taken by the Senate this day,” he pleaded. He reported that his fellow senators and the gallery onlookers were profoundly moved.
In 1929, as the economy tanked, Smoot spearheaded the fight that would blacken his legacy—and cost him his Senate seat. Smoot pushed a puritanical, patriotic, protectionist tariff—with Sec. 305 banning the importation of obscene material. Smoot spent Christmas vacation reading “obscene” novels imported by foreigners, returning with a stack of “smutty” quotations. “In the classic manner of purity champions,” the historian Paul Boyer gibes, “he could not resist sharing the filth.” When Smoot proposed presenting his findings to a closed Senate session, reporters anticipated a “Senatorial stag party.”
Smoot’s crusade annoyed the word-juggling versifier, Ogden Nash. Nash’s poem “Invocation” appeared in The New Yorker in January 1930. It began:
“Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)Is planning a ban on smut.Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.And his reverend occiput.Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,Grit your molars and do your dut.,Gird up your l__ns,Smite h_p and th_gh,We’ll all be KansasBy and by.”
Such contempt reinforced Smoot’s determination to “throw the arms of protection around the army of boys and girls.”
Smoot and his co-sponsor Congressman Willis C. Hawley, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, wanted to “throw their arms of protection” around American industry too. If the government made foreign goods more costly, they reasoned, Americans would buy American, boosting the economy. In words that sound familiar, Smoot said tariff opponents were spreading “propaganda from un-American and international sources.” He insisted: “No foreign country has the right to interfere.” Stirring America’s isolationist paranoia, he refused to “surrender our national prestige and power on the altar of internationalism.” Smoot did not “want to see any American industry swamped by foreign competition,” nor did he “wish to build a wall around this country so high as to practically shut off importation of foreign products… or unduly restrict the exportation of American products.”
The economic misery sharpened the tariff battle. One thousand and twenty eight economists signed a letter denouncing the bill. The banker Thomas Lamont, recalled “I almost went on my hands and knees to beg Herbert Hoover to veto the asinine Hawley-Smoot Tariff. That act intensified nationalism all over the world.” General Motors’ Economic Director Graeme K. Howard telegrammed from Europe: “PASSAGE BILL WOULD SPELL ECONOMIC ISOLATION UNITED STATES AND MOST SEVERE DEPRESSION EVER EXPERIENCED.”
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930, raising taxes on 20,000 imported goods. Its obscenity provision defined “the moral sense of the average person” as the standard for determining exclusion, although there were exceptions for classics.
Thirty-three countries protested formally. France, Australia, India, even Canada, retaliated. European governments now struggled to get the gold they needed to pay off their World War I debts to America. In two years “U.S. imports dropped more than 40 percent,” the historian Amity Shlaes reports; unemployment jumped 16 percent. Beyond the specific damages, the bill rattled markets and confidence globally, suggesting, the MIT economist Charles Kindleberger noted, that “no one was in charge.” While some economists question whether the higher tariffs were that damaging, the economic and historic consensus is that the act proved that if you raise tariffs too high, retaliatory trade wars will choke American exports.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal tidal wave of 1932 swept away Protectionist Republicans, sending Smoot back to Utah. Smoot died in 1941. By then, World War II had jumpstarted America’s recovery from this Great Depression exacerbated by the mainstreaming Mormon whose cultural Yahooism, narrow nationalism, and economic illiteracy upstaged his fight for religious freedom.
During the Clinton-era NAFTA debate, Vice President Al Gore sought to embarrass Free Trade opponents. While debating the issue on the Larry King Show, Gore gave the protectionist billionaire Ross Perot a present: a photograph of Hawley and Smoot—profiles in impotence.
Back in 1930, Nash ended his poem: “Smite, Smoot, Be rugged and rough, Smut if smitten, Is front-page stuff.” These days, arcane questions about tariffs and free trade, reduced to simplistic slogans and misleading symbols, are “front-page stuff” again—let’s hope they prove less damaging.
Paul S. Boyer, Purity in Print: Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age (2002). Examines the fight over the obscenity clause S. 305 in the Tariff in context.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999, 2001). A great, thorough, historical overview.
Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2007, 2008). A thought-provoking somewhat unconventional, free market take on the Great Depression.