An Introduction to Reed Smoot
by Michael H. Paulos
Elected in 1903 by the Utah legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate, Reed Smoot (1862-1941) was simultaneously a high-ranking politician and a Mormon apostle. At the time of his election, he was a resident of Provo, but he would not return home from Washington, except for visits, for the next thirty years (1903-1933). For many Americans, he was the face of Utah and Mormonism. Ogden Nash wrote a famous poem about Smoot, “Invocation,” that appeared in the January 1930 issue of The New Yorker, including this:
Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf;
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself.…
Be rugged and rough,
Smut if smitten
Is front-page stuff.
The New Yorker seized this opportunity to highlight the irony of a Mormon apostle with polygamist parentage presuming to be the guardian of traditional family values. For most of the nineteenth century, Mormons had not been paragons of Victorianism. Smoot represented a new kind of Mormon: a Republican when many Latter-day Saints had previously sympathized with Democrats (the Republicans having opposed polygamy and slavery as “twin relics of barbarism,” Smoot’s father, for instance, having been both a polygamist and a slave owner); a capitalist when Mormons had previously practiced cooperative economics; a proponent of monogamy rather than plural marriage; and patriotic, in contrast to the indifference and occasional hostility LDS people exhibited toward the Union.
Eventually Smoot’s unique juxtaposition as both Senator and apostle opened doors for him and the LDS Church domestically and internationally—that is, after he was cleared by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections regarding his suitability to serve in the Senate. His political future hung in the balance for nearly four years in the wake of petitions, signed by millions of Americans, challenging his legitimacy. Smoot was allowed to serve while the investigation was ongoing, but the hearings lasted to mid-1906, with private deliberations continuing into 1907; he was therefore hamstrung in his efforts to become effective as a legislator.
The Smoot hearings significantly impacted Church teachings and practices. It became immediately evident that the Church was the real focus of the Senate investigation, not Smoot’s personal character or lifestyle. The committee subpoenaed the president of the LDS Church, Joseph F. Smith, and other colleagues from Church headquarters to testify. Traveling by train to Washington, the apostles and other Church dignitaries presented themselves to the committee, one by one, in a room that was barely large enough to contain the Senators and the overflow crowds of reporters and official observers. The witnesses were then peppered with questions by the attorneys who had been hired to conduct the examinations. One of the attorneys was former U.S. Congressman from Ohio Robert W. Tayler, who had served four terms in the House and led the successful effort to block Mormon leader B. H. Roberts from serving after Roberts’s 1898 election. Halfway through the hearings, Tayler was replaced as lead counsel of the Protestant complainants when he was appointed to a federal judgeship. Smoot and Mormon officials were also represented by counsel.
The questions at the Smoot hearings centered on such topics as post-1890 polygamous marriages, the LDS concept of revelation, temple oaths, and Church interference in Utah politics and business. During the course of the proceedings, President Theodore Roosevelt took a liking to Smoot, and due to the president’s staunch support the GOP-dominated Senate voted convincingly, 42-28, against dismissing the senator-apostle.
Once confirmed, Smoot became legendary for his indefatigable work ethic and wonkishness, to use a current term, as well as for his fierce loyalty to the party line. Biographer Milton R. Merrill wrote about Smoot’s “personal honesty and integrity” and “prodigious memory,” including “a remarkable eclecticism in the accumulation of statistical facts,” which were great assets to the Senator.
Ideologically, Smoot was a believer in protectionism even as the country’s mood during the Progressive Era turned toward reciprocal trade with foreign countries. He supported tariffs on Philippine products even after the United States purchased that country from Spain. His defining moment in Congress came when he co-sponsored the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which some historians say exacerbated the Great Depression. On the other hand, Smoot was good for Mormon colonists in Mexico who were increasingly imperiled by revolutionaries and for Mormon immigrants generally.
The more success Smoot experienced as a political facilitator, the more of an anomaly he appeared to be back home. For orthodox church members living in Utah, he did not appear to be religious enough even though he was an apostle. He had never been overly sectarian in his views, yet he was devout. As the United States prepared to enter World War I, Smoot offered what the press reported was the first recorded prayer on the Senate floor by a U.S. Senator. His call to the apostleship was nevertheless a surprise. He was not as visible ecclesiastically as his stake president father and testified at the Senate hearings he had only attended the temple once at the age of eighteen and decided it was not for him. Smoot’s purpose of going through the temple was to prepare for a proselytizing mission to England, but even then he came home early. He did not care much for theology, preferring practical religion based on personal integrity, “honesty as the foundation of religion.”
It was much the same with politics. He did not prepare for public service by reading great historical treatises or by studying the art of political science. He preferred to look at policy issues with a common-sense approach, and in fact, he tirelessly immersed himself in the factual minutiae surrounding pending legislation. He had not held a political office prior to becoming a Senator, yet he established a political machine in Utah that rode herd on state politics for decades based on patronage and loyalty. Nor did his previous inexperience prevent him from becoming a major player in national politics, including the presidential nomination process.
As good as Smoot was in befriending people of differing political and religious views, he still made some enemies along the way. His home in Washington doubled as a place for LDS Sunday worship, but future LDS apostle J. Reuben Clark stayed away, opting to send his children to a Protestant Sunday school rather than set foot in the home of the man who, among other things, decided not to hire Clark as a personal secretary in 1903. Instead, Smoot hired George Washington University law student Carl Badger. In retrospect, this was fortuitous because Badger’s personal diaries and letters home to his wife in Utah are an indispensible resource to understanding Smoot, including the behind-the-scenes activities during the Senate hearings. For his part, Smoot was not always at the Church services held at his home either. He sometimes skipped the meetings to spend extra time in the office or to go on long walks at the local zoo.
Reed married Alpha May Eldredge in 1884, and the couple had six children. As a young man, he attended Brigham Young Academy, then became superintendant of the Provo Woolen Mills, among other business ventures. He was ordained an apostle in April of 1900. When he retired from public office, after a defeat to a Democrat in 1932, he and his wife moved to Salt Lake City where he continued to offer his service to the Church as one of its Twelve Apostles until he died in 1941 at seventy-nine years of age. Smoot’s final years were filled with heartache and disappointment that stemmed from his lost election, crippling financial losses, and devastating decisions made by his children. Nevertheless, he became the salient symbol of the LDS Church’s twentieth-century assimilation into American society. He was among a handful of young Mormons of his day who blended the best of both worlds, paving the way for subsequent Latter-day Saints to become leaders in politics and business.