I have been reading Kathleen Flake’s excellent book on the Reed Smoot hearings, and it has me thinking Smootish thoughts. Furthermore, I live in Washington, D.C. and love the local church lore of the capital. Smoot, of course, is very much a part of the lore of Mormon history in DC, although it is lore, I suspect, that is known to only a tiny fraction of the Saints in the area. So here is my Reed Smoot story.
According to Flake, the Smoot hearings marked the end of Mormon confrontation with the U.S. government and the beginning of an era of good feeling for the Church in the United States. On this, she is basically right, I think, and by identifying the Smoot hearings as the hinge rather than the Manifesto she gives us a better periodization through which to understand the messy end of polygamy and other 19th century Mormon oddities.
However, I don’t think that the hearings marked the true end of the era. According to my sources, who were active in the official Washington social scene in the 1950s when many still had fresh memories of Smoot, after the hearings, Smoot remained persona non grata in the capital. He and his wife would attend the formal parties that were required by his office and social etiquette, but they were ruthlessly snubbed. It was apparently particularly hard on Sister Smoot. Until well into the 1960s, Washington maintained the social formalities of southern gentility complete with calling cards, dinner lists, and other mechanisms fine tuned to show disregard in a thousand polite ways. Official Washington in its social garb continued to mercilessly hold Mormonism against the Smoots.
This state of affair continued until one evening the Smoots attended a party where President Teddy Roosevelt was also on the guest list. In those days, etiquette required that no one leave a party while anyone “senior” to them was still there. Hence, everyone had to stay until TR left, and his exit was a formal affair, noted by all those in attendance. When the time came for TR to leave, he rose, said a general farewell to the assembled guests and walked toward the door. Once there, he turned, and very pointedly said, “I hope that you have a pleasant evening, Mrs. Smoot.” In the face of Presidential politeness further snubbing of the Smoots became a social gaff, a fact that TR knew full well. Thus ended, so the story goes, social Washington’s official boycott of the Mormons, and I like to think that that dinner party marks the point in time when it became possible comfortably to be both a Latter-day Saint and an American.