The Evening When Mormons Could Once More Become Americans

February 15, 2005 | 29 comments
By

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.

Tags: , ,

29 Responses to The Evening When Mormons Could Once More Become Americans

  1. lyle on February 15, 2005 at 9:29 am

    Regardless of policies…it cheers the heart to hear of the small things that the “big” people do to make the lives of others better.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2005 at 9:38 am

    Cool story. I’ve always liked Teddy, that trust-busting nationalist.

  3. Nate Oman on February 15, 2005 at 9:59 am

    While I was in Arkansas, I read (or actually listened to while running) Edmund Morris’s biography of TR. It is a difficult book to…er…read and not come away liking TR. One might just as easily point out that TR was a president who backed a dirty little war in a far off country that the United States had “liberated” and then occupied for several years because TR thought the continued presence of American troops in the region was necesssary to foster a climate in which free institutions could eventually flourish. Furthermore, it was a policy pursued in the teeth of Democratic opposition and more than a little grumbling from within his own party.

    For ten bonus points, name the country. (Hint: It is not Iraq, but it sounds like it.)

  4. Rosalynde Welch on February 15, 2005 at 10:20 am

    twin relics of barbarism: polygamy, and arcane exclusionary social niceties

  5. A Soft Answer on February 15, 2005 at 10:59 am

    “The Evening When Mormons Could Once More Become Americans”
    href=”http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=1968…

  6. Troy on February 15, 2005 at 11:09 am

    What a great anecdote. That is the most refreshing thing I’ve read in a while.

    I agree that TR is hard not to like. His autobiographical Rough Riders is also a fascinating read and awes you with his eagerness to put himself in danger. It honestly makes you wonder if American culture can still produce leaders with that combination of talent, flare and discipline, at least some of which must was likely attributable to his time period.

  7. Julie in Austin on February 15, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    Troy–

    We can produce them, I think, we just can’t get them elected.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    “We can produce them, I think, we just can’t get them elected.”

    So true, Julie, so true.

  9. Nate Oman on February 15, 2005 at 12:16 pm

    OK. Stop waxing all nostalgic on me. Democracy has always been a muddy and frustrating business. TR’s generation also also produced such leaders as Chester Arthur, James Garfield, William McKinnley, Mark Hanna, etc. etc. etc.

  10. Troy on February 15, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    “OK. Stop waxing all nostalgic on me. Democracy has always been a muddy and frustrating business. TR’s generation also also produced such leaders as Chester Arthur, James Garfield, William McKinnley, Mark Hanna, etc. etc. etc. ”

    Agreed. I think I just like Roosevelt a lot.

  11. Boris Max on February 15, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    I hate to dampen TR’s tardy valentine, but Mount Rushmore notwithstanding, he wasn’t that great. The idea for breaking up trusts came from journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens and the populist ire they aroused. TR called these good people muckrakers–a name that unfortunately stuck–and then made limited reform that sill made it very easy for trusts to exist: Microsoft and Wal-Mart are doing just fine, and the magic of mergers is allowing Standard Oil and Bell Telephone to rise like poorly staked vampires. If you’re interested in a real progressive American political leader from that historical period, you should check out Wisconsin Governor Fightin’ Bob LaFolllette–also a Republican.

    And yes, Nate, Mr. Great White Fleet was an avid imperialist–it’s a good way to overcome feelings of inadequacy that plague sickly scions of the monied elite. Yes, Troy, TR did charge up San Juan Hill, proving his manhood and striking a blow for freedom because those evil Cubans had…uh…well, I’m sure they did something wrong because the United States never gets involved in wars that are based on faulty intelligence. Maybe Al-Queda and Saddam blew up the Maine?

    So, Julie, I think we–or at least 51% of us–have elected a leader who is very much like TR. Maybe he can lead an inspiring charge in Sadr City?

  12. A. Greenwood on February 15, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    For the record, I believe that the charge up San Juan Hill was directed at the Spanish, not the Cubans. Perhaps I have been misled by all the history books I have ever read and by the name of the Spanish-American War.

  13. Chris Williams on February 15, 2005 at 1:40 pm

    Nate, nice post. I loved Flake’s book (couldn’t put it down, actually) and I also enjoyed the Morris biography of TR.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2005 at 1:47 pm

    “TR called these good people muckrakers–a name that unfortunately stuck–and then made limited reform that sill made it very easy for trusts to exist: Microsoft and Wal-Mart are doing just fine, and the magic of mergers is allowing Standard Oil and Bell Telephone to rise like poorly staked vampires. If you’re interested in a real progressive American political leader from that historical period, you should check out Wisconsin Governor Fightin’ Bob LaFolllette–also a Republican.”

    I see no reason to criticize TR for failing to prevent subsequent presidents from not following his example, or for not fully enforcing laws that were passed under his watch. (TR would likely consider Bill Gates an exploitive and prideful pipsqueak, and would be seriously tempted to give him a good thumping.) TR’s socially progressive Christian sentiments were well reflected by his later fury at Taft, and his mad but honorable “Bull Moose” campaign for the White House, and I say that as a major fan of LaFollette and all those other wonderful turn-of-the-century reformers and populists–Jane Addams and such.

  15. Julie in Austin on February 15, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    amazon lists two bios of tr by morris–to which are y’all referring?

  16. Nate Oman on February 15, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Julie, I read _Theodore Rex_.

    BTW, it is important to remember that in Teddy’s day the anti-trust laws vague at best. The Sherman Act is extremely short and no one really knew what on earth it meant. After a century or more of case law we have a slightly better idea. Hence, anyone who makes claims about whether or not Teddy was adequately enforcing the anti-trust statutes is guilty of anachronistically assuming that the anti-trust statutes had some determinate meaning in the first decade of the 20th century.

    Also, the war I was referring to was in the Phillipines not in Cuba.

  17. Chris Williams on February 15, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    Theodore Rex is what I read as well.

  18. Last lemming on February 15, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    Theodore Rex is volume 2 of a scheduled three-part biography by Edmund Morris. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers the years prior to his presidency (including the Rough Rider episode), and actually makes for easier reading than Theodore Rex.

  19. Mark N. on February 15, 2005 at 8:20 pm

    Boris: Maybe he can lead an inspiring charge in Sadr City?

    Those who can, do. Those who can’t, Preside. :-)

  20. A Edwards on February 15, 2005 at 11:26 pm

    Reed Smoot — Is this not the same Reed Smoot responsible for the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? From what I understand, this legislative monstrosity begat retaliatory tariffs from European trading partners, leading to a sharp decline in foreign trade and a prolonged intensification of the Great Depression.

    Co-religionist or not, I wouldn’t go around singing Senator Smoot’s praises too loudly. Nevertheless, very cool story, Nate.

  21. Nate Oman on February 16, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Yeh. That Smoot…

  22. David Salmanson on February 16, 2005 at 3:47 pm

    Maybe it’s my cold but I’m missing something. You have discrimination against Mormons in DC social circles continuing into the 1960s and also ending well before 1932. Which is it?

  23. Nate Oman on February 16, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    David: You are missing something. The formalized social rituals in DC continued until the 1960s. The en mass snubbing of Mormons stopped during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, which was 1901 to 1909.

  24. Nate Oman on February 16, 2005 at 3:53 pm

    A word on the Smoot-Haley Tarriff: It did provoke 1930s protectionism that probably did prolong the Depression. However, Smoot is not as complicit in disaster here as it looks. The Smoot-Haley act did not actually raise a tarrif. Rather, it granted to the executive (the Department of State or the Department of Commerce, I forget which) the discretion to raise or lower tarrifs in response to protectionism abroad. In other words, it was not a tarrif per se but a law that allowed others to create or dispose of tarrifs without congressional approval.

  25. Jason Johnson on February 20, 2005 at 9:31 pm

    A little threadjack here. I recall reading a poem once that was inspired by Smoot’s sponsorship of anti-obscenity legislation.

    Does anybody remember or know of the poem. I recall some lines about “smite smut smoot…”

  26. Arturo Toscanini on February 20, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    I used this story for Scout Master’s minute the other night at MIA. I told the boys that as leaders among their peers they needed to set an example and befriend others who might normally be left out. Great story, Nate.

  27. Kathleen Flake on March 1, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    Nathan, the story you tell of TR and Mrs. Smoot occurred as the Senate Committee was presenting it’s negative report on Senator Smoot and two weeks prior to floor debate. Here’s Carl Badger’s account to his wife Rose at home in Utah: “The Senator is in good spirits today. He went to a reception given by the President to the Diplomatic Corps last night. He says that the President and Mrs. Roosevelt were very cordial to myself and Mrs. Smoot. When the President came to retire with his cabinet, as he walked down the room through the two rows of people as he passed the Senator and Mrs. Smoot – they were jsut back of the front row, he said very pleasantly, loud enough for all to hear: ‘Good night, Mrs. Smoot.’ The Senator says the everybody seemed astonished.” BYU Archives, Badger Box 2 Folder 2 Ltr p. 221 (Jan. 4 1907).

    So, we do not disagree after all.

    And, Jason, here’s the poem you are looking for. It’s by Ogden Nash in 1931 and was inspired by the Senator’s censorship activities.

    Senator Smoot (Republican Ut.)
    Is planning a ban on smut.
    Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
    And his reverent occiput.
    Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
    Grit your molars and od your dut.,
    Gird up your l–ns,
    Smite h-p adn th-gh,
    We”ll all be Kansas
    By and by.

  28. Nate Oman on March 1, 2005 at 1:25 pm

    Kathleen: Thanks for this. Given my source (oral tradition among longtime DC residents), I had half-thought that the story was apocryphal. It is nice to have somewhat harder documentation. Thank you also for your book. It is really fabulous; the best thing on Mormonism I have read since Sally Gordon’s book.

  29. Craig Knott on March 2, 2005 at 11:06 am

    In response to the question of what war did TR back and practically start. The Spanish American War was the conflict and the Phillipines were liberated with in days by the US and we spent 10 or so years occuping and teaching democracy. They even had their own prisoner abuse problem. There are countless similiarities to the Iraq war and the occupation of the Phillipines. The media and opposition to the war would be well off to study history beyond the Vietnam war era.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.