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 the 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.
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 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.