Smoot smites smut was LDS senator’s mantra in 1930 crusade against ‘Lady Chatterley,” and more

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.)One of the interesting footnotes to the long career of Sen. Reed Smoot, the LDS apostle who served in the U.S. Senate from 1903 to 1933, was his successful effort to have the U.S. Treasury continue to ban books that were deemed “obscene.” It was a relentless effort by Smoot, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to change an amendment to a tariff bill that had prevented customs officers “to seize ‘any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, {and} writing.” Historian Michael Harold Paulos presented a paper on Smoot’s 1930 effort to smite smut at the recent Mormon History Association conference in Layton.

According to Paulos, Smoot was outraged over the anti-censorship amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bronson Cutting, of New Mexico, like Smoot, a Republican. Over the next few months, Smoot would literally exhaust himself to get the book censorship returned, losing weight on an already thin frame, adds Paulos.

As Paulos notes, Smoot was an absolutist on the issue of banning what he observed as obscene books. In his paper, Paulos provides a short history of book banning in the 19th century, including efforts by LDS leader Brigham Young. In a footnote, Paulos recounts advice against reading novels that Young sent to his son. The Mormon leader “compared reading novels as tantamount to using poisonous herbs or berries to salve ‘a poor appetite. … it is a remedy worse than the complaint.’” (It was a rare moment of solidarity between evangelicals and Mormons, as both were opponents of inexpensive novels for the masses.)

It seems that Smoot’s belief that “obscene” novels must be banned was as firm, and likely strongly connected to his belief in the Mormon faith and its scripture, “The Book of Mormon.” In short, Smoot’s desire to ban books can be compared to a testimony, or adherence to a principle from God. He fiercely fought his many critics, relying on that era’s standard for obscenity, the Hicklin test, which “broadly defined obscenity within the context of protecting children, or in so many words, any material whose ‘tendency of the matter is to deprave and corrupt the morals of whose minds are open to such influence and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall,’” writes Paulos.

Smoot made this emotional statement in support of the book banning: “I would rather keep out a thousand {books} than have one mistake made,” he said. Later, Paulos notes, Smoot said the “rotten” books are “worse than opium,” adding, “I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books.

While these remarks may be surprising today, they were still a majority opinion, at least in the U.S. Congress, in 1930. Change was slowly occurring, though. However, Smoot had allies such as Senator James Thomas Heflin of Alabama, a Democrat, who “admonished the senate to use the Bible as a legislative guide, and added that senators “protect the boys and girls of America from the indecent, obscene, and immoral literature of foreign countries.”

Smoot had other supporters who provided outlandish rhetoric on his behalf. As Paulos writes: “GOP Senator Coleman L. Blease of South Carolina, that the ‘virtue of one little 16-year old girl is worth more to America than every book that has ever come into it from any other country.’ Moreover, Blease found it preferable to ‘see both the democratic form of government and the republican form of government forever destroyed if that should be necessary in order to protect the virtue of the womanhood of America.’” … Whew!

Smoot detested D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” describing it “written by a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would even obscure the darkness of hell. Nobody would write a book like that unless his heart was just as rotten and as black as it possibly could be.” Such hyperbole left Smoot open to derision from many of his colleagues, who pointed out that Smoot’s moralizing would exclude portions of the Bible and some of Shakespeare’s works from importation to the U.S. Other rebukes to Smoot pointed out that his own faith’s chief tome, “The Book of Mormon,” had once been a victim of censorship and scolding. Other detractors noted that under Smoot’s amendment, discourses by Brigham Young should be banned.

In obvious disgust for Smoot’s amendment, Paulos notes that Senator Cutting claimed that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was his favorite book. Cutting also expressed surprise that the Mormon faith, as depicted by Smoot, would evolve to oppose freedom of speech. Other opponents, including Time magazine and other media, regularly mocked Smoot. Another argument claimed that Smoot’s book banning was in opposition to Christ’s teachings.

Smoot used his seniority, Senate debating skills and sheer doggedness to survive the attacks on his amendment. However, one concession, made to Senator Hugo Black, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, would prove fatal in the long-term to Smoot’s efforts to retain the Hicklin test and keep “obscene” novels banned. Smoot agreed to Black’s reasonable request to allow judicial interpretation to dictate whether specific books were banned. That concession likely helped Smoot’s amendment to pass easily despite fervent opposition from Cutter and others. The vote was 54-28 in favor of Smoot’s amendment being inserted in the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill.

On the Senate floor, Smoot emotionally defended his Mormon faith and its people, calling them “the most honest, industrious, and virtuous people if any ‘who ever lived in all the world.‘”  Smoot was “emotionally connected” to Mormonism, in my opinion, to the extent that he placed his religious and political beliefs into the same sphere he placed his religious beliefs. He saw opposition to his moral amendment in the same vein as he saw opposition to his faith. It must have offended him to have detractors in the Senate use Mormonism as a debating tool against him.

The Smoot-Hawley tariff bill passed and proved to be unpopular. As Paulos notes, Smoot’s career ended in 1932, when he was soundly defeated in a re-election attempt. Adding insult to injury, the courts took full advantage of Black’s successful insertion of judicial review into Smoot’s amendment. It wasn’t long before the court’s rejected the Hicklin test, thereby allowing the entrance of books such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” access into the United States. In 1959, an unedited “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” would finally arrive legally into the U.S.

As Paulos writes, “a new legal framework for defining obscenity (replaced Hicklin), which was ‘that the legal test of obscenity must be a work’s effect upon persons of average sex instincts … rather than children or the particularly susceptible.’”

In other words, the ideals of Senators Smoot, Heflin, Blease and others were stymied. Smoot’s amendment was effectively ended by judicial review. One can picture Smoot, in his last years, lambasting himself for allowing judicial review.

Nevertheless, as Paulos notes, at LDS-owned institutions such as Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, there are still censorship decisions regarding books. “And if Smoot were alive today, he would in all likelihood be pleased with the work they are doing.”

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11 Responses to Smoot smites smut was LDS senator’s mantra in 1930 crusade against ‘Lady Chatterley,” and more

  1. Bob Becker says:

    “Smoot’s moralizing would exclude portions of the Bible and some of Shakespeare’s works from importation to the U.S.”

    Exactly.

  2. Pingback: 24 June 2013 | MormonVoices

  3. Catherine Kusick says:

    I’m a devout Mormon and a high school English teacher in a small conservative community. I’ve found the best strategy is to be careful what I teach in class, but encourage students to read whatever they choose in school and public libraries, particularly the classics like Lawrence and Joyce, although few high school students venture so high. LDS students (and those of any or no religious faith) are much better served when they learn to censor what they read for themselves, as I do in my personal reading, viewing and everything else. Hiding from the world, especially from “worldly” literature, does little to educate, and even less to enlighten minds. Senator Smoot’s comments show a man who missed so much. And due respect to Brother Brigham, great novels are generally not poisonous, but rather a clear window into the human heart.

    • E B says:

      Exactly! I am strongly in favor of not imposing morality from the top down, and I’m a conservative myself. I support free agency. Which is why I am fine with the decision on DOMA today, even though I know changing the moral foundation a country (however small at first) means bad things overall for the general society of the people of the United States as it moves further and further away from the safety of following God’s laws. For my full response on that topic, see http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

      • Bob Becker says:

        You might have a reasonable argument if those who profess belief in god could manage to come within a country mile of agreeing about what “god’s laws” are. But they can’t. Happily, the Court today and yesterday, whether you like its decisions or not, grounded those decisions on the majority justicies’ analysis of the intention of the framers, the content of the Constitution, history and precedent…. and not on nine different conceptions of what they thought “god’s laws” required with respect to the cases they were consdiering.

  4. Mark Steele says:

    Censorship is a great topic for discussion, but this is a careless piece, seemingly intended to make fun of Smoot rather than make a carefully thought out point against censorship. People didn’t like the Smoot-Hawley act because its tariffs ended up damaging trade, depressing the economy even more as the great depression was beginning.

    Smoot died in 1941, and the Hicklin test wasn’t overturned by the Supreme Court (replacing it with the Roth test) until 1957, so if Smoot were lambasting himself for allowing judicial review, it was from the afterlife.

  5. Gerald Gunther says:

    Smoot, smite, smut. The Bard would have approved.

    I don’t think the deal with Hugo Black had any impact on the fate of censorship. That deal allowed the courts a role in interpreting the Hicklin Test. But the supreme court, since Marshall, has had the power to overturn any law that it thinks violates the constitution. In 1957 the court did not invalidate an application of the Hicklin standard: it threw the test out altogether. It’s power to do that was based not on the Smoot law but on the more fundamental and sweeping Marshall powers of constitutional interpretation. The court could have, and would have, done that regardless of Smoot’s understanding with Black.

    More generally, though, I think Gibson did a good job in telling this quaint story. There’s no need to make a case in favor of, or against, censorship. That issue was decided, for all intents and purposes, long ago. There is no consistency in censorship; the advocates of that practice are always self-interested, whether they are Biblical fundamentalists who think there is redeeming value in stories of raped girls being chopped up by their fathers or totalitarians who want only their version of “truth” propagated. Both camps are trying to control society and suppress the individual’s right to think and to object. If the cost of letting people read things that challenge their beliefs and reduce their dependence on political or moral “bosses” is to expose people to some prurience, then that is a small price to pay. The alternative is to let people like Smoot tilt the balance against society’s mores and in favor of the social, sexual, and marital deviance of their own communities.

    • Mark Sparkman says:

      Without commentary on the subject (except to say that Doug did a good job writing the story — one comment above suggested he was “careless” and did not create an effective polemic against censorship; first argument unproven, second argument asserts Doug intended to do anything more than relate an interesting bit of Utah history), I must say that Shakespeare would not stoop to alliteration for its own sake — not even for the groundlings.

      • Decider says:

        As a reprobate ‘groundling’, I have found few adornments of language that Shakespeare DIDN’T ‘stoop’ to:

        Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
        He bravely breech’d his
        Boiling bloody breast. Midsummer Night’s Dream

        Likewise, I enjoyed Mr. Gibson’s acknowledgement of ‘groundling’ humor and farce in his piece.

        • Mark Sparkman says:

          Hmm. I stand corrected. I even played Bottom once. But the Bard was, of course, making fun of the use of that conceit. Does intent exculpate me?

          • Decider says:

            The Bard was making fun of the conceit? . . .
            Well, then it seems his ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost . . . .

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