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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Margaret Chase Smith

In this blog posting, I will discuss Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, who was the first woman elected to serve in both chambers of Congress. I devote a chapter to Senator Smith in my upcoming book, Congressional Lions.

Smith served in the United States House of Representatives from 1940 until 1949, and in the Senate for four terms, from 1949 until 1973. As with Hattie Caraway, Smith first entered Congress as a stand-in for her husband, in this case Congressman Clyde Smith, who died of a heart attack. During her time in the House, Smith fashioned herself into an expert on military affairs. She was instrumental in creating the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve in World War II. Known as a moderate Republican, Congresswoman Smith was not afraid to go against the party elders when she believed in the cause. Consequently, she supported many programs developed by President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, to alleviate poverty during the Great Depression.

Despite many accomplishments during her long legislative career, Smith is best known for delivering her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech on June 1, 1950. Although she did not mention him by name, Senator Joseph McCarthy, the well-known Wisconsin demagogue who vowed to ferret out Communists that had infiltrated the federal government, was her target. At a time when few members of Congress dared to stand up to McCarthy, Smith boldly defied him. The story is quite dramatic.

Smith initially thought that her colleague was on to something with his charges about Communists lurking inside the government, but she became disillusioned after the McCarthy took to the Senate floor to smear prominent Americans by accusing them of disloyalty. When pressed, he never offered evidence to support his charges. Finally deciding that she had heard enough, Smith resolved to speak out. She was a freshman senator, and so she hesitated, but she also felt strongly that she could not sit by idly while McCarthy hurled reckless accusations against political figures that she believed were beyond reproach.

Legend has it that on the morning of June 1, 1950, Smith came face-to-face with McCarthy as they boarded the Senate subway.

“Margaret,” the Wisconsin lawmaker reputedly remarked, “you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?”

“Yes,” she replied, “and you will not like it!”

She was correct. Joe McCarthy liked nothing about the speech that his fellow senator delivered that day. Margaret Chase Smith spoke for 15 minutes in an oration that she called a “Declaration of Conscience.”

“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition,” she began, her voice trembling as she spoke. “It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.” The rules of the Senate discouraged members from directly criticizing each other or impugning another member’s character, and so Smith parsed her words carefully. “I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as briefly as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.”

She knew that some listeners would dismiss her remarks as the plaintive wails of a weak woman, but she was not worried. “I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American.”

Smith commented on the oddity of Senate rules that protected members of the chamber without extending that protection to citizens. “It is ironical that we Senators can in debate in the Senate directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to any American who is not a Senator any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an American—and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us—yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order.”

Something was wrong with the Senate when it allowed a member to act irresponsibly without repercussions. “I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching—for us to weigh our consciences—on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America—on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.” To be an American is to exercise freedom of thought, word, and deed. In Smith’s view, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism: The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought.”

No one could be confused about the target of her wrath, least of all Joe McCarthy, who sat a few rows behind her, white-faced, and unmoving, as the Maine senator condemned his tactics. “The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others. The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.”

It was Smith’s finest hour, and one of the most spirited defenses of free speech in American political history.

Later in her career, she became a fierce hawk, supporting the use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union as well as American involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite her conservative position on some military issues, however, Smith also supported civil rights legislation, the creation of Medicare, and the development of the U.S. space program.

Defeated for reelection in 1972, she became a college professor in her later years. George H. W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.

She died in 1995 at the age of 97.

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