Updated: Jan 23, 2020
Margaret Chase Smith. You might never have heard her name, but it’s certainly not because she doesn’t deserve to have you do so. She was the first woman voted in as a senator who wasn’t an appointment or a widow filling her husband’s seat. But it’s not that for which we should resurrect her now. It’s because she was a Republican from Maine. Republicans from Maine are known to be individualistic in their approach to all things — or, at least, they were until Susan Collins began to furrow her brow with concern and then do exactly as she is told by Trump and his enablers.
It was June 1, 1950, and Margaret was a freshman senator. She kept waiting for those who were more senior than she to stand up to Senator McCarthy, and when they didn’t, she decided she needed to do so herself. She titled her speech “Declaration of Conscience.” She presented it on the Senate floor, and it was signed by six other Republican senators.
Following is the Senate website’s description of what happened:
Four months earlier, McCarthy had rocketed to national attention. In a well-publicized speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, he claimed to possess the names of 205 card-carrying communists in the State Department. Smith, like many of her colleagues, shared McCarthy’s concerns about communist subversion, but she grew skeptical when he repeatedly ignored her requests for evidence to back-up his accusations. “It was then,” she recalled, “that I began to wonder about the validity... and fairness of Joseph McCarthy’s charges.”
At first, Smith hesitated to speak. “I was a freshman Senator,” she explained, “and in those days, freshman Senators were to be seen and not heard.” She hoped a senior member would take the lead. “This great psychological fear...spread to the Senate,” she noted, “where a considerable amount of mental paralysis and muteness set in for fear of offending McCarthy.” As the weeks passed, Smith grew increasingly angry with McCarthy’s attacks and his defamation of individuals she considered above suspicion. Bowing to Senate rules on comity, Smith chose not to attack McCarthy, but to denounce the tactics that were becoming known as “McCarthyism.”
“Mr. President,” she began, “I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition.... The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body.... But recently that deliberative character has...been debased to...a forum of hate and character assassination.” In her 15-minute address, delivered as McCarthy looked on, Smith endorsed every American’s right to criticize, to protest, and to hold unpopular beliefs. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” she complained. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” She asked her fellow Republicans not to ride to political victory on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny–Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.” As she concluded, Smith introduced a statement signed by herself and six other Republican senators–her “Declaration of Conscience.”
I am so proud to be a woman these days. So proud. And, I ask now, what woman Republican will present her own declaration of conscience in the coming days? Which of you will set aside your personal job security to do the right thing? Will it be you, Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee? You, Susan Collins from Maine? You, Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia? Joni Ernst from Iowa, how about you? Deb Fischer from my alma mater, Nebraska? Cindy Hyde-Smith from Mississippi? Martha McSally from Arizona (unlikely)? Or Lisa Murkowski (I’m betting on you, girlfriend)? Who among you will join Margaret Chase Smith — who helped save the republic from sure ruin 70 years ago — as a woman for the ages? It’s a generation later, and it’s on you.
Here is a video of a young lady presenting Margaret’s speech. Take the two minutes to watch it. It will ring so very true for this moment in time.