This week (June 1) in 1950, Margaret Chase Smith, the Republican senator from Maine and the first woman ever to serve as both a U.S. senator and member of the House of Representatives, gave a speech that, looking back, was a voice of moral clarity amidst a cacophony of madness and vilification.
Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience,” as it was called, came during the heyday of “McCarthyism,” that shameful period in our history named after Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, one of the most mendacious demagogues ever to sit in Congress. Four months before Smith’s Declaration, McCarthy claimed in a speech that 205 members of the Communist Party worked in the U.S. State Department, which caused a national uproar. Soon McCarthy was claiming that Communists had infiltrated every department of the U.S. government.
It mattered little that McCarthy never proved his accusations, or that the number (and names) of McCarthy’s so-called Communists changed almost daily. With the Cold War heating up, McCarthy was giving voice to a widely shared fear that America faced a grave threat from “the enemy within” — a purported phalanx of subversives sympathetic to, if not controlled by, the Communist Party. The result was government-mandated loyalty oaths, baseless charges and counter charges among politicians, ruined careers and lives, and a national wave of paranoia and fear.
Into the breach stepped Senator Smith and six other moderate Republican senators who signed the “Declaration of Conscience,” which did not mention McCarthy by name but was clearly directed at him.
“I think 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 using or abusing our individual powers and privileges,” Smith stated in her “Declaration.” She added, “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.”
And what are those principles? “The right to criticize,” she wrote. “The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought.”
At the time Smith wrote her Declaration, the presidential campaign of 1952 was just getting into gear, and Smith, a loyal Republican, hoped the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, would gain the White House and that more Republicans would be elected to Congress. “But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny,” her Declaration stated. “Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
Smith’s declaration had little effect on McCarthyism, but given the darkness of the times, it was a courageous stance for any politician to take, let alone a female politician.