Sixty-eight years ago, on June 1, 1950, in a nation tearing itself apart over the Joseph McCarthy accusations regarding Communist infiltration of our government, the Senate’s first female senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, rose to deliver an historic speech on the Senate floor, a speech that has become know as A Declaration of Conscience.
In this speech, as reviewed on the official U.S. Senate web site, Mrs. Smith was one of the first senators to challenge the process by which Joe McCarthy was damaging the fabric of the Senate, and consequently our nation.
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.”
As the review continues on to describe the reactions to her speech,
Her speech triggered a public explosion of support and criticism. “This cool breeze of honesty from Maine can blow the whole miasma out of the nation’s soul,” commented the Hartford Courant. “By one act of political courage, [Smith has] justified a lifetime in politics,” commented another…Critics called her “Moscow-loving,” and much worse. McCarthy dismissed her and her supporters as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”
Smith’s Declaration of Conscience did not end McCarthy’s reign of power, but she was one of the first senators to take such a stand…Finally, in December of 1954, the Senate belatedly concurred with the “lady from Maine” and censured McCarthy for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” McCarthy’s career was over. Margaret Chase Smith’s career was just beginning.
Today, on October 5, 2018, Susan Collins, another female senator from Maine delivered an eloquent speech from the Senate floor in which she laid out in great depth the various arguments – and in particular objections – to confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and expertly refuted them, returning time and again to first principles.
Taking great pains not to personally attack Kavanaugh’s accuser, Senator Collins nonetheless denounced the massive violations of Senate order and offenses against our nation’s great traditions of due process and just treatment of those accused, while also directing the focus of the Senate – and nation – back to what is the whole purpose of the advise and consent process, to put aside personal prejudices and political agendas and to address the judicial qualifications of nominees for the position they are nominated to and to assess their commitment to the rule of law.
While it certainly will take time to analyze the details of her speech, I expect that history will view this speech as a worthy successor to Margaret Chase Smith’s speech.
More critically, by returning to uplifting process and redirecting conversation back to fundamental tenets on which our nation was founded, Senator Collins has offered Democratic leadership and senators a pathway away from their destructive tactics of “search and destroy” and the mob passions that they have ignited. Whether they will take those first steps of rapproachment or escalate their behavior remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, regardless of disagreements I have had with many of Senator Collin’s policy positions, in this hour of need, she has risen up to stand courageously against the rage around her, putting country first, and for that she merits the approbation of all Americans.
Once again it has fallen upon a women of valor to speak the truths that need to be spoken and heard, to act the conscience of the Senate and of our nation. We can only pray that amidst the current raging storms, these words will strengthen the hearts of those who seek yet to preserve the Union.