Margaret Chase Smith: The Indomitable Defender of Democracy

The first day of June of 1950 was destined to be a memorable day: political courage not to compromise values triumphed over rampant demagogues. Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and the first Republican woman to be elected Senator, fiercely presented her most famous speech “Declaration of Conscience,” denouncing baseless anti-Communist accusations by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who sat two rows behind her when she delivered the speech on the Senate floor (McBrayer, “Margaret Chase Smith’s 1950”). Instead of personally attacking McCarthy, Smith, speaking from the perspective of a woman and American citizen, defended the rights of free expression and emphasized the importance of unity (Smith, “Declaration of Conscience”).

Margaret Chase Smith - Wikipedia

John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage recognizes people with political courage as thosewho “exercise their conscientious judgment,” which is “not [condemning] those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but [rewarding] courage, [respecting] honor and ultimately [recognizing] right” (Kennedy 264). Smith was often known for her “plainspokenness, frankness, sincerity, independence, honesty, integrity, steadfastness, [and] courage” because she has never compromised her convictions of making the right and wise judgment in fear of voting outside party lines (Campbell 39). However, her action of speaking out in the House alone on June 1st, 1950, was so risky and audacious that it still shocked everyone present, including McCarthy. As a freshman Senator and the only woman in the house, Smith adamantly stood up and criticized the political claims of McCarthy, her more experienced colleague, and held on to her beliefs unwaveringly when faced mounting suppression from McCarthy and his apologists. She could not have persisted if she had not had the devotion to her country invested in her duty as a Senator and the conscientious conviction to uphold democracy by protecting the right to unpopular beliefs. 

McCarthyism | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica

A decade prior to this historical moment, the U.S. government and citizens were increasingly distraught by expansion of the Communist influence from the Soviet Union into the Western atmosphere (Ordover, “Special Report”). Two convictions, one of State Department official Alger Hiss and the other of Manhattan Project physicist Klaus Fuchs, further heightened the fear of Communist encroachment of the United States among citizens (Campbell 33). The anti-Communist fervor augmented, inciting restlessness and anxiety and giving rise to McCarthyism, the “witch hunt” for Communists and anyone with an association with Communism supporters and Party members (“Senator McCarthy”). McCarthy’s utilization of the “guilt-by-association” tactic brought alienation everywhere. The provocation of fear, distrust, and suspicion climaxed during McCarthy’s speech before the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling. He alleged that he owned a list of 205 [State Department employees] who were known to the Secretary of State as the members of the Communist Party and … [were] still working and shaping the policy of the State Department” (“Senator McCarthy”). As a devoted lover of liberty and patriotic citizen of the US, Smith initially reacted delightfully to McCarthy’s speech. Nevertheless, she became increasingly suspicious of the validity of McCarthy’s statements as he repeatedly eluded her request for proof of his allegations (McBrayer, “Margaret Chase Smith’s 1950”). The evidently groundless and irresponsible accusations were unacceptable to Smith, who had always been determined to carry out her responsibility of “rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears”, so she took action (Smith, “Declaration of Conscience”).

The Four Horsemen of Calumny Return - The Next Phase BlogThe Next Phase Blog
The Next Phase Blog

Fully aware of the consequences of delivering her bold speech and establishing her stand against McCarthy, Smith did not cower, while almost all the other Senators, Republican and Democratic alike, did with the concern of endangering their political careers, though some of them disapproved of McCarthy’s groundless charges as well. Her conscience of performing a Senator’s duty of safeguarding individual rights and maintaining national unity outweighed the concern of jeopardizing her hard-won career. Even before she gave the speech, McCarthy warned her: “Remember Margaret, I control Wisconsin’s twenty-seven convention votes!” (Margaret Chase Smith). This subtle threat to hinder Smith’s run for Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1952 did not deter her. With the concurrence and the authorization of seven Republican Senators, in “Declaration of Conscience,” she called for some “soul-searching” of all members of the Senate to righteously perform their duty of securing “the right to hold unpopular beliefs” instead of letting the “ Four Horsemen of Calumny —Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear” recklessly permeate the United States and debase it into a “forum of hate and character assassination” (Smith, “Declaration of Conscience”). 

Public Speaking Tips from Margaret Chase Smith's "Declaration of Conscience"

After the speech, Smith and her seven Republican supporters faced public criticism and covert political suppression. Five of the seven Senators soon recanted from this act that was seen as a “political suicide” by most of the politicians (Sherman 112). But Smith firmly held onto her conviction. Her indomitability evoked more actions that aimed to bereave her political power from McCarthy. In violation of the Senate tradition, he removed Smith from the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in 1951 (Crouse, “Senator”). Smith did not back off; she persisted and triumphed over McCarthy’s attempt of removing her from the Senate by obstructing her reelection in 1954: with a five to one margin, Smith defeated Robert L. Jones, a candidate endorsed by McCarthy, in the primary (Crouse, “Senator”). Despite continuous aggressive attacks coming from all directions, Smith gained national support and eventually prevailed over the man who had provoked fear and chaos for his political interests. In December of 1954, McCarthy was censured for “abuse of the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections” and “of the Select Committee to Study Censure” (The Censure Case). Smith, the political giant with a female body that was constantly the target of the political opponents to belittle her, successfully witnessed and voted for the silencing of her enemy and proved her unparalleled political courage to the entire nation.

Margaret Chase Smith, risking her career while fighting against the overwhelming political and social pressure imposed on women in a patriarchal political climate, “[blew] the whole [fetid] miasma out of the nation’s soul”, as Hartford Courant commented, when almost all authoritative male political leaders flinched (A Declaration). With the courage to uphold democracy against political corruption by recognizing and safeguarding civil liberties, Smith served as a role model for all American politicians. 

Nursing Clio A Declaration of Conscience: Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995)
Nursing Clio

Works Cited

  • *Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.
  • Sherman, Janann. “No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (Rutgers Series on Women and Politics)”. Rutgers University Press. 1 Nov. 1999. Accessed 13 Aug. 2020.
  • *Primary Sources 

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