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How Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration Influenced Conscience Speech against Senator Joseph McCarthy

Margaret Chase Smith: Fighting Her Own Party

She gazes at the hundreds of powerful individuals sitting before her. Her opponent, Joseph McCarthy, sits two rows away (Byrd). Finally, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith speaks. “Mr. President,” she confidently declares, “I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition” (Smith). During the next fifteen minutes, Smith sparks a movement that will save the United State’s freedoms and liberties. She is the first senator brave enough to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s corrupt hearings, where many innocent Americans are accused of being communist spies. As later stated by the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations during its own investigation, “Senator McCarthy showed little patience for due process and defined witnesses’ constitutional rights narrowly” (United States Senate). Speaking to her own political party, Smith condemns the Republicans’ attempt to control the country through fear and hatred of communism. In delivering the speech “Declaration of Conscience,” Smith is risking her career and, more importantly, her life.

Earlier that day, Smith boards the subway (Widmer). Minutes later, McCarthy enters the very same train. According to www.senate.gov, McCarthy notices the young female senator, saying, “Margaret, you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?” In response, Smith reportedly declares “Yes, and you will not like it” (Sherman). Appearing to dislike her comment, McCarthy threatens to ruin her political career (“Margaret Chase Smith Denounces McCarthy”). One can only imagine Smith’s emotional state during this encounter. Her opponent’s sheer power and seemingly numerous allies, which include members of the media as well as the majority of the Republican Party, must have been overwhelming. Smith doubts her own abilities to expose McCarthy, feeling that her lack of experience will invalidate her speech (“Margaret Chase Smith”). Even worse, the young senator could be labeled a communist spy, facing imprisonment or death for voicing her opinion.

After Smith delivers her “Declaration of Conscience,” McCarthy attempts to follow through on his threat. Immediately, he calls Smith and her supporters “Snow White and the six dwarfs,” trying to belittle the senator’s confrontational speech (“Margaret Chase Smith Issues Her ‘Declaration of Conscience’”). Yet McCarthy’s attacks do not end with simple name calling. Soon after, he removes Smith from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, replacing her with the infamous Senator Richard Nixon (Walton). After suffering from similar repercussions, every one of Smith’s supporters recant their statement. Still, Smith does not back down. Soon after, other McCarthyites begin to threaten Smith. In one particularly nasty letter, a McCarthy supporter writes, “Women do not belong in public life— that [sic] there are only two places for them, in the kitchen and in the bedroom—in your instance perhaps the latter is out” (Crouse). Faced by all this criticism, Smith continues her fight in a “man’s world,” as she would later declare in a 1964 interview (“An Interview with Margaret Chase Smith”). She decides to fulfill the words of later President John F. Kennedy in the book Profiles in Courage, acting “in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures” to illustrate “the basis of all human morality” (Kennedy 266).

Despite this backlash, most of the American public views Smith’s speech as a breath of fresh air. Society is tired of the “Republican Party riding to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” as the senator eloquently states in her speech (Smith). Days later, magazines depict Smith as a leader and a hero, implying that she could be the first woman vice president of the United States. When meeting with President Harry Truman, he declares, “your ‘Declaration of Conscience’ was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House” (Giblin 111). In fact, the speech marks the beginning of McCarthy’s downfall, saving celebrities from the Hollywood Blacklist and Democrats from being labeled as communists for opposing the Republican agenda.

During the 1954 election, McCarthy makes one last effort to defeat his major opponent. He tries to remove Smith from the Senate, backing Robert Jones in the Maine Republican primaries (“Margaret Chase Smith”). Despite Jones’ strong political connections and large amount of funding, he is still no match for the respected incumbent. Due to her political prowess and true honesty, she wins with a five-to-one margin (Gallant 194). Although this may seem like a small victory, this election symbolizes the public’s decision to back Smith and the American values she represents: the right to a trial by peers, the freedom of speech, and the right to due process (Smith). A few months later, the Senate votes sixty-seven to twenty-two to condemn McCarthy’s practices, stripping him of the power he once held (Crouse). McCarthyism is effectively dead.

Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” speech changed history and paved the way for future women legislators. In a time filled with fear of communism and the corrupt actions of her fellow Republicans, she stood alone in opposition to an incredibly formidable opponent. She became the first woman elected to both chambers of Congress (Widmer). Seeing herself as an American before a Republican, Smith gave a voice to the millions of individuals who feared McCarthy and the party that stood behind him. More importantly, the senator continued to maintain her point of view, disregarding threats and the loss of political allies in the hopes of freeing the United States from her party’s corrupt political agenda. Without Smith, the American public may not have “stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques,” as the senator once stated (Smith). Truly, Smith validated President John F. Kennedy’s quote, proving that “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try” (Service).Without her, McCarthyism could have stripped society of its most precious freedoms and liberties. Through the speech “Declaration of Conscience,” Smith rescued America from a corrupt, seemingly all-powerful institution: her own political party.

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