Margaret Chase Smith and the Declaration of Conscience

I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Maine next to a slightly larger town in the middle of Maine which is named Skowhegan.

Skowhegan, Maine, is entirely unremarkable in most ways except that it was the long-time home of Margaret Chase Smith, United States Senator and author of the 1950 Declaration of Conscience. Her combined Senatorial library — open to the public — and personal home was an extended complex of buildings along the side of what I still think of as ‘the back road’ into Skowhegan. She must have had a lovely view out over part of the Kennebec River; part of her personal space was a sunhouse that looked out over a decorative bit of garden towards the road. If you looked at just the right minute as you drove by, you could catch a glimpse of her sitting and reading in the sunroom. I only ever remember seeing her this way, a very elderly lady, always well-dressed, always with a stack of books at her side.

The Declaration of Conscience was written and delivered in June of 1950 in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s well-publicized claim to have a ‘list of names’ of known Communists and collaborators operating in the United States. Six other senators signed onto Chase Smith’s Declaration but it never developed the momentum that McCarthy and his list did.

Did Chase Smith get everything “right”? No, of course not. I don’t think anyone ever does. She buys into anti-Communist rhetoric in a completely ridiculous way. However. She got the core idea right and she stuck the hell to it.

I’ve added a link to a .pdf of the full speech above in case you want to download it. Read it. Really.

Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effec-tive leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government. That leadership is so lacking that serious and responsible proposals are being made that na-tional advisory commissions be appointed to provide such critically needed leadership. I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irre-sponsible words of bitterness and selfish politi-cal opportunism. I speak as simply as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart. Mr. President, I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American.