Come Back, Margaret Chase Smith

Kate Flora: Back when I was in high school, there was a day when we staged mock political debates. I was pretty apolitical back then, but I was thrilled to be chosen to play Margaret Chase Smith. I only have a vague memory of trying to find something to wear that was appropriately “senatorial” and borrowing my mother’s twinset and her pearls. I’m pretty sure I lost the debate. I remember thinking that she was a woman of great integrity and presence, and that Maine was lucky to have a woman of her courage and stature.

I am drawn back to Senator Smith these days for two reasons. First, I recently watched theScreen Shot 2016-02-10 at 6.38.32 AM movie, “Trumbo,” about McCarthy and blacklisting, about a writer having to make a living by selling his scripts under other people’s names, unable even to claim the credit when movies that he’d written won Academy Awards. We writers are often called on to reinvent ourselves, though fortunately not usually for such appalling reasons. Second, because however much I may try to avoid the ugliness of the current political season, it is impossible to avoid the awful rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the speech that Margaret Chase Smith gave on the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, entitled: A Declaration of Conscience, is an excellent reminder of some of our most cherished American values. Speaking in response to Senator McCarthy and his attacks on people he labeled “communists,” she reminded us of the “Basic Principles of Americanism:”

The right to criticize

The right to hold unpopular beliefs

The right to protest

The right of independent thought

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.48.23 AMSpeaking of the contest between Republicans and Democrats, she urges that her Republican party has enough genuine issues to win on that it does not need to resort to what she labels “The Four Horsemen of Calumny,” which are: fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear. She expresses the hope that the American people will not uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. She reminds her Republican colleagues that they have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, clarifying issues, and allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens.

The Declaration of Conscience, joined by other senators, declares, in its final paragraph:

It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.

It is comforting, at a time when the rhetoric is about closing our borders, and hating our immigrants or people of different religions, and stifling open-minded debate for fear that it hurts people’s feelings or doesn’t conform to one particular set of values, to remember that Maine has sent clear and courageous messages (Smith was, after all, the only woman in the Senate and was punished for her courage) onto the national stage.


I didn’t win my debate. She didn’t win her bid for the presidency. But more than sixty years later, her wisdom survives. If only we could send her out on the political circuit today.



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14 Responses to Come Back, Margaret Chase Smith

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    I loved this. Although our family (which always got loud in election years) mostly embraced the other party, my parents’ admiration of Mrs. Smith was unquestioned.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Just what I was thinking as I wrote it, Liz. She was a bit too much of a hawk for me, but remembering her, I find myself so longing for her kind of integrity today.


  3. Gram says:

    She would not be welcomed into today’s GOP, but she should be.

  4. Karla Whitney says:

    Reminds me of that quote, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” Thoughts to chew on. Thanks Kate.

  5. I came across her speech recently and read it, which she wrote in response to Joe McCarthy. I remember my parents discussing him. My family always voted for the other party, but we all admired anyone who stood up to the likes of Joe the Odious. I wish we had more like her today.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    I was a big Margaret Chase Smith fan, too! I remember feeling so proud when her name was introduced at the national convention ….. and I had a campaign button of hers, complete with the rose she always wore. Wonderful memories! And — no matter what anyone thinks about this year’s campaign — I never would have dreamed, in those days when I cheered for Smith, that it would be the 21st century before a woman was truly taken seriously as a presidential candidate.

  7. I have been thinking of Margaret Chase Smith myself lately, hoping her words will be remembered by those of us who are familiar with them and shared with those who’ve never heard (in person or by recording) her Declaration of Conscience. She was no progressive, but she recognized danger in Joe McCarthy’s tactics, and had the courage to speak up. The time to show this kind of courage has come ’round again, and we all need to be speaking out.

    Nice post. Thank you.

  8. Pat Turnbull says:

    I was a pre-teen in Portland when Sen. Smith was in her prime, and my family supported her heartily. Though they were fairly conservative, they certainly didn’t endorse Sen. McCarthy. I’d forgotten about this wonderful speech; she was quite a role model for young women in Maine. Every candidate for political office should have to memorize this!

  9. sandy neily says:

    Oh Kate, that was just FANTASTIC. Thank you….am sharing it far and wide…

  10. dragons3 says:

    Brilliant! Thank you. Wish this would be published online and in every newspaper. And please, God, someone, I don’t care which political party, will have the courage to stand up and be a uniter instead of a divider!

  11. Sennebec says:

    She was well worth respecting and epitomized the reasonable republicans we grew up with in Union. They were able to disagree while listening respectfully, an art that seems not only endangered, but possibly on the terrorism list these days.

  12. Amber Foxx says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I am sharing it everywhere I can!

  13. Ruth Nixon says:

    Thanks for this wonderful blog. I’m 81 and remember clearly this happening and recently my 45 year old son asked why people like me let it happen. This election is very hard for me as I’m unhappy with ALL running on both sides so have just stopped talking about it and do what I think right. I wish I was as brave as Margaret Chase Smith was.

  14. MCWriTers says:

    Ruth Nixon…I wrote this post and then let it sit for a few days, wondering if I wanted to touch politics, and then decided we all needed this reminder. Glad you enjoyed it.

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