Margaret Chase Smith

United States Senator from Maine: 1897 - 1995

"The right to criticize: the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood…Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own."

Biography

Senator Smith spoke the words quoted above during a fifteen-minute speech delivered to the U.S. Senate on June 1, 1950. Years later she said that she thought that she would be remembered more for this “Declaration of Conscience” than for her legislative achievements.

Margaret Chase Smith was born and grew up in Skowhegan, Maine. Unable to afford a college education, she held jobs as a teacher, telephone operator, newspaper circulation manager and executive at a textile mill. She founded the local Business and Professional Women’s Club and became its president. In 1936, when her husband Clyde was elected to the US House of Representatives, she accompanied him to Washington as his assistant.

Four years later she was a widow, completing her husband’s term in office. Elected to Congress in her own right that same year, she served four terms in the House before being elected to the US Senate. Smith’s record in Washington includes many “firsts”: she was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, the first to be elected to the Senate, and the first to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a national party convention. Her devotion to the principles of responsible and responsive government is reflected in yet another record: she not only had perfect attendance, but (throughout her tenure) cast the most consecutive roll call votes (2,941).

Remembering today the excesses of McCarthyism during the Cold War, it seems remarkable that the first elected official to offer a principled argument against Senator McCarthy’s tactics of innuendo, smear and guilt by association was the Senate’s only woman, not yet two years in office. McCarthy’s response to her “Declaration of Conscience” was to have her dropped from membership in an important investigative subcommittee and to try to have her defeated in the next election. But Senator Smith had the last word: “My creed is that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought.”