Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith
Maine Republicans, with a few exceptions, are a breed apart. Being Republican in Maine meant being in favor of abolitionism, state’s rights, your father’s fiscal conservatism and personal freedoms. For the most part modern Maine Republicans have steered clear of the Bible-thumping, “other”-bashing, anti-compromise, gun toting, conspiracy-spewing qualities our congress now seems infected with. We can be proud of our Maine senators and congresspeople of both parties. Fare thee well, Olympia Snowe.
Margaret Madeline Chase Smith was one of our Republican senators we can be especially proud of. She confronted bully Joseph McCarthy and brought him down…eventually.
Margaret was born in Skowhegan, Maine on December 14, 1897 to George Emery and Carrie Matilda (Murray) Chase. George was the town barber and Carrie was a waitress, store clerk, and shoe factory worker. Daughter Margaret graduated from Skowhegan High School and was captain of her girl’s basketball team. During high school she worked as an operator at the telephone company where she met local businessman and politician Clyde Smith, 21 years her senior. After high school she taught school and also worked as an executive for the Maine Telephone and Telegraph Company. From 1919 to 1928 Margaret joined the staff of the Independent Reporter, a Skowhegan weekly newspaper (owned by Clyde Smith) for whom she was circulation manager. During these years she became active in women’s organizations, first the Skowhegan chapter of the Business and Professional Woman’s Club and later serving as president of the Maine Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. On On May 14, 1930, Chase married Clyde Smith at the age of 32.
She soon became active in politics, and was elected to the Maine Republican State Committee, on which she served from 1930 to 1936. Clyde Smith was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1937 and Margaret accompanied her husband to Washington and became his secretary, speechwriter, researcher and office manager. It was because of this training that she was prepared for what was to follow in the spring of 1940: Clyde suffered a heart attack and convinced his voters his wife could stand in for him in the fall election. He died on April 8, 1940. In November Margaret was elected with 65% of the vote. She continued to serve in the House until 1948 when she was elected to the Senate with the slogan, “Don’t change a record for a promise.”
Margaret Chase Smith, in the tradition of New England Republicans, maintained an independent streak. She often supported FDR’s New Deal policies and later opposed some Republican judicial appointments. But her greatest act of independence, and the one for which she will always be remembered, is her Declaration of Conscience.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized his fellow Americans with his witch hunt for Communists, first in government and then branching out into all spheres. At first Margaret welcomed this search for spies but soon became convinced that most of the accusations were without evidence, and were done for hysterical or self-promoting reasons. After only a year in the Senate, Senator Smith delivered her famous fifteen minute address, never mentioning Sen. McCarthy by name. The full text can be seen here. In it she express the following:
- The right to criticize;
- The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
- The right to protest;
- The right of independent thought.
But she also took her own party to task:
Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.
…But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.
Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of “know nothing, suspect everything” attitudes.
The immediate fallout of this speech was her loss of membership on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (the Senate version of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee). She was fired by McCarthy and replaced by Richard Nixon. She and her co-signatories to the Declaration of Conscience were referred by McCarthy as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs”. It would take another four years before McCarthy was censured in the Senate. Margaret voted in favor.
Can the current House of Representatives learn something from our esteemed senator? I hope so.
Margaret continued to serve until 1972. She was a presidential candidate in the 1962 Republican primary but the nomination went to Barry Goldwater. She was the first woman to have her name be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major political party’s convention. At the end of her political life she moved back to Skowhegan and worked on her library. She also lectured at universities and in 1989 received the Presidential Metal of Freedom from George H.W. Bush. She died in 1995 at the age of 97. Come to Maine and you will see her name everywhere, we’re proud of our First Lady of the Senate.