Friday, October 26, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Margaret Chase Smith's 1950 Declaration of Conscience

When she successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1948, Margaret Chase Smith made history as the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. But her defining moment came with a speech, one she called her "Declaration of Conscience," speaking out against fellow Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for his investigations of Americans for alleged Communist activity.

It's now one of the few speeches by women among the list of the top 100 political speeches of the 20th century, but at the time, Smith's speech must have been fraught with risk and tension. McCarthy was a national figure, and a feared one; few would speak out against him for fear of reprisals, and people falsely accused felt they had no defense against his power. But Smith, having examined the documents McCarthy said made his case, changed her mind about him and began to question his approach.

Chase began her speech by looking at how the Senate's rules had allowed McCarthy's diatribes to go on, contrasting them effectively with the liberties guaranteed Americans--and not favorably. "It is ironical that we Senators can in debate in the Senate directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to any American, who is not a Senator, any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming an American -- and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us -- yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order," she said. And in some of the most famous lines in the speech, she spoke for those who could not address the Senate:
The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as "Communists" or "Fascists" by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.
The setting for these remarks is described here:
When Smith rose to deliver her fifteen-minute speech in the Senate chamber, McCarthy sat two rows behind her....After Smith finished, although she had not mentioned McCarthy by name, she fully expected him to respond. Instead, McCarthy quietly left the chamber. A few senators spoke in praise of her remarks, but for the most part the Senate remained silent, fearing to engage McCarthy in further recriminations. The mail, however, showed an eight-to-one approval for Smith's stand. Newspaper editorials endorsed her position, and numerous organizations awarded her recognition for her courageous stand in favor of civil liberties against the politics of fear. The next time that President Truman came to the Capitol for lunch, he invited Margaret Chase Smith to join him. "Mrs. Smith," he told her, "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."
Smith did face reprisals for speaking out. She was removed from a permanent subcomittee--a violation of Senate norms--by McCarthy, who also helped fund her opponent in her next campaign and ridiculed her speech publicly. But in 1954, the Senate, including Smith, voted to censure McCarthy, effectively silencing him and ending his campaign of fear. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Cast a wide net: Smith's speech is all about McCarthy and his witchhunts, but she never names him. Instead, she goes after bigger fish: The U.S. Senate and the Republican party. She makes it clear that these larger groups will be tarred with the same brush if they support McCarthy's views or just seek to avoid fighting them--a clever tactic that puts the focus on the real price that will be paid. Not naming McCarthy might have served two other purposes, keeping her speech from sounding like a personal vendetta (and therefore easy to dismiss), and snubbing him by not paying particular attention to him as an individual.
  • Anticipate the major argument against your points: McCarthy's fear campaign had worked well precisely because anyone who objected was branded as a Communist sympathizer and a likely target for investigation themselves. Smith makes clear that she is not a sympathizer, then takes us to a higher ground, saying, "I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves."
  • Include your proposal in your speech: This speech concludes with the actual declaration and makes it part of the official text, rather than decoupling the two and using the speech to announce the declaration. That fits the setting, but also ensures that her proposal comes with context wrapped around it, all in the parcel of one speech. 
You can read more about her remarkable career in No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Here is the transcript of Smith's speech, and you can hear an excerpt from it in the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?



(Photo from the U.S. Senate Historical Office)

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