Digital History

Postwar America: 1945 - 1960

Margaret Chase Smith: The Conscience of the Senate Previous Next
Digital History ID 3418



Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman elected to both houses of Congress. She was the first woman to enter the Senate without being appointed to the position. During World War II, she was the only civilian woman to go to sea in a Navy ship in wartime. She was also the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party convention. With only a high school education, she entered politics after her husband, a Republican member of Congress, died. She served four terms in the House and four terms in the Senate.

Smith, known as "the conscience of the Senate," gained a reputation for courage and independence when she became the first person in Congress to condemn the anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. In a 15-minute speech on June 1, 1950, barely a year after entering the Senate, she denounced McCarthy for destroying reputations with his reckless charges about Communists and "fellow travelers" in government. She never mentioned the anti-communist crusader by name; although, no one doubted who she referred to. She told the Senate it was time to stop conducting "character assassination" behind "the shield of congressional immunity."

Smith then read a "Declaration of Conscience," signed by six fellow Republicans. "The nation sorely needs a Republican victory," she declared, "but I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny [misrepresentation]--fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear."

McCarthy threatened to destroy her political career. But she was so highly regarded that voters easily re-elected her to the Senate. Many speculated that she would run for president in 1952. Asked what she would do if she woke up in the White House, she replied: "I'd go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. And then I'd go home."

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