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“A Declaration of Conscience” revisited, by Steve Patterson

Conscience by Steve Patterson U.S. Senators John Stennis and Margaret Chase Smith
“The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul” ~ John Calvin

History is a great teacher. We should learn its valuable lessons, but sadly we all too frequently do not. The only reason we are “doomed,” as Santayana said, to repeat history’s mistakes is either because no one was listening the first time; or no one has sense enough to relate mankind’s hard learned lessons to today’s circumstances.

Sixty-eight years ago, Maine’s Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith stood on the floor of the United States Senate and delivered what most historians today argue was one of the most powerful speeches ever delivered in that body. The speech, later dubbed “A Declaration of Conscience,” was delivered in the highly charged atmosphere of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s wild and unsubstantiated naming of Communists and Communist sympathizers in American society. Senator McCarthy and the movement he birthed, commonly referred to as “McCarthyism,” destroyed countless peoples’ lives and reputations.

In her speech, Senator Smith criticized national leadership and challenged the Nation, the Senate, and her own Republican Party to re-examine the mean-spirited, reckless tactics being used by Senator McCarthy and his allies. She succinctly stated what she referred to as the basic tenants of “Americanism”; the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; and the right to independent thought. The lady from Maine voiced her concern that those who freely exercised those rights at that time risked being unfairly labeled a Communist.

Senator Smith said, in part:
“The Democratic administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people by its complacency to the threat of communism and the leak of vital secrets to Russia through key officials of the Democratic administration. There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.

“Surely these are sufficient reasons to make it clear to the American people that it is time for a change and that a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country. Surely it is clear that this nation will continue to suffer as long as it is governed by the present ineffective Democratic Administration.

“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.

“I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”

Four years later, after many reputations had suffered, Mississippi’s own Senator John C. Stennis, who happened to be Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s best friend in the Senate, rose to the floor of the Senate and called for the public censure of Senator McCarthy. It was the Stennis speech that ultimately lead to Senator McCarthy’s censure by the senate, and his rightful place in the hall of infamy. Stennis referred to the activities of Senator McCarthy as perpetrating “sleaze” and “slime” on the American people and the United States Senate.

I will leave it up to the intellect and conscience of each individual reader to draw their own conclusions as to the parallels between the “sleaze” and “slime” that is today’s daily news. The lessons of history are unmistakable. In order for our republic to survive and prosper, our leaders must demonstrate unfailing courage in the face of the prevailing popularities of today.

Perhaps it would be wise to consult one of literatures most courageous characters, Atticus Finch.

“Atticus, you must be wrong.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong. . .”

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”

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