Room With a View

By Franklin Burroughs

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In The Senate: Classic Speeches, compiled by Robert Byrd, the late West Virginia senator offers his list of the 50 greatest speeches before the upper chamber. Inevitably, “A Declaration of Conscience,” by Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith, is among them. She delivered it in June of 1950, four months after her senior colleague, Wisconsin Republican Joe McCarthy, had initiated his witch hunt, claiming the State Department knowingly harbored communists in its ranks. Those who opposed him he denounced as un-American. Smith’s speech was the first real challenge to McCarthy, and it is extraordinary. Google it. Read it. Now.

Another selection, Maine Republican William Pitt Fessenden’s denunciation of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, is largely forgotten. Fessenden spoke as a staunch abolitionist — a Radical Republican, as they were then called. His speech made his abhorrence of slavery clear, but his argument was based upon the constitutional and political history of the U.S. — facts that could not be dismissed as mere sentiment. It launched Fessenden’s career, impressing and influencing Abraham Lincoln, among others. But Fessenden is largely remembered as a senator who, in 1868, betrayed party and principle by voting for the acquittal of Andrew Johnson.

Fessenden had no use for Johnson or his pro-Southern politics; if, as he wrote, the President could be removed from office for “general cursedness,” the case would’ve been simple. But the charge against Johnson rested chiefly on his refusal to comply with the Tenure of Office Act, passed over the President’s veto by the Radical Republican majority. It required Senate approval for the President to dismiss any cabinet appointee. The act was purely political, a bid to protect Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a champion of the Radical Republican agenda for Reconstruction. It plainly exceeded the powers granted to the Senate by the Constitution. Johnson ignored it, the House voted to impeach, and Fessenden found himself under pressure from friends, colleagues, and his own political leanings to vote to impeach. But in the end, he considered himself bound by the Constitution and cast a vote that thwarted the two-thirds majority needed to remove Johnson.

These four Maine senators seemed to have shared basic convictions.

It is simple coincidence that Smith and Fessenden gave their most famous speeches during their first terms. Former Maine senator William Cohen was also a first termer when he became one of the earliest Republicans to recommend impeaching Richard Nixon. As was Senator Susan Collins in 1999, when she became one of just three Republicans voting for acquittal in the Clinton impeachment.

It is also coincidence all happened to be Republicans. Since Nixon, the GOP has moved so far rightward (and southward) as to resemble the Democrats of Fessenden’s day, even in Maine. But these four Maine senators seemed to have shared basic convictions, unrelated to party politics. Margaret Chase Smith defined them. They are, borrowing her words: 1) no rhetorical grandstanding — “I will speak as simply as possible, because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence,” 2) qualified party loyalty — “This nation sorely needs a Republican victory,” but not obtained by riding “the Four Horsemen — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” and
3) commitment to “the basic principles of Americanism” — the right to criticize, hold unpopular beliefs, protest, and think independently. And to recognize when those rights become responsibilities, then act promptly and unequivocally.

Of the four, Senator Collins risked least. Her vote made no difference — the Democratic majority ensured Clinton’s acquittal. But recently, she has risked much more, placing herself in the tradition here outlined, which is no doubt familiar to her. That tradition is impressive and urgently relevant once more — for her, for all of her colleagues, and for all of us.

More from Franklin Burroughs.


Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.