Angry conservatives mistook NPR’s tweeted recitation July 4 of the Declaration of Independence as a call for revolution against President Donald Trump — but it’s not the first time Americans recoiled in fear from the nation’s founding document.
Legendary Wisconsin journalist John Patrick Hunter was a freshly hired reporter for The Capital Times in 1951, when his city editor asked him to dream up a Fourth of July story, the newspaper recalled half a century later.
The young reporter walked out of the newsroom to go look for a story when something caught his eye.
“There was a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall in the city room,” Hunter said 50 years later. “I went by and saw it and thought, this is real revolutionary. I wonder if I could get people to sign it now.”
Hunter, who died in 2003 at age 87, turned in a holiday story that vividly captured the “red scare” whipped up by Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Senator, Joseph McCarthy, during his anti-communist crusade launched the year before.
The reporter typed up the Declaration’s preamble, along with six of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, and added the 15th Amendment prohibiting racist laws against voting.
Hunter put those foundational American documents into petition form and canvassed 112 people at Madison’s Independence Day celebration, but found only one person — insurance agent Wentworth Millar — willing to sign off.
“Ironically the guy who signed it, his ancestors came over on the Mayflower,” Hunter recalled in 2001, adding that Millar recognized the documents and their importance at that moment in history. “‘Sure I’ll sign the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights,’ (Millar said.) ‘We were never closer to losing the things that they stand for than we are today.'”
None of the others Hunter approached would sign — and 20 of them accused Hunter of being a communist, according to The Capitol Times.
“I can see you are using an old commie trick, putting God’s name on a radical petition,” one elderly man told him.
Hunter assured one woman that the opening words of his petition came from the Declaration of Independence, but she refused to believe him.
“That might be from the Russian Declaration of Independence, but you can’t tell me that it is ours,” the woman said.
The Associated Press and United Press International both refused to syndicate Hunter’s piece over McCarthyism fears, but it quickly became famous among journalists and political leaders.
McCarthy unsurprisingly criticized Hunter’s piece and congratulated Madison residents for refusing to sign a petition “put out by the communist editor of a communist newspaper,” and the reactionary Wisconsin State Journal ran a photo of the reporter with a bushy mustache with a caption suggesting unsavory connections.
The story became nationally known on July 28, 1951, when President Harry Truman referred to Hunter’s piece in a major speech in Detroit.
“Think of it,” the president said. “In the capital of the state of Wisconsin, on the Fourth of July in the year 1951, good Americans were afraid to sign their names to the language of the Declaration of Independence.”
Hunter and Millar, the petition’s only signer, were celebrated as American heroes by columnists and the CBS program “Vanity Fair.”
“Thomas Jefferson would have been proud of Wentworth Millar, insurance man, who apparently knows that free men, not fanatics, built our country and made our democracy live,” wrote columnist Drew Pearson at the time.
McCarthy’s campaign to root out communists in the government, military and elsewhere eventually ended in December 1954, when the U.S. Senate voted 65-22 to condemn him for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.”
The GOP senator died three years later and was replaced after a special election by Democrat William Proxmire — who, coincidently, had left his job as a reporter to pursue politics and was replaced on The City Times staff by Hunter.
“Everything Joe McCarthy said about us was an honor,” Hunter said in 2001. “I’m proud we earned his enmity.”