“The Declaration of Independence makes a difference,” said Herman Melville. So, we might respond, what difference does it make?
When National Public Radio tweeted the words of the Declaration over Independence Day, the tweets were seized on by supporters of President Donald J. Trump who called them “propaganda,” mistaking Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of King George III for a “biased” liberal attack against their hero. Other people dismissed the tweets as “spam” and wondered if NPR’s account had been hacked, perhaps misled by what The Washington Post called the Declaration’s “capitalization of random words.”
Indeed, the unfamiliar orthography of the Declaration, awkwardly broken up into the familiar bumpy cadence of a Twitter thread, 140-character blurbs popping up on your phone like phantomic texts from the eighteenth century, made it feel right at home in the context of Twitter. The author of America’s founding document was just another guy on the internet, typing furiously into the void, maybe checking back every 20 seconds to see if anyone had responded yet.
For Melville, the Declaration meant freedom to write, freedom to blaspheme, freedom from any constraints on radical thought. For most Americans, it has long since lost any transcendental meaning it may have once had. Nobody recites it in class or learns it by heart. We’re most likely to encounter it in a textbook, and I suspect most students skim Jefferson’s long list of charges against the king. If you don’t thrill to the melodramatic charge of eighteenth-century American prose, each line surging toward the sun and tumbling down on you like an ocean wave, the Declaration is probably a bit of a bore.
For the hapless Trump supporters who bumped into its scrambled, out-of-context lines on Twitter, though, the Declaration came to life again. It shocked and infuriated them. They were ready to call for a boycott or worse. How dare anyone write such things. Imagine their horror, these poor confused souls, when they came face to face with themselves—when they realized that they had been spitting and shouting against their own country on its birthday. It must have been like one of those terrible moments in a dream that haunts you for hours after you awaken, an obscure revelation that you can’t figure out before it fades and leaves you forever.
Unless, of course, they did recognize it—and some of them did. Perhaps it is not their nightmare, but our nightmare—our fear that, between the Declaration of Independence and Donald J. Trump, plenty of Americans will side with Trump. Better that than embrace the idea that all humans are created equal, a concept that they may accept in a textbook but not in their own lives. “Literally no one is going to read 5000 tweets about this trash,” yelped one alt-right type, clearly understanding what NPR was up to. You can feel the rage quivering in that line, the impatience bleeding out of it. Rage that NPR even exists. Impatience at the reminder of the old country, a country where Donald J. Trump was not yet our president. That person, whoever he is, saw the Declaration of Independence for what it was and called it “trash.” That is entirely fitting. In fact, it has happened before.
In 1951, at the height of McCarthyism, a Wisconsin reporter typed up a copy of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights, made it look like a petition, and took it to a Fourth of July celebration at a park. He showed the petition to 112 people, and only one person would agree to sign it. Some people did not want to sign any petition because they feared that making any political statement at all could be twisted and used against them, but others took the words of their own country’s founding documents for a “radical petition” penned by communists, and denounced the reporter for even showing it to them. “That might be from the Russian Declaration of Independence, but you can’t tell me that it is ours,” one woman angrily informed the reporter.
It is ours, whether we want it or not. It would be easy, after all, to bury the Declaration under a mountain of conscientious objections. It is a wild, fearless assertion of absolute freedom and universal equality composed by a man who did not, in his own life, honor either of those principles. It was not an objective description of the world as it was in 1776. It was an arrow fired into the future. Sometimes it still strikes us and draws blood.
Perhaps it is only in moments of existential fear that we rediscover the radicalism of our revolution, of the rebellion against unjust power that gave us our country. Then the familiar lines of the Declaration become unfamiliar, and their flinty words begin to scrape against each other and make noise again. It is radical, after all, to say that when a people is threatened by a despot, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” When the country has been seized by a McCarthy or a Trump, it becomes the most radical sentiment imaginable.
Nobody knows how many Americans understand this or even believe it, but we may have a clue. Of the 113 tweets that made up NPR’s Declaration marathon, the one most retweeted was this: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”