Coming up with a novel way to celebrate the Fourth of July is not easy after 240 years, and tweeting the Declaration of Independence, line by line, as National Public Radio did this week, seems as good as any.
But then things got weird. These 1,300 or so words set the founding of our nation in motion — the original Make America Great campaign — but several politically obsessed dimwits saw in them sharp criticism of the guy who’s out to Make America Great Again. They mistook the document that served notice on King George III as fierce criticism of Donald Trump’s presidency.
At least one man accused NPR of inciting a revolution. And what would that revolution look like? Ira Glass exhorting the troops with the Battle Whine of the Republic? Wait Wait . . . Don’t Kill Me?
Most of these people deleted their tweets, and at least one offered a surprisingly nuanced apology. This was the opposite of “I only read the headline” — plunging directly into the middle of a long, dense document and spouting off rather than making any effort to understand what you’re actually looking at.
But while these people might or might not be dolts, it’s not because they can’t identify historical documents from 140-character snippets.
“I Tweeted a VERY dumb comment,” one guy wrote. “But ask yourselves; if read to the average American, would they know that you were reading the [Declaration of Independence]?” For better or worse, this is a fair point.
The Declaration of Independence, viewed without context, is deeply weird — a long screed against an unnamed royal figure, punctuated with unfortunate language regarding indigenous people. At the time, it all made perfect sense, but divorced from its history, it reads like the ravings of a survivalist Natural Man truther, who claims to be unbound by the invisible shackles of society and not subject to our legal system.
“[T]ransporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences” sounds like something from “Game of Thrones.” Given our political climate, is it any wonder a few people mistook this for an anti-Trump screed?
Even the Constitution has its unhinged moments. The foundational argument in favor of American democracy at times also appears to be a pretty good argument against editing by committee. Article V is a 143-word sentence that is apparently capitalized at random and punctuated with a fire hose that sprays commas. And though it’s not exactly obvious to the naked eye, it includes a clause protecting the slave trade. The New Yorker, in 2013, declared it “the weirdest sentence in the U.S. Constitution.”
But it has some competition. Section 10 Article I says, “No State shall . . . make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts,” which is bad news if you pay your property taxes online.
Article II of the Massachusetts constitution begins with an open demand that we all worship God: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.” If Mike Huckabee tweeted that verbatim, how hard would he get trolled by the other side of the political aisle?
“Anybody who’s pointing the finger that somebody might not know the Declaration of Independence, if you gave them a quiz, I don’t think they’d do particularly well,” said Jay Wexler, a professor at Boston University School of Law and the author of “The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions.” Every time a news event — emoluments, the debt ceiling — results in the general public happening upon a heretofore-ignored section of the Constitution, his phone starts ringing.
People know bits and pieces of the Declaration and the Constitution, Wexler said, “but the rest of it? There are some really seemingly strange sentences. . . . It’s not always artfully drafted.”
He pointed to a line in the Declaration: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
Their what now?
This is no shot at the founding fathers. They certainly had their faults, but imagine what kind of unhinged nonsense would find its way into the constitution if we were writing it from scratch now. Can you say with any confidence that our most serious scholars and sophisticated policy minds would emerge as central figures in such a process?
Louisiana Representative Clay Higgins posted a bizarre, five-minute “tour” of Auschwitz on YouTube that resembles history’s least appropriate Johnny Cash video. His takeaway from the Holocaust — the Holocaust — appears to be that government should aspire to limitless military power. One leader involved in World War II did harbor those aspirations, but he’s the guy who built the camp Higgins was weirdly defiling.
No, today such an effort would surely devolve almost immediately into a shouting contest, and an alarming amount of the resulting document would be devoted to abortion and gay marriage and hydrofracking and bike lanes. The Second Amendment would be 4,000 pages long and include innumerable schematic diagrams of cutting-edge firearms.
“I shudder to think about what we’d come up with today, if we had a constitutional convention,” Wexler said.
By comparison, our original founding documents are a model of restraint and coherence. Might be worth giving them a read.