Fifty years ago today John Patrick Hunter was the newest reporter on the staff of The Capital Times, and thus it befell him to be working on the Fourth of July.
"Cedric Parker told me to dream up a Fourth of July story," Hunter said in an interview this week from the west side home he shares with his wife, Merry.
Parker, a legend in Madison journalism, first as a reporter and later as city editor and managing editor, had no inkling what the outcome of his order to Hunter would be.
Then again, neither did Hunter. But the result was a story that vividly measured how deeply the fear generated by the anti-communist crusade of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his minions had permeated the American soul.
He found that 111 Madison residents were too scared to sign the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights on the Fourth of July.
McCarthy's red-baiting and unsubstantiated charges began in 1950 when the Wisconsin Republican declared that communists in large numbers had infiltrated the State Department. He would later take on the Army with the same accusations, as well as those in civilian life.
His unfounded charges led people of all walks of life, from librarians to professors to clergy, to live in fear they would be labeled as communists. In Wisconsin, The Capital Times was the leading voice opposing McCarthy.
As Hunter was walking out of the newsroom on that Independence Day, something caught his eye.
"There was a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall in the city room," he said. "I went by and saw it and thought, this is real revolutionary. I wonder if I could get people to sign it now."
So he typed up the preamble to the Declaration, included six of the 10 amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, and added the 15th Amendment. Hunter put all of it into the form of a petition, mimeographed it, then hit the streets.
Of the 112 people he talked to that day at Madison's Fourth of July celebration in Vilas Park, only one, a Madison insurance agent, agreed to sign the "petition."
"Ironically the guy who signed it, his ancestors came over on the Mayflower," Hunter recalled this week. He was Wentworth A. Millar, who worked for the Mutual Service Insurance Co.
"Sure I'll sign the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights," he told Hunter. "We were never closer to losing the things that they stand for than we are today."
None of the others would sign. Twenty of the 111 accused Hunter of being a communist. "I can see you are using an old commie trick, putting God's name on a radical petition," one elderly man said.
When Hunter pointed out to one woman that the opening passage of the petition was from the Declaration of Independence, she was in disbelief. "That might be from the Russian Declaration of Independence, but you can't tell me that it is ours," she said hotly.
Another said, "You can't get me to sign that - I'm trying to get a loyalty clearance for a government job."
Perhaps the most distressing part of Hunter's story was that a majority of those who refused to sign the petition said they feared repercussions if they signed any petitions at all. This on a day when they were supposed to be celebrating their nation's freedoms.
Such was the fear of McCarthy that neither the Associated Press nor United Press International moved Hunter's story on the news wires. Nonetheless, word of the piece swept through the worlds of politics and journalism.
Several major papers, including the Washington Post and the New York Post, wrote favorable editorials on the Hunter piece, while others asked for permission to reprint the story. President Harry Truman called The Capital Times founder, editor and publisher William T. Evjue to congratulate him on the story.
Not all of the reaction was positive, of course. The Wisconsin State Journal, a mouthpiece for McCarthy, ran a picture of Hunter with a bushy mustache and asked if anyone would sign a petition presented by the likes of him.
McCarthy, of course, also criticized the piece and congratulated the citizens of Madison for refusing to sign a petition "put out by the communist editor of a communist newspaper." The senator insisted the whole story had been the idea of Parker, a former CIO labor organizer whom McCarthy regularly labeled as a communist.
Evjue and Parker had fought McCarthy for years before he gained national recognition and notoriety, exposing not only his smear tactics but his concocted war record, his income tax problems and his unlawful practices as a judge.
While several newspapers had mentioned the Hunter piece, the story became truly national in scope on July 28, when, during a major speech in Detroit, President Truman made reference to it.
"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." Truman called it proof of the damage being done by mccarthyism and "all these lies and smears and fear campaigns."
Columnist and commentator Drew Pearson also picked up the cudgel, saying, "Reporter John Hunter did a service for free men everywhere when he proved just how far mccarthyism can warp a nation's mind."
Pearson called McCarthyism "a disease of fear, unreasoning fear, moral fear, fear of ideas, fear of books, fear of the good old American right to sign a petition."
And, for a final touch, Pearson praised the one man brave enough to sign Hunter's petition. "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."
Hunter and Millar were both saluted in New York, where City Council President Joseph Sharkey proudly became the second signer of the petition. Hunter and Millar appeared on the new CBS Television Network's "Vanity Fair" program and were featured in Newsweek magazine.
More than 50 reporters attended a press conference that featured Hunter and Millar.
"I can assure you that The Capital Times will go right on exposing Joe McCarthy and the things he stands for until he goes back to his Wisconsin chicken farm in rightful repudiation," Hunter told the group.
Eventually, of course, McCarthy's smear tactics and bludgeoning of any who stood in his way got so out of hand the U.S. Senate condemned him.
McCarthy died in 1957 and was replaced in the Senate by Democrat William Proxmire, who won a special election.
There was a symmetry in that. Hunter was working that Fourth of July in 1951 because he had been hired when a position on The Capital Times opened up with the resignation of a reporter who wanted to pursue politics. That reporter was William Proxmire.
Hunter, now 85, went on to work another 44 years at The Capital Times, most of that time covering politics and government. He also served as editorial page editor and retired in 1995.
"Everything Joe McCarthy said about us was an honor," Hunter said this week.
"I'm proud we earned his enmity."