The Broadside (Transcript): The other Declaration of Independence

Anisa Khalifa: July 4th, 1776. Independence Day. It’s arguably the most important date in American history, when citizens of the colonies declared total independence from Great Britain for the very first time. But what if it wasn’t the first?

Unidentified Speaker: Wait a second, this, this is actually real. This is a real slice of American history that incredibly people don’t know about.

Anisa Khalifa: You’re listening to the Broadside, where we tell stories from our home at the crossroads of the South. This week, my colleague Jerad Walker takes us down the rabbit hole of North Carolina’s Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. And he entertains a shocking possibility: either someone’s lying — or we may need to change everything we know about American Independence.

Jerad Walker: MecDec face. That’s what Dave Fleming calls the look.

Dave Fleming: It’s just jaw dropping, hands in the air, kind of going “How do I not know about this?”

Jerad Walker: Dave is a former writer for Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine. He’s currently a correspondent for Meadowlark Media. While he’s mostly covered sports in his career, Dave’s also written a few books. His latest is about a little known historical document called the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Or the MecDec for short.

Dave Fleming: And I delight in, when I give talks or readings, I can see MecDec face from a mile away, I can see the people who are, you know what? And then what happens is people start, they pull out their phone and they’ve got — now it’s mech deck face denial.

Jerad Walker: I know exactly what he’s talking about because I’ve experienced it myself. And Dave had his own version of MecDec face about a decade ago.

Dave Fleming: I can remember it clear as day. I guess with all obsessions that you never forget, um, how you started down the rabbit hole. My wife and I had moved to North Carolina, almost sight unseen and just immediately fell in love with Charlotte, with North Carolina, with everything about it.

Jerad Walker: Like a lot of transplants, they started to wonder about the culture and history of their new home.

Dave Fleming: And just as I had begun to think that, our youngest daughter, Kate, I was picking her up at Davidson Elementary School and was waiting for her while she was coming in from the playground, and just happened to be staring at the North Carolina flag and wondered why the date on our state flag was 14 months before we had even declared independence as a country.

Jerad Walker: There’s two dates on there and neither one of them is July 4th.

Dave Fleming: Yes. And so this immediately piqued my interest where it’s like What a weird thing to have these obscure dates on your state flag. And, um, yeah, here we are 10 years later.

Jerad Walker: So Dave went home and googled the first date prominently displayed on the flag — May 20th, 1775 — and he was introduced to the MecDec for the very first time. He found out that it was written on that day by the citizens of Mecklenburg County, which is modern-day Charlotte. The document declared that the people of that region were now independent from their British rulers. The language bore a suspicious resemblance to portions of the later Declaration of Independence. And Dave also learned that because of that, the MecDec’s authenticity had long been in doubt. Armed with this knowledge, he immediately realized one of two bizarre things could be true. Either…

Dave Fleming: Charlotte is actually the cradle of American independence and that Thomas Jefferson may have plagiarized the document that these men created.

Jerad Walker: Or—North Carolina has been celebrating a lie by displaying the date of the MecDec on its flag, state seal and a few million license plates. Not long after this revelation, Dave began turning his trip down the rabbit hole into a book titled Who’s Your Founding Father?.

Dave Fleming: I started the whole thing as a skeptic and I was planning on, yeah, just kind of doing more of a tongue in cheek. I think a lot of people follow this similar path for me, it was all silly and funny and oh. This is some kind of ghost story. And then I saw the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and then that’s just fully mind-blowing.

Jerad Walker: The letters he’s referring to are well-documented. In 1819, a newspaper in Raleigh printed a purported copy of the MecDec. This was the first time that knowledge of the document became widespread throughout America. It was a bombshell that called into question the originality of the Declaration of Independence. The news eventually reached the two surviving giants of the Revolution, who were, for lack of a better word — frenemies.

Dave Fleming: For John Adams, who I think had always been sort of jealous and a little bit bitter over the attention that Thomas Jefferson and the credit that Thomas Jefferson had kind of taken for himself as the author of the Declaration of Independence — the first thing that jumps off the page is, it’s a gotcha letter. It’s John Adams just going, I knew you were a phony and now I have receipts.

Jerad Walker: Huge levels of pettiness.

Dave Fleming: Oh my God. It’s, it’s. You know, people think the discourse is bad now, you should read some of these letters… incredible amounts of shade. And, you know, accusing someone in writing of plagiarizing in that time, I mean, that’s an automatic pistol duel to the death. So he, it’s not something to be taken lightly.

Jerad Walker: Now, the odds of two eighty-year-old men shooting each other in a duel are pretty low — even in the 1820s. But the fact remains that Adams initially considered the authenticity of the MecDec a real possibility. Even if Jefferson called it — and this is a quote — “spurious.” As Dave continued his research he uncovered more and more supporting evidence in favor of the MecDec. There were signed affidavits from more than a dozen witnesses. A report commissioned by the state legislature of North Carolina that was published in 1831. And the account of a man named Captain James Jack who very likely delivered secret documents from Mecklenburg County to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Dave Fleming: Captain Jack is known as the South’s Paul Revere, only he’s much braver and he actually rode 550 more miles and he didn’t get caught and he basically wasn’t a product of PR. So Captain Jack, it really should be Paul Revere is the Captain Jack of the North.

Jerad Walker: And then there’s the later presidential visits.

Dave Fleming: Yeah, it’s, again, it’s another twist where your, your jaw just hits the ground when you realize that literally up until, you know, decades ago, this was a holiday in Charlotte, that five or six sitting presidents had come to Charlotte to celebrate and honor the MecDec with a hundred thousand people at most of these events. And presidents like Wilson, Ford, Eisenhower, Taft, coming into town to celebrate America’s first original patriots.

Jerad Walker: So after finding out about all of this, Dave had an epiphany. You could maybe even call it a conversion.

Dave Fleming: Wait a second, this, this is actually real. This is a real slice of American history that incredibly people don’t know about.

Jerad Walker: And I gotta be honest, at this point, my blood is running red, white, and Carolina blue. I’m completely sold. You’re sold, right? We might need to rewrite the history books. Maybe move Independence Day up a few weeks to May 20th instead. There’s only one problem.

If I wanted to see the original Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, where would I go?

Dave Fleming: Well, it depends really on what you believe. But the original document burned in 1800.

Jerad Walker: Ah, yeah. That’s a problem. Belief is a powerful thing. But history? History is mostly what you can prove. Coming up after a short break, we find out why the MecDec sits somewhere in the muddy middle. And why North Carolina might still be first in freedom without it.

Jim Ambuske: Fire is the great enemy of archives.

Jerad Walker: Jim Ambuske is a historian at George Mason University who specializes in the American Revolution. He says, at face value, there’s nothing fishy about the fire that supposedly destroyed the MecDec. With the historical record, stuff like this happens all the time.

Jim Ambuske: Who knows what we would know if we didn’t have fire?

Jerad Walker: But without a surviving primary document or a dated copy that was printed in something like a newspaper…

Jim Ambuske: Yeah, it’s hard to confirm. There’s indications that something happened on May 20th, although we don’t know what. And a lot of the evidence we have is hindsight evidence of people writing later or people telling stories or people relaying evidence that was told to them, uh, by their ancestors, years later after they’re dead. So it’s hard for us to say for sure whether or not this happened. I mean, for me personally, I think if it did happen, the more interesting thing is how out of touch they are with the rest of British America at this point. And if, if this does happen, they are so far outside the mainstream that they’re basically off the map.

Jerad Walker: At that point, most colonial leaders hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain. But if there were a people that could be a full year ahead of everyone else, it would have been the notoriously rebellious Scots Irish who settled in Mecklenburg County in the 1700s.

Jim Ambuske: These are, and I cannot emphasize this enough, radical Protestant Presbyterians. Everybody in the 18th century who was not a Scots Irish Presbyterian knows who they are because they don’t like them. Charles Woodmason, who is an Anglican cleric who is traveling through this region in the 1760s, comments frequently on what he sees as a very ghastly, mean, rough people.

Jerad Walker: So yeah, a way too-early declaration of independence coming from these folks? It’s certainly feasible. But Jim is skeptical. And he says there are a couple of other possibilities. A common theory is that the citizens of Mecklenburg County simply misremembered very real events. And while that may sound a little condescending, there were a lot of proclamations coming out of communities throughout the colonies around this time.

Jim Ambuske: The War of Independence, as it becomes to be known, breaks out on April 19th, 1775 in Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. And as news of that travels south, you start to see these resolves. You start to see these pronouncements being issued, condemning what the British had done, condemning what Parliament had done in particular.

Jerad Walker: And the faulty memory theory gains steam when you realize that the same committee that supposedly produced the MecDec also created a very different proclamation just 11 days later. It’s called the Mecklenburg Resolves. We know for sure that it existed because surviving copies were printed in newspapers at the time. And curiously enough, it’s not nearly as radical as its controversial cousin. In fact, it’s kind of boring.

Jim Ambuske: They are saying that civil authority is collapsing. Until there is a resolution to this crisis, it is incumbent upon us to organize ourselves into a kind of caretaker government to ensure order and stability. So you can see in these resolves, it kind of sounds like independence, but there’s not an actual use of the word independence.

Jerad Walker: In this scenario, decades later, the collective memory of the Mecklenburg Resolves could have transformed into the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. And then, of course, there’s another option. A hoax. Which is extreme and an idea that Jim is frankly hesitant to endorse. But it leads to a bigger question. Why would anyone want to fabricate or even exaggerate something like this in the early 1800s?

Jim Ambuske: You know, you start to see a lot of founding myths kind of almost immediately, but really in the 19th century when the founding generation starts to die off, and really after Washington dies in 1799. It’s not until after then that you get the cherry tree story and the, Washington chucking the silver dollar across the Potomac and all that kind of stuff. But as these revolutionaries are dying off, as people who served in the army are dying off and people who served in Congress dying off, what you see is a kind of mad scramble to claim a connection with the revolution.

Jerad Walker: And some folks were better at it than others.

Jim Ambuske: It’s Boston and Virginia that tends to get all the credit, right? But places like North Carolina are putting up their hand and saying, Hey, what about us?

Jerad Walker: So what about us? If the MecDec is in doubt, what is North Carolina’s big contribution? For that, we have to go back to where this story started.

Dave Fleming: What a weird thing to have these obscure dates on your state flag.

Jerad Walker: One of those dates represents the MecDec. But the other is a reference to something called the Halifax Resolves. This was a resolution adopted by the North Carolina Provincial Congress on April 12, 1776. The proclamation made North Carolina the first of the colonial governments to call for total independence from Great Britain. And it’s undeniably real. There are two known copies — one is located in the National Archives in Washington, DC and the other is here in North Carolina. So rest easy, North Carolinians. The state is still technically first in freedom — but with an asterisk.

And that’s not unusual. Jim Ambuske says the history of the founding of the United States is much more complicated than the version you were taught as a kid. It’s constantly evolving and often obscured by myth, legend and even our own inability to confront the harshest of truths.

It’s not clean, right?

Jim Ambuske: It’s not clean at all. It’s so messy. It’s taken 250 years to get all of this right. We’re still arguing about it. We’re still pulling our hair out. We’re still going to archives in the United States and Canada and Great Britain and France trying to find smoking guns for all of this. Hoping upon hope that we have — at long last by the time we die — some kind of clear answer. And we’re not going to get one.

Jerad Walker: Ah, history.

Anisa Khalifa: This episode of The Broadside was produced by Jerad Walker and edited by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our executive producer is Wilson Sayre.

Dave Fleming’s book is “Who’s Your Founding Father?: One Man’s Epic Quest to Uncover the First, True Declaration of Independence.” It’s available now from Hachette Books. Special thanks goes out to Jim Ambuske. We’ve dropped a link to his work at R2 Studios— the podcast division of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio, and is part of the NPR Network. You can email us at [email protected]. If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! I’m Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening y’all. We’ll be back next week.

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