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One on One: Can you pass this North Carolina history test?

By D.G. Martin

Here is a test for you.

Look at our state flag. There are a couple of dates. One of them is May 20, 1775. Why is it there?

A few years ago, I wrote a column about Charlotte lawyer Scott Syfert’s book, “The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775.”

If you don’t know, or even if you do, keep reading and learn why folks in Charlotte are busy preparing to celebrate the 246th anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (“Meck Dec”).

The text of this declaration includes the following language: “Resolved, That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people; that we are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing people under the power of God and the General Congress; to the maintenance of which independence we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes and our most sacred honor.”

The Meck Dec itself has a long history. Not much was said or written about it until 1819 when a Raleigh newspaper and then newspapers throughout the country published the story, launching a nationwide firestorm of interest and argument about the Mecklenburg Declaration. Former President John Adams wrote former President Thomas Jefferson suggesting that the Mecklenburg Declaration had been the source for Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration. Jefferson responded that the Mecklenburg version was “spurious.”

Finally, after 50 years, on May 20, 1825, Charlotte held its first celebration of the anniversary of the event.

When Jefferson’s letters were published in 1829, his “spurious” description prompted loyal North Carolinians to stand up for the validity of their state’s early version of a declaration of independence.

In 1831, the state legislature established a special committee to settle what had become known as the Mecklenburg Controversy. The committee, after an investigation that included interviews with 13 eyewitnesses to the events of May 1775, concluded that the Meck Dec was genuine and that it was incumbent “to usher to the world the Mecklenburg Declaration, accompanied with such testimonials of its genuineness, as shall silence incredulity…[and] forever secure it from being forgotten.”

The committee’s report did not end the controversy, but its sanction gave credibility and cover to the state’s official embrace of the Meck Dec and 150 years of bragging about our “First in Freedom” status.

Syfert observed that after years of big celebrations that attracted American presidents, interest had waned.

Why was so little known and reported about the Mecklenburg Declaration before 1819?  And why, after more than 150 years of attention, did interest in the Meck Dec wane?

Syfert dealt with these two questions. He also lays out the facts, pro and con, so readers can form their own conclusions about the Meck Dec. Syfert says he began his research a believer, but became a skeptic as he reviewed the many challenges to its authenticity. Finally, however, all the evidence convinced him that the story of its adoption was true.

Thanks in part to Syfert’s book, Charlotte is celebrating the declaration again, in a big way. At noon on May 20 on Tryon Street in the center of Charlotte, military and colonial reenactors, horses, military parades, and cannon firings will accompany patriotic speeches. A big dinner with special beverages from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is already sold out. On Sunday, May 23, a massive bike ride to various historic locations in Charlotte will commemorate Captain James Jack’s 450-mile horseback ride to deliver the Mecklenburg Declaration to Congress.

Next time you notice that May 20, 1775 date on our flag, you can think, “Now I know the rest of the story.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

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