Date emblazoned on North Carolina's flag marks historical event that may not have ever happened

ByCameron Clinard WTVD logo
Tuesday, May 21, 2019
NC state flag honors historical event that probably didn't happen
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A date emblazoned on the most sacred symbols of North Carolina is wrong.

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- A date emblazoned on the most sacred symbols of North Carolina is wrong.

Front and center on the North Carolina state seal and in the top of the blue rectangle on the state flag, sits the date May 20, 1775.

That date is supposedly the date the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed.

The only problem: the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence does not exist.

"The so-called Mecklenburg Declaration is regarded by most historians as a spurious document because there is no such document," Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow said. Crow is the former Deputy Secretary of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

"The Meck Dec doesn't exist in a physical form. The one that we have is one that is cobbled together decades afterwards," Dr. Daniel Fountain said. Fountain is a History professor at Meredith College; his specialty is early American history.

The first mention of a Mecklenburg Declaration happened April 30, 1819 in a Raleigh newspaper. The writer behind the article, Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander, claimed his father was a clerk at the May 20, 1775 meeting where Mecklenburg leaders decided to throw off British rule.

In his article, Alexander admitted that the original document did not exist anymore. He said it had been destroyed in a fire. Alexander's father had also since died. But Alexander said he was able to recreate the document from papers left to him by his father.

Not having an original document is a huge problem in the eyes of historians. It doesn't necessarily mean the document never existed, but it does raise red flags.

"We've got to deal with what is embedded in the source material. If it's not there, then I can't invest much credibility in it," Fountain said.

Mecklenburg Resolves

Another problem for historians is logically the Mecklenburg Declaration doesn't make sense.

The group that supposedly wrote the Meck Dec is the same group of people who, 11 days later, wrote the Mecklenburg Resolves.

"If the Resolves are on the record, why isn't the Meck Dec on the record? That's a notable omission," Fountain said.

The Mecklenburg Resolves is a verified document written May 31, 1775. The Resolves strongly condemn Britain in the wake of the Battles of Lexington and Concord (which are known as the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War). The Resolves even suspend British authority and set up a temporary government.

The Mecklenburg Resolves was a radical document.

"The Mecklenburg Resolves came four years after a British Governor marched North Carolina militia west into Alamance, waged war on the Regulators, hung six of those Regulators after the fact. So the idea that you're basically abandoning local control for the British, that's a risky move," Fountain said. "The Mecklenburg Resolves are a very important document in that they're showing the resolves of local Charlotteans that they're not going to take it unless the British change--which is what they suggest in those resolves. But it certainly would put some necks in a noose, and that's nothing to shrug at. That's a very serious statement to make."

Patriots signing their name to the Mecklenburg Resolves were taking a risk, but they were also leaving room for compromise. The Resolves clearly state that British authority would be reinstated as soon as the British started treating the American colonies fairly.

"(At this time) most colonists wanted their rights recognized by the crown, but they did not anticipate that they would have to leave the imperial government to achieve that," Crow said. "That was the thought well into the period when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Even into the Revolutionary War, a lot of people were very reluctant to declare independence."

Formally declaring independence in 1775 would have been downright outrageous.

When the Mecklenburg Resolves were published in area newspapers, the British-appointed North Carolina Governor Josiah Martin was not at all pleased.

"The governor at the time looks at this and says, 'this is horrendous.' He says, 'this is the worst that we have seen come out of that hornet's nest in the west.' So this is something that is not a mild statement," Fountain said.

Why would the Governor react negatively to the Resolves and not the Meck Dec? If the Meck Dec was real, Gov. Martin surely would have called it the worst -- and perhaps have reacted even more drastically.

"A declaration of independence is basically declaring war," Fountain said. "You're saying, 'we're absolutely leaving, we're done, we're walking away, this is our independent country' -- which for the time was an enormous step for a community to do...separating yourself in that way and basically saying anybody who takes orders from the British at this point is an enemy of the country, is an act of war and it's permanent. The resolves are forceful. They do terminate British control at the local level. They are setting up officers to control the local affairs but #18, as I mentioned, says if the British change their ways these things could change as well. So it's not a permanent stance on independence. It's not cutting a clear line and saying we're done."

Historians say it makes little sense that the same group of men would take the drastic and dangerous step of declaring independence from Britain, but then, 11 days later, write a document offering King George III a way to return as ruler.

Faulty memory

What is more likely, is that pride and time caused people to misremember the Mecklenburg Resolves.

In 1907, Dr. William Henry Hoyt wrote one of the first systematic attempts to break down the evidence surrounding the Mecklenburg Declaration.

While he explains that there is no unbiased evidence to support that the Mecklenburg Declaration was ever written, he concludes that the Resolves--due to how strongly they were worded--could be interpreted as "a declaration of temporary independence."

Hoyt said it is easy to see how people in and around Mecklenburg would think back on the Resolves as a declaration of independence. Then, after decades passed, "there entered the elements of local pride and patriotism to magnify the great event of 1775."

"I think that's correct. I think there is obviously an important meeting going on in Charlotte in May 1775, and some of those descendants of those patriots -- some of those patriots themselves, there were still many Revolutionary patriots still alive in 1819 -- they just didn't remember correctly," Crow said.

"I don't want to say they're intentionally misrepresenting what they did, but i think they may have conflated," Fountain said. "'Of course we were pushing for independence--this is where we went.' Sometimes when you end up at a place you say, 'Yeah that's what I meant to do.' And I think that's what many of these men are recalling, because it (the Resolves) was not a light statement to make."

Date enshrined

The first official state flag of North Carolina proudly displayed the spurious May 20, 1775 date.

That first North Carolina flag was not adopted in 1776 when the colonies officially declared independence.

It was not adopted in 1783 when America defeated Britain to achieve its independence.

It was not adopted in 1819 when the first reports of the Mecklenburg Declaration were published.

It was not adopted in 1829 when Thomas Jefferson's private letters were posthumously published, revealing that the Founding Father considered the Mecklenburg Declaration a hoax.

It was not adopted in 1831 when a committee appointed by the North Carolina legislature investigated and determined the Mecklenburg Declaration was authentic (note: the chairman of that committee was a Mecklenburg native whose relatives supposedly contributed to the Meck Dec; he also organized the 15th anniversary celebration of the Meck Dec).

It was finally adopted on May 20, 1861, during the state's second vote to seceded from the Union.

The first official state flag of North Carolina was adopted when the state voted to secede from the Union.

"There had actually been a referendum in North Carolina in Feb. 1861, and North Carolina voted against secession. They didn't want to leave the Union. There were a lot of Unionists in North Carolina and there were throughout the war," Crow said.

But after the Battle of Fort Sumter, which signaled the beginning of the Civil War, secessionists in North Carolina organized a second vote.

Part of that organizing included legitimizing the authority of the Confederacy. One way to do that was to link joining the Confederacy with the sacred cause of liberty and independence.

"The secessionists often compared what they were doing to what the revolutionaries had done several generations before," Crow said.

So holding second vote on May 20, 1861 and calling for May 20, 1775 to be on the North Carolina flag played on local pride and, for some, helped justify the need to join the Confederacy.

"For the Confederacy, attaching it to the American Revolution gave it validation," Fountain said. "We're part of a tradition of creating our own governments, of separating ourselves from tyrannical government. So for the Confederates, this was a statement that they're trying to make: Our new government is one on sound historical grounds, and we're connecting it to that moment that is really revered--in terms of--the American Revolution is our founding moment, and so by attaching it you're giving it that sense of sacred importance."

As for the North Carolina seal, the May 20, 1775 date and the state motto Esse quam videri (to Be Rather Than To Seem) were added in 1893. According to The Old North State Fact Book, the additions were part of a bill introduced by Samuel McDowell Tate. Tate served in the Confederate Army and was born in Burke County about 70 miles from Charlotte.

Traditions endure

North Carolina may be the only state to have an inaccuracy so visibly enshrined on its state symbols, but it's unlikely to be a mistake that is corrected anytime soon.

"There's always a streak of patriotism in whatever state you live, and this is something North Carolina is very proud of, so that's what it promotes," Crow said.

School textbooks tend to gloss over what happened in Mecklenburg in May 1775. The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker program (which has a marker for the Mecklenburg Resolves) does not recognize the Mecklenburg Declaration.

"Speaking as the former deputy secretary of Archives and History, we don't make any bones about which date is legitimate. We just talk about May 31. And if you look at any of the leading textbooks on North Carolina history, it's the same thing," Crow said.

However, the lure and legacy of May 20, 1775 lives on.

May 20th is still an annual celebration in Mecklenburg County. Meck Dec Day traces its history back to 1825. It's such a big deal that four United States presidents have even given speeches at the celebrations over the years.

"They all pretty much ducked the authenticity. They would sort of mention it in passing, but they didn't give it the full blown endorsement," Crow said of the presidents who have participating in Meck Dec Day celebrations

In January 2015, North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles started giving drivers the option between having "First in Flight" or "First in Freedom" on their license plates

According to the DMV's website, "the 'First in Freedom' plate design recognizes two important events: the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775, and the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776."

So even now the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration grows, but why?

"Bragging rights," Crow said. "I mean you know, you've heard the old saw about North Carolina being a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit. And so North Carolinians for well over 100 years have been trying to overcome all of the negative things that have been said about it. Going back to the 18th century, William Byrd called us a Lubberland, so trying to claim all these firsts is one way to show Virginia and South Carolina and any of the other states how important North Carolina was."

"We like to be first. We want to have pride in our ancestors, and the American Revolution is the creation moment for our country, so having a significant piece of that, is something that many American communities want to have," Fountain said. "So for North Carolinians, I think we have it. I think we have lots of meaningful events. The Mecklenburg Resolves are a meaningful statement. Guilford Courthouse, that bleeds Cornwallis, and he doesn't get to Yorktown in the bad shape he's in without crawling his way through this state and getting stuck. These are important contributions. North Carolinians have lots to be proud of, but being first is something that many people put a great deal of stock in. Our neighbors to the north have this great lineage of big names that roll off the tongue easily. And I think for many North Carolinians, they want to have that same feel, and having that first claim is so vital to them. I understand that impulse, but I think we have lots to be proud of without trying to lean on an event that didn't happen."

Despite being called a hoax by the third President of the United States, despite being thoroughly debunked over the decades and centuries by various historical investigations, don't expect May 20, 1775 to disappear from the state flag or seal anytime soon.

"That's a hard thing for people to wrestle with," Fountain said of confronting things people believe with historical fact. "We love, typically, where we come from, and we love the associations that we had with that idea. When it's gone, or changed or challenged that can hurt in a very personal way."

Both Crow and Fountain said they support changing the date on the state's flag and seal to reflect the Mecklenburg Resolves date of May 31, 1775, but they admit the politics and logistics against making the change are daunting.

"When you think of all the flags and all the seals that are produced, not to mention like there's a seal of North Carolina right in front of the General Assembly building that would have to be changed. This would cost some money," Crow said.

"It is everywhere. So the idea of literally re-chisleing or touching an old monument that may exist in the Charlotte area--Charlotte as a locality as opposed to a state entity--who's going to pay for that? Charlotte may say, 'I ain't paying a dime for that to happen.' We'll see. It would take a lot of political will--and it would not be a free fix," Fountain said.