While dropping his daughter off at school some years ago, Davidson resident David Fleming found himself staring at the state flag of North Carolina and asking a simple question: Why was it dated May 20, 1775?
The answer, he learned, lay in a long-forgotten moment when the leading lights of politics descended on the Mecklenburg County courthouse to draft a document that some believe became a template for the Declaration of Independence.
The original was said to have burned in 1800, and it wasn’t until 1819 that a recreation appeared in the Raleigh Register, supposedly based on the memories of those who were present in Charlotte that day.
Fleming comes away absolutely convinced that the document, often called “MecDec,” was real, and that skeptics covered up its truth to shield Thomas Jefferson from charges of plagiarism.
Scholars have been dubious, suggesting that the recreation was a hoax. None of them, however, possessed the gonzo-reporting chops that Fleming brings to his new book re-examining the legend, Who’s Your Founding Father?
Contributor Shaun Assael, who wrote about Jefferson in Smithsonian last year, spoke to Fleming for The Assembly.
Assael: Most scholars who’ve weighed in think the MecDec is an epic hoax. What do you think?
Fleming: First of all, those guys are all full of shit. I don’t mind the controversy, and I don’t mind people pushing back because that’s what’s kept it alive for a long time. But the evidence is absolutely overwhelming. It’s irrefutable.
The original meeting notes and the outline of the MecDec survive. You can hold them in your hand. And honestly, if they were the only thing that survived, that alone would be enough for me to say, without question, that the MecDec is real.
But on top of that, North Carolina’s governor conducted an official inquiry in 1823 that included the sworn testimony of 13 eyewitnesses. War heroes. Priests. Noted historians. That’s a big thing for me. We trusted those guys for their histories about the Revolutionary War. So why was their eyewitness testimony of the MecDec no good?
Assael: How did that consensus against it develop?
Fleming: There are a lot of different elements. One is a North-South thing. North Carolina didn’t do itself any favors when it chose May 20 as the day it seceded from the Union. It was like: “If you secede then you forfeit all of your rights to original patriotism.” That’s really the vibe that see with the people who are sort of nasty about it.
And I’m not exaggerating when I say that they were actually part of a pretty big academic fraud. These were professional historians who were trying to take back control of American history. It gets to what we believe and the evidence that we choose to believe.
Assael: The core of your accusation against Jefferson is plagiarism.
Fleming: For centuries, Jefferson was some kind of sacred God. The people who were calling the MecDec a hoax said, “You cannot question the character of Thomas Jefferson. End of story.”
But I don’t think anyone else in American history has had their reputation challenged as much in the last 50 years. I knew heading into this that there was a darker side to Jefferson. As I started to explore, there was just one horrific fact after another. And it fits a pattern Jefferson had throughout his life: Do terrible things, cover them up, and get your cronies to argue on your behalf.
Assael: What do you hope your readers will take away?
Fleming: I want them to understand that North Carolina is the true cradle of American independence, and I want North Carolinians to take pride in that.
Shaun Assael spent two decades as a senior writer with ESPN Magazine and as a member of the network’s investigations team. He was an executive producer of Pariah, the Showtime documentary based on his book, The Murder of Sonny Liston.