David Fleming on The Dan Le Batard Show, alongside his "Who's Your Founding Father?" book. David Fleming on The Dan Le Batard Show, alongside his “Who’s Your Founding Father?” book.

A remarkable aspect of history is how many moments featured down the centuries weren’t actually seen as so significant at the time. And vice versa, there are many moments that were seen as critical by many at the time, but then were disregarded or forgotten about years later for a variety of reason. A recent book from ESPN senior writer David Fleming, Who’s Your Founding Father? One Man’s Epic Quest To Uncover The First, True Declaration of Independence, has the advantage of covering both of those angles.

Fleming’s book is largely focused on an event from that second category, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. But it also examines the famous Thomas Jefferson-penned Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 (more than a year into the Revolutionary War, but the reason why Independence Day is annually celebrated on July 4). The 1776 declaration (which, it should be noted, had Jefferson write the first draft, but had a finished product edited by the other members of the Committee of Five: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) falls into that second category; it absolutely had some significance and some importance at the time, but became a much larger focus decades and centuries after the fact (especially from the War of 1812 on) as a symbol of the American Revolution.

Meanwhile, Fleming’s research and writing in Who’s Your Founding Father? highlights the case for the Mecklenburg Declaration (henceforth, MecDec) of May 20, 1775 being incredibly notable at the time. He outlines the history of that declaration, the remarkable way (a 600-mile horse ride by Charlotte tavern owner James Jack, known as “Captain Jack”) it was sent to the Continental Congress, and more. And he makes a case for the MecDec and its 1775 declaration of that county’s independence from Britain being at best a significant influence, if not a source plagiarized from, for Jefferson’s draft a year later. That includes citing writings making allegations along those lines from Adams himself.

But Fleming (who has had quite a good run of covering notable-but-underdiscussed events, including with the book Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship on the Pottsville Maroons) also illustrates the wide range of discussions about the MecDec over the years. Those range from it being unquestionably believed to it being seen as a hoax (aided by a fire that destroyed the original, and by disputes about various copies) and an attempt to steal valor.

Beyond that, reactions to the MecDec over the years have included various historians, U.S. presidents, and more who have fully embraced it as authentic and celebrated it. But there have also been others who have minimized, downplayed, and disputed the declaration. (Some of the latter school of thought is particularly prominent on the current MeckDec Wikipedia entry, although it presents some of the other side’s claims as well.) And that argument has not gone away. And Fleming has taken issue on Twitter with many MecDec downplayers, including the North Carolina Department of Natural & Cultural Resources and the (Raleigh) News and Observer:

The whole thread in that second one is worth a look. It’s also worth watching Fleming’s recent summation of his book and the case for the MecDec on The Dan Le Batard Show this week (where the photo of him at top left above comes from; a longer clip is available here):

But, back to the book. There’s absolutely material here that will be of interest to those interested in the scholarly debate around the MecDec and its influence on Jefferson, and the whole book is a strong introduction to this controversy (which hasn’t necessarily hit a wide audience outside North Carolina to date, even for many of us who spend a lot of time reading history). But where Who’s Your Founding Father? particularly shines is in its telling of Fleming’s personal discovery of the MecDec story, the passion he winds up feeling for it, and the lengths he then goes to to try and track down elements of it, including even a trip for archival research in England.

Who’s Your Founding Father? plays out partly as a detective story, partly as a story of historical research, and partly as gonzo journalism. (That’s a label Fleming himself has applied at times, so we won’t worry about tagging him with it, something some people sometimes take offense to. It should be noted that there is much less admitted drug use in this book than gonzo classics from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, though, which may be a feature or a bug depending on your personal tastes.) And the book as a whole makes for a compelling read. It certainly was fascinating to this admitted history devotee, but it’s told in a way that it feels like this could work for a wider audience as well. Consider Joe Posnanski’s endorsement of this in a Father’s Day gift ideas post:

Your dad likes history, right? Of course, he does: He’s your dad. Or maybe you’re the dad, in which case, you like history.

Well, let me just tell you: My pal Dave Fleming’s book about the Mecklenburg Declaration — the Meck Dec! — will bring you so much joy. Trust me on this one. The book is hilarious, it’s eye-opening, it’s a mystery, it will change everything you know about the founding of this country.

OK, that might be overselling things — it won’t change EVERYTHING you know. But it will certainly give you a whole new set of founding father heroes (and crackpots!) to cherish and celebrate. And it will make you laugh so much.

That is quite an accurate description. But it should be noted that many of us who do not meet the technical qualifications for “dad” can still be extremely dad, and can still enjoy extremely dad activities like reading this book. That’s a fact that at this point has been pointed out by both Ryan Nanni and Progressive commercials:

A Progressive commercial with "Who else reads books about submarines?"
A Progressive commercial with “Who else reads books about submarines?”

At any rate, there’s a lot in Who’s Your Founding Father? that may be of interest for a variety of reasons. For the many, many Thomas Jefferson critics out there (often for good reason!), there’s plenty of ammunition to add here from Jefferson’s behavior around the unsurfacing of the MecDec. For those interested in historiography (the study of historical writing), there’s lots here on why the MecDec didn’t gain more attention at the time. Largely, the North Carolina representatives at the Second Continental Congress weren’t too keen to promote it when it was received. And that congress as a whole was not in a place for a declaration as bold as this when the MecDec arrived, and probably had some hesitance on basing colonies-wide action off one North Carolina county’s declaration.

There’s also a lot in this book on the debates over the MecDec’s history and authenticity have played out over the years. That includes an absolutely fascinating chapter called UNC’s Old Fatty The Fabulist (on the mid-1800s anti-MecDec actions of North Carolina math professor Dr. Charles Phillips, and the role the pre- and post-Civil War environment played there). And, again, there’s the enthralling story of Fleming’s personal quest to learn more about the MecDec, its context (there’s great stuff here on the signers, their backgrounds, and the history of the area), and its implications.

Is the overall takeaway here actually that May 20 should be the real celebration of American independence? That’s a more complicated question. Fleming’s certainly making that argument on at least some levels, as he did on The Dan Le Batard Show. And there’s some case for that, or at the very least, for celebrations of the MecDec as well as the Jefferson-penned Declaration. But history is often a nuanced and complicated area; as noted above, the 1776 declaration itself only gained a lot of prominence decades later, for different reasons than it was initially contemplated for. And the complications grow exponentially when it comes to what’s publicly celebrated and why.

The whole issue of “firsts” is also wildly complicated, as anyone who’s spent any time looking at the history of inventions or discoveries (or even “firsts” in sports) is well aware. Beyond just being “first,” there’s value to having your thing be the one that spreads more widely, or the one winds up being adopted by a bigger group. And on that front, the 1776 declaration certainly had some significance (especially thanks to its adoption by the Continental Congress rather than one county). And it should not be completely cast aside just because of MecDec discussion.

But it is absolutely worth discussing the MecDec, its history, its significance at the time (powerfully shown here through British officials’ correspondence), and the role it (as well as other declarations from various groups across the colonies) may have played in Jefferson’s later declaration. And while not everyone will agree with a full “Move Independence Day to May 20” case, it’s certainly valuable for more people to learn about the MecDec. And it’s worthwhile to at least have a discussion of what may have served as sources for Jefferson’s writing of the 1776 declaration.

The other thing to note here is the strong case this book does make for the authenticity and historicity of the MecDec and the versions of it that have survived. That comes both through Fleming’s own research and through his citation of others. There’s a solid amount of evidence put forth that this declaration was made and was presented to the Continental Congress. There’s also a good case made that the text we currently have (from a variety of copied sources) is largely accurate to what was resolved then. The larger implications of that and what that means for discussion of Jefferson and the 1776 declaration can be debated. But Fleming lays out a strong case that the MecDec cannot just be disregarded the way Jefferson tried to in his later writings.

Beyond that, Who’s Your Founding Father? does an excellent job of presenting a compelling narrative of historical discovery on a subject many may not have been too aware of. It’s well worth a read for those with even a passing interest in American history. And it’s strongly recommended to those whose historical interests go beyond that.

Who’s Your Founding Father? is published by Hatchette Books. It’s available through local bookstores via Bookshop here, or through Amazon here. Awful Announcing received a review copy of the book.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.