Taking license with liberty
RALEIGH — As often happens at the North Carolina General Assembly, the new fiscal year has begun with the House and Senate not yet finished with a budget-adjustment bill. Medicaid funding, teacher compensation and a few other issues continue to divide the two chambers.
Call me odd — it’ll hardly be the first time — but one issue I hope doesn’t get left on the table is a provision in the House budget that would allow me to take the “First in Flight” license plate off my car.
For more than 30 years, the best that state leaders could do to honor North Carolina’s rich history on our official license plates was to commemorate an occasion in which two inventors from Ohio found a windy, deserted beach on the Outer Banks to test their flying machine. Clearly the Wright brothers did something amazing. But that doesn’t mean North Carolina was truly First in Flight. Ohio was the birthplace of aviation. If anything, the incident revealed our state to be merely First in Wind.
(Insert gratuitous political joke here.)
What the House bill authorizes is for state officials to come up with an alternative license plate bearing the slogan “First in Freedom.” In keeping with the sentiment, North Carolina motorists would be free to stick with the old plate if they wish. But those who’d rather commemorate North Carolinians’ actions to advance the cause of independence would now have a better choice.
During the bicentennial celebrations of the mid-1970s, our state’s license plate did read “First in Freedom.” Prior to the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, North Carolinians did two notable things. First, in May 1775, an assembly of local leaders in what was then the frontier community of Mecklenburg County proclaimed the establishment of a new government independent of British colonial authority. Then in April 1776, delegates to North Carolina’s Fourth Provincial Congress in Halifax voted to instruct their representatives in Philadelphia to seek formal American independence from Britain — the first colony to do so.
While the story of the Halifax Resolves isn’t controversial, the same can’t be said of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence reportedly signed by some two dozen community leaders on May 20, 1775. No originals of the document appear to have survived a fire at the home of the meeting secretary, John McKnitt Alexander.
A subsequent reconstruction bore so close a resemblance to the American Declaration of Independence that some critics of Thomas Jefferson, including his old political rival John Adams, cited the Mecklenburg document as potential evidence of plagiarism.
The charge against Jefferson was ridiculous, of course — but that doesn’t mean that the Mecklenburg story must be fictitious, as Charlotte attorney Scott Syfert observes in his masterful new book on the subject, “The First American Declaration of Independence?” A separate proclamation for which there is contemporaneous evidence, the so-called Mecklenburg Resolves dated May 31, 1775, was itself a radical statement that North Carolina’s royal governor called “traitorous” and that declared the authority of the colonial government to be “wholly suspended.”
Moreover, there is both documentary evidence and subsequent eyewitness testimony for the proposition that Mecklenburg’s leaders — including militia commanders Thomas Polk and Adam Alexander (John’s cousin) — made a public announcement of the county’s separation from British rule on or about May 20. After sending a messenger, James Jack, to Philadelphia to deliver the news, they may have then adopted a formal plan to establish a new government and prepare for war with Britain. “In this explanation,” Syfert writes, “the Mecklenburg Resolves are a logical next step and a coherent part of the story.”
Of course, North Carolinians are free to disbelieve the story. They could still adopt the “First in Freedom” license plate to commemorate the Halifax Resolves, or perhaps even other notable Tar Heel milestones on the road to liberty such as the Durham and Greensboro sit-ins advancing the cause of civil rights.
But only if the final state budget includes the license plate provision. As the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Adam Alexander, I’m certainly rooting for it.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.