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Lincoln Herald | Lincolnton, NC

home : community : education May 21, 2022

5/13/2022 8:18:00 PM
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence
The date of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (May 20, 1775) is one of two on the NC state flag.  The other is the date of the Halifax Resolves (April 12, 1776).
The date of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (May 20, 1775) is one of two on the NC state flag.  The other is the date of the Halifax Resolves (April 12, 1776).

Jennifer Baker
Vesuvius Furnace Chapter, DAR

The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is the name given to a document that was allegedly produced on May 20, 1775, when the residents of Mecklenburg County declared themselves "free and independent people." The so-called declaration did not surface until 1819, 44 years after the event, when it was published in the Raleigh Register at the behest of US senator Nathaniel Macon. The original document was supposedly destroyed in a fire in 1800, and the published text was reconstructed from memory by John McKnitt Alexander and given to Macon by his son, William Alexander. William Polk, the son of the organizer of the Charlotte meeting, gathered testimony from several elderly men who claimed to have been present. Mecklenburgers immediately started celebrating the date.

After the Mecklenburg Declaration was published in 1819, supporters compiled a list of men who they believed had signed the document. William Polk, who said that he had heard his father Thomas Polk read the Declaration to the public, listed the names of fifteen delegates present when the Declaration was adopted; other testimony produced other names. A pamphlet issued in 1831 by the government of North Carolina listed the names of twenty-six delegates. Eventually, supporters of the Declaration settled on a list of twenty-seven or twenty-eight men who they claimed had signed the document. In alphabetical order, they are:

Abraham Alexander, Adam Alexander, Charles Alexander, Ezra Alexander, Hezekiah Alexander, John McKnitt Alexander, Waightstill Avery, Hezekiah J. Balch, Richard Barry, Ephraim Brevard, John Davidson, Henry Downs, John Flenniken, John Foard, William Graham, James Harris, Robert Harris, Robert Irwin, William Kennon, Matthew McClure, Neil Morrison, Duncan Ochiltree, Benjamin Patton, John Phifer, Thomas Polk, John Queary, David Reese, and Zacheus Wilson, Sr.

Modern historians have emphasize that the story of the 1775 signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration can be dated no earlier than 1819. There is no contemporaneous evidence of a signing, nor did John McKnitt Alexander mention such an event in his notes. As far as it is known, none of the "signers" ever claimed to have signed the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Most of the listed signers were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, as were many of the early promoters of the authenticity of the Declaration. Many of the reputed signers were kinsmen, and their descendants were among the staunchest defenders of the Declaration.

Eyewitnesses who provided testimony about the 1775 meeting disagreed about the roles played by some of the signers. John McKnitt Alexander wrote that he had been the secretary at the meeting, but others recalled that Ephraim Brevard had been the secretary. Alexander wrote that his kinsman Adam Alexander had issued the order for the meeting to be convened, but William Polk and other eyewitnesses insisted that Thomas Polk had called the meeting. Abraham Alexander is said to have chaired the meeting

The authenticity of the document was not seriously questioned until the posthumous publication of the works of Thomas Jefferson in 1829. In a letter of July 9,1819 to John Adams, Jefferson dismissed the Mecklenburg Declaration as a hoax. The North Carolina legislature in 1830-31 was so aroused by this development that it established a committee to investigate. As committee chairman Thomas G. Polk organized the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Mecklenburg Declaration, it is not surprising that his committee gathered evidence to support the contention that the declaration was authentic.

After 1819, people in North Carolina (and Tennessee, which shared an early history) began to take pride in the previously unheralded Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Before then, Virginia and Massachusetts had been given much of the credit for leading the American Revolution. The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence clearly enhanced North Carolina's role—already notable because of the Halifax Resolves of April 1776—in establishing American independence. The first celebration of the anniversary of the supposed adoption of the Mecklenburg Declaration took place in Charlotte on May 20, 1825.

Many North Carolinians were offended when Thomas Jefferson's skeptical letter about the Mecklenburg Declaration was posthumously published in 1829. In questioning the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration, Jefferson, a Virginian, had impolitically referred to William Hooper, one of North Carolina's signers of the American Declaration of Independence, as a "tory." According to author Hoyt, Jefferson used the term to mean that Hooper had been conservative on declaring independence, not to imply that he had been a Loyalist, but North Carolinians felt their honored Patriots had been slighted.

The state of North Carolina responded to Jefferson's letter in 1831 with an official pamphlet that reprinted the previously published accounts with some additional testimony in support of the Mecklenburg Declaration. This was followed in 1834 with a book by a leading North Carolina historian, Joseph Seawell Jones, entitled “A Defence of the Revolutionary History of the State of North Carolina from the Aspersions of Mr. Jefferson.” Jones defended the patriotism of William Hooper and accused Jefferson of being envious that a little county in North Carolina had declared independence at a time when the "Sage of Monticello" was still hoping for reconciliation with Great Britain. On May 20, 1835, more than five thousand people gathered in Charlotte to celebrate the Mecklenburg Declaration. In the many toasts celebrating "the first declaration of American independence," Jefferson was never mentioned.

A fraudulent recreation of a page from the June 3, 1775, issue of the Cape Fear Mercury, which supposedly printed the text of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was published in Collier's Magazine in 1905. The reproduction was quickly shown to be a hoax.

In 1837, Jefferson's first biographer, George Tucker, came to Jefferson's defense. In "The Life of Thomas Jefferson," Tucker argued that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence had been fraudulently interpolated into the Mecklenburg Declaration. North Carolina native Francis L. Hawks, a New York Anglican clergyman, responded that Jefferson had instead plagiarized the Mecklenburg Declaration. Hawks' position was apparently supported by the discovery of a proclamation by Josiah Martin, the last royal governor of North Carolina, which seemed to confirm the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration. In August 1775, Governor Martin had written that he had:

“…seen a most infamous publication in the Cape Fear Mercury importing to be resolves of a set of people styling themselves a committee for the county of Mecklenburg, most traitorously declaring the entire dissolution of the laws, government, and constitution of this country, and setting up a system of rule and regulation repugnant to the laws and subversive of his majesty's government...."

Here, at last, was contemporaneous confirmation that radical resolves had been adopted in Mecklenburg County in 1775. Unfortunately, the issue of the Cape Fear Mercury that Martin referred to could not be found. Throughout the 19th century, supporters of the Mecklenburg Declaration hoped that the missing paper would be discovered, proving their case. When Collier's Magazine published what was said to be a clipping from the missing issue in 1905, advocates and opponents of the Mecklenburg Declaration agreed that  document was a hoax.  It was later confirmed that the "traitorous" document referred to by Governor Martin was not the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, but was instead a radical set of resolutions known as the Mecklenburg Resolves.

Despite North Carolina's efforts, a number of scholars outside the state maintained that the Mecklenburg document was a fraud. The ultimate scholarly blow came in 1907 with the publication of William Henry Hoyt's "The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence: A Study of Evidence Showing That the Alleged Declaration of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on May 20th, 1775, Is Spurious." Using the latest methods of scientific history and internal criticism, Hoyt maintained that the evidence was overwhelming that the reconstructed declaration was a misconstruction of the Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31, 1775, which contemporary newspapers proved had been written. Most North Carolinians ignored Hoyt's work, but not Samuel A. Ashe, editor, historian, and descendant of one of the state's most prominent families. The first volume of Ashe's History of North Carolina (1908) presented both sides of the issue but ultimately agreed with the naysayers.

A bitter fight broke out in the North Carolina General Assembly over a bill authorizing the purchase of Ashe's book for the public schools. House Speaker Augustus W. Graham, the son of a governor and descendant of a "signer" of the Mecklenburg Declaration, took the floor and defeated the authorization bill. Opponents of the measure, appealing to patriotism, noted that the date of May 20 was enshrined on the state flag and seal. However, the difference in the old style (Julian) and new style (Gregorian) calendars was 11 days at the time the British adopted the new style in 1752. Even in 1775, Charlotte was in a remote area, and some persons still may have been using the old calendar. This fact could have contributed to a misapplication of the May 20 date to the authentic Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31, 1775.

The negative opinions of professional historians toward the Mecklenburg Declaration, including such luminaries as Stephen B. Weeks, John Spencer Bassett, and R. D. W. Connor, remained intact. The one academic who did support the Mecklenburg legend was Archibald Henderson, a mathematics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although modern scholars no longer accept the Mecklenburg Declaration as authentic, it has long been maintained and celebrated. The document emerged at a time when North Carolina was the sleeping and backward "Rip Van Winkle State" and thus appealed to pride by establishing that the state was not only progressive but also in the vanguard of the independence movement.

The Mecklenburg Declaration, a product of legend and patriotic sentiment, most likely never existed. However, the Mecklenburg Resolves were a very real and bold set of anti-British resolutions adopted by Mecklenburg County residents on May 31, 1775, a full year before the Declaration of Independence was penned at Philadelphia by the Continental Congress.  The Mecklenburg Resolves denied the authority of Parliament over the colonies and set up basic tenets of governing.

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