THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
July 4, 1776. Most of us known that this is the day on which America declared its independence. But what would you say if I told you that one particular county in North America had already declared its independence from Britain a year earlier, on May 20, 1775? Hopefully, what you'd say is "where's the proof?", because as it turns out, the jury's still out on the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, and although the case has been put to one side by historians, it's still an important part of North Carolina history. But as with many debates over historical veracity, it's the story of the debate itself which has become the most interesting part. Here is the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration.
In 1775, the people of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, signed the Mecklenburg Resolves. The Resolves were significant, going as far as to declare "all Commissions, civil and military, heretofore granted by the Crown, to be exercised in these Colonies, null and void". However, they fell short of being an actual declaration of independence. Just under 50 years later, in 1819, Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander revealed what he claimed was the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette. Alexander wrote that "It is probably not known to many of our readers that the citizens of Mecklenburg County, in this State, made a Declaration of Independence more than a year before Congress made theirs ... The following Document on the subject has lately come to the hands of the Editor from unquestionable authority, and it is published that it may go down to posterity."
The purported Declaration stated that "We the Citizens of Mecklenburg County do hereby desolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country & hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British crown & abjure all political connection, contract or association with that nation who have wantonly trampled on our rights & liberties & inhumanely shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington." The article was met with great pride in North Carolina, with the Old North State adopting the spirit of the Declaration in its flag and seal, and potentially even its official state song, whose lyrics say "Tho' she envies not others, their merited glory, Say whose name stands the foremost, in Liberty's story".
However, it didn't take long for the story of the first Declaration to be questioned. In 1819, the same year Alexander first revealed the document, John Adams wrote that "Either these resolutions are a plagiarism from Mr. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, or Mr. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is a plagiarism from those resolutions." Indeed, Jefferson himself agreed with Adams' assertion, describing the Mecklenburg Declaration as "spurious", saying that "I shall believe it such until positive and solemn proof of its authenticity shall be produced."
Others argued that the Declaration was a mistaken version of the Mecklenburg Resolves. The dispute over the document's authenticity even pitted politician against politician, with then North Carolina Senator Nathaniel Macon collecting eye witness accounts and testimony seeking to redress the criticisms of Jefferson and Adams. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, debate raged over the truth of the Declaration, and over time, the arguments for and against have themselves become a key part of the story. For North Carolinans, the thought of their communities declaring Independence before others is a source of immense pride. One historian, Dan L. Morrill, explains the modern predicament of the case well: "Let's make one thing clear. One cannot demonstrate conclusively that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is a fake. The dramatic events of May nineteenth and May twentieth could have happened. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith, not proof. You believe it or you don't believe it."
What is clear is that the Meckenburg Declaration has become a key part of North Carolina's identity, and an important story for the United States as a whole. Over the years, Presidents including Taft, Wilson, Eisenhower and Ford have all attended Mecklenburg Day celebrations in Charlotte. Today, May 20th is known by many as "Meck Dec Day" - the day on which Mecklenburg declared its independence. Whether you believe the Declaration to be true or not, it's perhaps best to remember the 'truth' referenced in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." That's a truth the whole United States can get behind.
To find out more about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, check out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library website