The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775
By Scott Syfert. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. Paperback. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-7864-7559-9. Pp. x, 250. Index, bibliography, maps and illustrations.
For more than two centuries, controversy has surrounded the issue of whether or not a group of people in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, declared independence from Great Britain on May 20, 1775, more than a year before the Continental Congress dissolved the colonies’ ties to the mother country. While admitting that the dispute no longer receives the attention it did a century ago, author Scott Syfert nonetheless delves deeply into the issue in this well researched and highly readable volume. Syfert admits that he believes that the Mecklenburg Declaration is genuine, yet presents a balanced view of the opposing arguments that leaves readers free to draw their own conclusions.
Syfert begins with a history of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled Mecklenburg County, site of the present-day city of Charlotte. This background is relevant to the author’s case as he seeks to demonstrate that the eighteenth-century inhabitants of the county harbored strong anti-British views as a result of their unhappy experiences, first in Ireland and then in the American colonies, where they struggled to carve farms out of the wilderness and their version of Presbyterianism marked them as outsiders. The Mecklenburgers were further alienated after they supported North Carolina’s royal governor, William Tryon, in suppressing the Regulator movement in 1771 in exchange for pledges that they would be allowed to establish their own educational institution, Queen’s College in Charlotte, and that the law prohibiting their ministers from performing lawful marriages would be repealed. Tryon and the colonial legislature upheld their end of the bargain, only to have the Privy Council in London void the legislation. This action further increased the Mecklenburg settlers’ animosity toward the British government. By the end of this section, Syfert has made a convincing case that if anyone in the American colonies was inclined to favor independence from Britain in 1775, it was the inhabitants of Mecklenburg.
In the next several chapters, Syfert relates the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration. After the months of tension that followed the Boston Tea Party and the British Parliament’s imposition of the Coercive Acts to punish Massachusetts, Colonel Thomas Polk summoned two officers from each militia company in Mecklenburg County to meet at the Charlotte courthouse on May 19. As the representatives gathered, news arrived of the clash between colonists and British troops at Lexington, Massachusetts, inflaming the delegates.
The delegates elected Abraham Alexander chairman of the meeting and chose John McKnitt Alexander as secretary. During the ensuing discussion, the representatives chose a committee of three men to prepare a set of resolutions expressing the sentiments of the group. The committee composed four resolutions: the first declared anyone who supported British policy an enemy to America, the second asserted that “we the citizens of Mecklenburg county, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown” (73), the third echoed the second and declared the county’s inhabitants “free and independent” (73), and the fourth stated that existing laws would remain in force so that the community could continue to function without disorder. Shortly afterward, Captain James Jack was assigned to carry the Mecklenburg Declaration to Philadelphia and deliver it to North Carolina’s delegates attending the Second Continental Congress.
The first nine chapters covering the region’s background, the Declaration, and Jack’s ride are engaging and informative, but with chapter 10, as Syfert begins his examination of the veracity of the Mecklenburg Declaration, the pace picks up and the book reads like a detective novel. Syfert discusses the correspondence of Josiah Martin, North Carolina’s royal governor, in which Martin referred to treasonous activity at Mecklenburg. Syfert also examines the surviving documents that appear to verify the authenticity of the Declaration, the widespread attention the document received in the early nineteenth century, and the resulting disagreement between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the Declaration’s authenticity. Noting the similarities between the Mecklenburg Declaration’s language and that of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence approved by the Continental Congress in July 1776, Adams implied that the North Carolina document had been concealed or he would have brought it to the attention of Congress, and in private correspondence told a friend that Jefferson had plagiarized from the Mecklenburg document. Jefferson, on the other hand, dismissed the Mecklenburg Declaration as fraudulent.
Although Jefferson and Adams soon dropped the matter, supporters and skeptics continued the dispute, and Syfert traces the controversy in a manner that leaves readers yearning for a decisive resolution. Syfert deals effectively with Adams’s accusation of plagiarism, demonstrating that the nearly identical phrases that appear in the Mecklenburg Declaration and the Congressional Declaration were in fact commonplace political language of the era, and therefore both documents could have been composed separately. He is less convincing in arguing that the Mecklenburg Resolves, a far less radical document dated May 31, 1775, is an entirely separate document from the Mecklenburg Declaration. His case is difficult to make since contemporary copies of the Resolves have survived, while the oldest alleged documents supporting the existence of the Declaration are dated circa 1800. As Syfert notes, the majority of historians who have studied the issue since the nineteenth century believe that the Resolves are the only authentic document; however, Syfert points out that some current historians accept the possibility that the Mecklenburg Declaration did exist.
Syfert has marshaled all of the corroborating evidence available to support the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration, and his clear and well balanced presentation, giving full attention to opposing arguments, makes a strong case. Unfortunately, it is not conclusive and probably can never be unless new evidence is found. Yet, having begun reading The First American Declaration of Independence as a solid skeptic, by the time I finished the book I found myself accepting the possibility that the document may indeed have existed, and that the citizens of Mecklenburg might actually have declared independence from Great Britain in May 1775. It is a fascinating issue, and Syfert deserves credit for his effort to revive it. There are many unanswered, and unanswerable, questions in history, and this is one that leaves readers hoping that someday a definitive answer will be found.