In Hershel Parker’s excellent article in the October 2014 Journal of the American Revolution (“Fanning Outfoxes Marion”) he makes reference to an important research tool, namely hundreds of Revolutionary War pension applications that have recently been transcribed by Will Graves and C. Leon Harris, and are in searchable electronic format. This is an important tool for researchers, who are able to pinpoint a specific person, event or location without having to review thousands of applications.
What, I thought, are the implications for the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence?
For those unfamiliar with the basic story, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (or “MecDec”) was a document purported to be signed on May 20, 1775 by a collection of backwoods militia officers in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina that declared the county “free and independent” of British rule. President John Adams declared that the Mecklenburg Declaration represented the “genuine sense of America at that moment” while Thomas Jefferson discounted the entire tale as “spurious.” Whether the MecDec really existed, however, later became the subject of a ferocious debate. There is evidence on both sides, but suffice it to say the controversy has never been resolved.
The following facts, however, are not in dispute. In late May 1775 the American colonies were in a state of ferment and high anxiety, driven by the tea tax, an emotional debate on the issue of taxation without representation in Westminster, and gathering mistrust of British authoritarian intentions. In short, the colonies were, as Lord Dartmouth put it in a letter to North Carolina Royal Governor Josiah Martin in early May 1775, in a “state of general frenzy.”
That same month, in the Carolina backwoods, two dozen or so local militia leaders met in the Mecklenburg County courthouse – little more than a log cabin atop brick pillars – to discuss how to react to the deteriorating political situation. According to the surviving fragmentary papers of one participant, the meeting was called “to devise ways & means to extricate themselves and ward off the dreadfull impending storm bursting on them by the British Nation.”
The meeting began on May 19, 1775. Sometime that day, an express rider arrived in the town of Charlotte who brought news that the Battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred one month earlier. The meeting was thrown into tumult and confusion. In the words of one participant: “We smelt and felt the Blood & carnage of Lexington, which raised all the passions into fury and revenge.”
Then, in the heat of passion, outraged by the British murders (as they saw it) in New England, the delegates debated, drafted and resolved upon …. something.
Exactly what they wrote down is the historical mystery in a nutshell. According to many eye-witnesses (admittedly decades after the fact), the delegates adopted a series of resolutions declaring themselves “free and independent” of Great Britain. The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was, if it existed, the first declaration of independence in the American colonies. However, the original papers were lost in a fire in April 1800, so no undisputed copy exists.
What does exist is a series of twenty resolutions passed by a committee in “Charlotte-Towne” dated May 31, 1775, or eleven days later than the Mecklenburg Declaration was said to have been passed. These so-called “Mecklenburg Resolves” still exist in a copy of the South-Carolina Gazette; and Country Journal of June 13, 1775.
The Mecklenburg Resolves caused a great deal of confusion over the last two centuries. Skeptics of the story point to them as the only “true” paper that was passed, while supporters of the story say they are merely corroborating evidence of the overall story, but are not the actual Mecklenburg Declaration itself. Who is correct? It depends on what theory of the case one chooses to believe.
Which brings us to the eye-witnesses.
Supporters of “MecDec” have relied on a series of eye-witness accounts that were collected and published by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1831. Its preface was written by N.C. Governor Montford Stokes, so it is known as the “Governor’s Report.”
The Governor’s Report contained a dozen or so affidavits in favor of the story, all largely consistent in fact and theme. Moreover, the witnesses were not random folks off of the street, but credible and influential people in the community. Several were Revolutionary War veterans, others were Presbyterian ministers. Even Governor Stokes himself claimed to have personally seen a copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration before it was lost in a fire, noting: “this copy the writer well recollects to have seen in the possession of Doct. Williamson, in the year 1793…”
Another witness, William Polk, the first cousin of President James K. Polk, was a bona fide Revolutionary war hero and leading North Carolina businessman. Polk, according to the Governor’s Report, “was present, heard his father [Thomas Polk] proclaim the [Mecklenburg] Declaration to the assembled multitude; and need it be inquired, in any portion of this Union, if he will be believed?”
But the star witness of the Governor’s Report was Joseph Graham. Graham’s written testimony about the events of May 1775 ran nearly two pages long, and was quite detailed. Graham was not just any eye-witness either, but a leading civic leader and Revolutionary veteran.
After enlisting as a private in May 1777 in the Fourth Regiment, North Carolina line Graham fought at the battles of Stono, Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and a number of other lesser skirmishes. Most notably he assisted in contesting Cornwallis’s advance into the cross-roads town of Charlotte in September 1780, where he was sabered nearly to death in hand-to-hand combat with the British cavalry. After the Revolution Graham became a leading industrialist and civic leader in the region.
Graham’s account of the MecDec story is one of the best known: “I was then a lad about half grown,” he later recalled, and “was present on that occasion [as] a looker on.” Per Graham:
“The news of the Battle of Lexington, the 19th of April preceding, had arrived. There appeared among the people much excitement …
“After reading a number of papers as usual, and much animated discussion, the question was taken, and they resolved to declare themselves independent. One among other reasons offered, that the King or Ministry had, by proclamation or some edict, declared the Colonies out of the protection of the British Crown; they ought, therefore, to declare themselves out of his protection, and resolve on independence …
“It [the Mecklenburg Declaration] was unanimously adopted, and shortly after it was moved and seconded to have [the] proclamation made and the people collected, that the proceedings be read at the court house door, in order that all might hear them. It was done, and they were received with enthusiasm. It was then proposed by some one aloud to give three cheers and throw up their hats. It was immediately adopted, and the hats thrown. Several of them lit on the court house roof. The owners had some difficulty to reclaim them. The foregoing is all from personal knowledge.”
Graham’s account remains one of the most detailed, credible and persuasive accounts of the Mecklenburg Declaration story.
In the course of my research over the last decade into the evidence, pro and con, about the veracity of the story (and in writing a book on the subject) I thought I had encountered every piece of testimony or circumstantial evidence that existed, and believe me I have looked. However, what I had not seen, and which I suspect has never been previously noted, are references from Graham (and others) about the Mecklenburg Declaration as sworn by them in their affidavits made in connection with their applications for Revolutionary War pensions.
I have found four. The first is Graham’s, given under oath in October 1832, which concludes:
“The deponent states he has a Record of his Age that he was born in Chester County Pennsylvania on the 13th day of October 1759 that he then removed to Mecklenburg County in the State of North Carolina when about 10 Years of Age was present in Charlotte on the 20th day of May 1775 when the Committee of the County of Mecklenburg made their celebrated Declaration of Independence of the British Crown upwards of a year before the Congress of the United States did at Philadelphia …” [emphasis added] Because Graham’s testimony on MecDec is already “on the record” so to speak, the above reference is interesting, but not exactly novel.
What is novel, however, are additional references to MecDec from lesser known characters. For example, consider the testimony of William Culberson, Sr., made in October 1832, which (after the oath formalities) begins as follows:
“The first service he performed in the South was as a private in a company of Captain Oliver Wiley in the County of Mecklenburg North Carolina in the year 1775 or early in the year 1776 just as the Patriots of Mecklenburg had declared themselves independent of the British Government …” [emphasis added]
Similarly, in the application of David Newell given May 23, 1852 we find this:
“I was born in the County & State aforesaid September 1778 … having lived permanently in Charlotte, some 55 years & in the midst of the Revolutionary Soldiers of this Section, my early associations with them enabled me to become well acquainted with many important Events of the Revolution … William Polk stationed in Charlotte & sought recruits among the rich & dashing young men, and he went some 3 or 4 miles from town & stationed himself at Abram Alexander’s who was Chairman of 20th May 1775 Convention that declared Independence …” [emphasis added]
Another is contained in the widow’s pension application of Jane Wilson in 1849. Josiah Wilson’s testimony states that “his own father Robert Wilson was a prisoner in the hands of the British in fall of 1780 and that his Uncle Zaccheus Wilson, Sr. was a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence ….” [emphasis added]
To my understanding, this is the first time these references have been seen.
But what do these prove, exactly? At a minimum, they prove that at least a handful of Revolutionary war veterans (or their kin) understood the Mecklenburg Declaration as a historical event, one of significant enough importance that they were willing to cite it in the context of their overall war service. It also proves that the MecDec story was part of the common memory, the local legend, of the time (and that holds true whether one believes the underlying story is true or not – these men believed it). In that context, it’s worth noting that these references were given under oath in order to gain a public pension.
And yet…. interesting as they are, in each case the testimony suffers from some of the same evidentiary flaws contained throughout the MecDec testimonial canon; namely, the testimony is given many decades after the fact (1832, 1848, etc.) and not by participants with direct knowledge (except arguably Graham). Does that discredit it? Not necessarily, but it leaves it open to debate. And perhaps of more importance, in each case the testimony is given well after the public controversy about the existence of the document had broken out (following publication of the Jefferson-Adams letters), by which time the general public had taken sides on the argument.
So in that sense, beyond being additional circumstantial evidence, these references do not “prove” the story, in the sense that they do not definitively settle the question once and for all.
The case continues.
 Hershel Parker, “Fanning Outfoxes Marion,” October 8, 2014, Journal of the American Revolution, footnote 7 (http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/10/fanning-outfoxes-marion/). Parker references Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, transcribed by Will Graves & C. Leon Harris (http://revwarapps.org/searches2.htm).
 Lester J. Cappon, ed. The Adam-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 542.
 Ibid., 543-544.
 The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, digital edition, “Letter from William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth to Josiah Martin,” May 3, 1775, 1240-1242.
 John McNnitt Alexander, “Rough Notes,” in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence Papers in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (“SHC”).
 The preamble plus four resolves were from the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), December 18, 1838, 2. The text of the Mecklenburg Resolves is widely available in a variety of sources; the original version of The South-Carolina Gazette; and Country Journal of June 13, 1775 (No. 498) is held in the collection of the Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC.
 The Declaration of Independence by the Citizens of Mecklenburg County, published by the Governor under the authority and direction of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina (“Governor’s Report”)(Raleigh, Lawrence & Lemay, 1831), 5. An online version is maintained by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library at www.cmstory.org in document index in “All About the Declaration” section.
 Governor’s Report, 6.
 Ibid., 19-20.
 Pension application of William Cuthbertson (Culbertson) W17680, http://revwarapps.org/w17680.pdf.
 Pension application of David Newell W19907, http://revwarapps.org/w19907.pdf.
 Pension application of Jane Wilson, widow of Robert Wilson W216, http://revwarapps.org/w216x.pdf.