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 Joseph Graham, S6937, http://revwarapps.org/s6937.pdf. The run-on sentence refers to Graham relocating when he was ten years old; he was 16 in May 1775.
 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.
In the first paragraph mention is made of the tremendous work of Will Graves and C. Leon Harris in transcribing pension applications. The number of pension applications available is incorrectly cited as “hundreds” – actually, there are over TWENTY THOUSAND pension applications transcribed and available for research…..for free. They are searchable by any name or any search term. This is an outstanding resource.
Scott or Todd — can either of you locate and publish the full text of the resolves published on May 31, 1775? As the only contemporaneous piece of evidence, this is all we have to go on. I cannot tell you how many discrepancies I’ve found between 19th century accounts and contemporaneous evidence. The pension depositions are useful for personal feelings but of no value whatsoever in revealing the word-by-word recollection of an original document (unless refreshed by intervening information), or, for that matter, the precise timing of events a half century in the past — again, countless times I’ve seen the historical record muddled by imprecise (although emotionally real and vibrant) memories. I have not seen the full text of the May 31, 1775, resolves. I would conjecture that they are in accord with other documents of that time; on the other hand, the alleged Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is a complete outlier. Could either of you publish the full text as a comment here so we can collectively evaluate them?
Ray, great question. You are correct that the pension applications, while interesting, don’t “prove” much beyond what I noted in the article. The text of the Mecklenburg Resolves has been published in a number of secondary sources, including Hoyt and Salley. The Ur-text (the one I quote) is from the actual newspaper, the SC Gazette & Country Journal. That’s the first paragraph shown in the first image of the story above. The “MecDec” as widely quoted in based upon an anonymous, undated written account discovered in 1819, that was thereafter reprinted in the Raleigh Register. Virtually every text subsequent, with immaterial variations, comes from that text. Happy to find and post sources for both texts shortly. I would note the MD is not necessarily the outlier you think, in the second to last chapter of my book I compare it to other resolves from the time and period, and it is consonant with many of same.
Here is as good a source as any on the MecDec text (again, it’s virtually verbatim from the “copy in an unknown hand” found by Dr. Joseph Alexander in 1819 in his father’s papers), and thereafter reprinted in different (but essentially verbatim) iterations.
And here is a good (reliable if not verbatim) source to the Meck Resolves. As you can see, they have cleaned up some of the old-English textual idiosyncacies. If you visit the May 20th Society FB page, you can find/request the verbatim copy from the SC Gazette newspaper.
Also, if you’re ever looking for documents about NC, the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina series is the place to start. UNC has digitized much, if not all of it. All of the Revolutionary era volumes are digitized, but I’ve been told some of the earlier colonial volumes (early 18th century) are not yet digitized. Here are the links for the Declaration (with a note regarding the controversy) and the Resolves:
Resolves (taken from the SC Gazette and Country Journal): http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr09-0434
Dr J G N Ramsey’s (grandson of John McKnitt Alexander) research on the Meck Dec was the most extensive to date, but it was entirely lost when his house burned in the 1860’s. Dr Ramsey did will a framed copy of the declaration in his Last Will recorded in Knox County Tennessee, but I can’t speak to the whereabouts of the document today. Nor can I say what the source for his framed declaration. What I do know is that Dr Ramsey did live in Iredell Co, NC during the 1870’s. From the Brevard point of view (Ephraim is my 5th Great Grand Uncle) we don’t have an original copy, but that doesn’t mean one is yet to be uncovered.
Thanks for these links, Scott. Comparing the two documents only confirms my view that the alleged Declaration is indeed an outlier on various counts:
There is no mention of the Provincial Congress or any intermediary body between local citizens and “the General Government of the Congress.” Nobody in 1775 viewed the Congress in Philadelphia as a “government” – it was a congress of provincial (and then state) governments.
The 90 “other” declarations of independence discussed by Pauline Maier in American Scripture took the form of instructions to representatives in higher bodies to declare independence – none actually “dissolve[d] the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country.” This is huge. They did not act alone, as this one does. Note, too, that those discussed by Maier date from 1776, a year later. This declaration, as it reads, would declare the people of Mecklenburg independent not only of the Crown but also of their own Provincial Congress! In my mind, this suggests an authorship of a much later period, once a truly national narrative had emerged. It is difficult for me to imagine people in 1775 totally bypassing their own province.
Each document deals with what happens once established authority no longer prevails Note the detail in the Resolves — the intricate process for establishing interim authority, and how that proceeds from the bottom up. By contrast, the Declaration signers simply declare themselves, individually, as that authority – something I’ve not seen anywhere in contemporaneous documents and would fly in the face of how colonial insurgents at that special moment viewed political authority.
I am not familiar with other documents of this nature being signed by individuals, as this one appears to be. That was a ploy first used, to my knowledge, for the congressional declaration (not on July 4 but starting on August 2 – including 14 signers who were not present on July 4). I may be wrong here, please correct me if I am – it’s been a while since I examined Maier’s “other” declarations of 1776, but I’m quite familiar with Massachusetts local resolves of 1774 and 1775, which were not signed by individuals – if signed at all, it would be by the group’s chosen officers.
The Declaration has no list of complaints justifying such a dramatic action. The common genre for angry resolves of this order was first to explain why they are doing what they are doing. All we see here is one event, Lexington. Would these people really break all bonds without making more of a fuss about why?
The men responsible for at least 20 of Maier’s “other” declarations ended by pledging “our lives and our fortunes.” Would these backcountry men really be the first to add “our most sacred honor”? This along with so much else suggests to me that the document dates from well after the congressional Declaration and mimics the form taken there.
Unfortunately, I’ve not read your book, Scott. Are there documents you’ve uncovered from that exact period that share these characteristics?
One other question: what’s the link to the digital North Carolina Colonial Records? I have a personal interest in this. My first experience of real historical research was in high school, when I poured over these hardcopy volumes in the NYPL, each page crackling as I turned it, for a paper I called “Reasons for Independence of the Scots-Irish Farmers in the Piedmont of North Carolina in terms of the Principles of John Locke.” That’s all I recall about the paper – the title and the experience of those dry, yellowed pages, imagining at the time that the volume dated from the colonial era, although they likely were published in the 19th century.
They were published beginning in the last 19th century by William Saunders, then Secretary of State of NC. You can find a good amount of the documents in hard copy in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC and the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh.
Ray, great points — you’ve summed up the controversy in a nutshell! A few points of interest.
First, note the Governor had prorogued the Provincial Assembly some time back, and thus there was no government in NC at the time. The only representatives that existed at this time would have been the 3 NC delegates in Philadelphia. It is uncontested that they sent a local tavern owner, James Jack, to Philadelphia to deliver their “resolves.” What was he carrying? And why would they do so if they were unimportant? (The British make reference to them as “surpassing all the horrid and treasonable publications” yet written – what were they reading?)
Note that in the MecDec they refer to their “former laws.” This is a reference to the rule of the Lords Proprietors, which had been superseded by Crown rule decades before, but speaks to North Carolinians views of themselves as part of a social contract with the government (there are numerous references in the Colonial Records to this), I will just cite one from the book:
‘Rights granted under the Charter were “peculiar to them as Carolinians,” according to the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, and the people “were so fully vested in them by the charter of Charles, so absolutely their own, that by no process of law could they be either abridged or abrogated without their consent.”’
Re: the other 90 declarations cited by Maier, you are correct – the MecDec, if true, is “huge” for it goes well past any other related declarations. To understand if this document could be possible you would have to look at the settlers in the area (Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and followers of a radical strain of anti-English radicalism called “Covenanting”). They were a self-contained religious community, without large commercial ties to the coast or to England. Tarleton recalled in his memoirs that Mecklenburg County was “more hostile to England than any other in America.” That kind of sums up the mentality.
There is no proof that the MD was signed – that is a myth that grows up later. Interesting, none of the eye witnesses says it was signed, only resolved upon. (For that it is worth I do note that many resolutions of the period I’ve seen from surrounding counties were signed by the participating individuals – but on balance it would seem to me that the MD was not.)
Finally, on the issue of the language, this to me is a red herring. I spend much of the end of the book on comparing various resolutions to the MD. In each case, similar language (“absolve,” “Free and independent,” “lives and fortunes”) can be found in the common vocabulary of the time. The books give a dozen example, but here are just a few (in each case, from counties literally adjacent to Mecklenburg):
“[I]t is solely upon the wisdom and virtue of that superior legislative might that the safety of our lives and fortunes, and the honour and welfare of this country, do most principally depend.”
– Address of inhabitants of Anson County, North Carolina (circa 1775)
“[D]o solemnly engage to take up arms and risk our lives and our fortunes in maintaining the freedom of our country … [and] we will continue in and hold sacred ‘till a Reconciliation shall take place between Great Britain and America on Constitutional principles which we most ardently desire …”
– Tryon Resolves, North Carolina (August 1775)
Numerous others resolves can be cited that parallel (if not mirror) the MD language. Remember also the folks living here were college educated (Nassau Hall, later Princeton) Ministers and lawyers. They were conversant with the political language of the time.
So much more to cover, but you will have to read the book to get it all! Best
I’ll get your book, Scott, but in the meantime I continue to be troubled by language, which you dismiss as a red herring.
Do you see the term “sacred honor” appended to “lives and fortunes” anywhere else but in the Congressional Declaration?
Do find anybody else in spring of 75 referring to the Continental Congress as a “government”? Local committees give it much respect and follow its resolves, but do any actually call it a “government?”
The governor had absolutely no control over the two Provincial Congresses already held, which I assume in NC, as everywhere else, were formed as bodies specifically beyond his control. Other revolutionary communities paid these some heed — why would Mecklenburg bypass provincial politics entirely?
On your point regarding the Continental Congress acting as a “government,” I would point to sections 2 and 3 of the Mecklenburg Resolves (as published in the June 1775 newspapers):
“2. That the Provincial Congress of each Province under the direction of the great Continental Congress is invested with all legislative and executive powers within their respective Provinces and that no other legislative or executive power does or can exist at this time in any of these colonies.
3. As all former laws are now suspended in this Province and the Congress have not yet provided others we judge it necessary for the better preservation of good order, to form certain rules and regulations for the internal government of this county until laws shall be provided for us by the Congress.”
What they said here is that Congress was the supreme authority (i.e., the government) and that until such time as Congress acted to provide laws, they would govern themselves. (Of course this also implies that Parliament was no longer the “acting Government.”)
On your third point, I would bear in mind that this was frontier society, and one deeply divided between religious and ethnic associations; in 1771 the entire state had been in a quasi-Civil War (the “regulatory rebellion”), and there as a deep seated distrust between the frontier settlers in the Piedmont and the local authorities (Wilmington, New Bern). That would explain the desire to bypass the intermediary authorities (such as they were, and they weren’t much in any event). Hence the decision to send a messenger to Philadelphia with instructions to “sanction or approve” their Resolutions (whatever resolutions these were).
On the “sacred honor” issue, here are my conclusions which I’ve taken directly from pages 197-199.
“But the phrase that Tucker and others found most extraordinary in the Mecklenburg Declaration was “our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.” It was this expression, he concluded, that must have been the result of “a sort of patriotic forgery.” But is forgery a necessary explanation?
“The historian James Welling, a skeptic of Mecklenburg Declaration, pointed out:
“[A]s between Mr. Jefferson and the author of the Mecklenburg Declaration, the only question that can arise … relates to the origin of the famous phrase in which they both enunciate the pledge of ‘lives, fortune and sacred honor.’ And from this phrase we ought to rule out the words, ‘our lives and fortunes,’ for the pledge of these was among the commonplaces of that time. It occurs passim in the political literature of 1775 and 1776.”
But if the entire Mecklenburg Controversy boiled down to whether or not the phrase “lives, fortune and sacred honor” (or even, for that matter, the phrase “sacred honor”) was so original and distinct that it must have been plagiarized either from or by Jefferson (depending on your point of view) then there really wasn’t much of a controversy at all. Even a cursory review of pro and anti-British resolutions of the period proves the phrase “lives and fortune” was as common as grass, while the use of “sacred” routinely used in connection with descriptions of the sovereign, honor or of freedom generally … [example follow]. …
Nor is it surprising that these phrases should recur in the National Declaration. According to historian Pauline Maier, “[t]he observation that Jefferson borrowed ideas from other writers was not original to the twentieth century. Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson recalled, said the Declaration had been ‘copied from Locke’s treatise on government,’ and John Adams, in his 1822 letter to Timothy Pickering, asserted that there was ‘not an idea in it, but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.’” Jefferson himself told James Madison in 1823 that he “did not consider it part of my charge to invent new idea altogether, and to offer no sentiment what had ever expressed before.” In other words, no one disputed that the text of the National Declaration was altogether unique or original. In fact, quite the opposite was true.
Admittedly, it could be argued that the incorporation of the phrase “lives and fortunes” with that of “sacred” (as in “sacred honor”) was unique in the National Declaration. But is the combination of such daily phrases (as shown above) “inconceivable,” as Tucker and other historians allege? Of course not. Indeed, in 1775 the inhabitants of Anson County, adjacent to Mecklenburg, had come close to using the exact phrases side by side (but for the word “sacred”) [quote omitted] …”
In short, none of the phrases included in the Declaration of Independence was so unusual or uncommon at the time that it is or was implausible that a group of educated men, using political phrases in regular circulation, could have composed something similar. The building blocks were there, in the popular vocabulary of the age.”
Scott — you cite section 2 of the Resolves, which is in direct contradiction to section 3 of the Declaration. The Resolves, as we would expect, include the Provincial Congress in the chain of authority; the Declaration very clearly bypasses it. We are absolutely an independent people — under “no power other than” Congress, it proclaims. How could so momentous a statement — declaring independence from not only Britain but from North Carolina — be stated without any explanation, justification, or elaboration? That would be totally uncharacteristic of contemporaneous declarations. I understand the roots of the NC Regulation of 1771, but were the authors of the Declaration in some sort of civil war with the authors of the Resolves?
Ray: add this as question 379 to the ongoing mystery and debate.
On a serious note, one explanation that has been proposed (by earlier writers, not me, although I cite it) is that what happened on May 20th was a spontaneous, emotional act triggered by the news from Lexington (which as you point out is the only basis for the action cited, unlike the National Declaration with its litany of grievances). Eleven days later, upon more serious reflection, they attempted to “walk back” some of the earlier language, which would also explain why the preamble of the Resolves relies on a more legalistic basis (the Parliamentary “rebellion” argument) rather than the “we-are-free-and-independent” argument.
The fragmentary notes of a main participant, John McKnitt Alexander, hint at this, to wit [pages 80 – 81]:
“One fragment, torn in key places, implies that a second meeting was held in late May to attempt to rally the faint-hearted. The fragmentary passage reads:
“… allowing the 19th May to be a rash Act”
… effects in binding all the middle & west …
“… firm Whigs – no Torys but …
“… not fully represented in the first …”
Not fully represented in the first … First what? The missing word seems to be meeting. If so, McKnitt seems to be saying that a second meeting took place, in which “no Torys” were permitted to attend but other prominent Whigs who had not been “fully represented in the first” meeting on May 20th were present.”
Per this line of speculation, yes, the authors (participants?) in one meeting might have been wholly at odds with the ones in the second. Again, these are all hypothesis, there are no answers.
As a PS, and interesting side note, the Resolves mention (at the end) a Joseph Kennedy. He is only one of two individuals identified in the document, the other being Thomas Polk (beyond Brevard, the “Clerk”, under whose name it is published). Kennedy’s name never comes up among the eye-witness accounts and is never mentioned again. What does this prove? No idea.
You are 100% correct that the language is — in important ways — uncharacteristic of other resolutions of the period (although, as I’ve pointed out earlier, not entirely so). It is also undisputed that the MD and the MR are not the same document in spirit, tone or substance.
So, that either makes the MD (1) entirely novel and important (the “genuine sense of America,” per Adams) or (2) a total fraud and fabrication (“spurious,” per Jefferson.) If you can unriddle all this, you are a better man than me. (PPS — Shoot me an address, and I will send you a book gratis!)
Those fragments are intriguing indeed! I’m eager to read the context of them. They suggest a third option: if it happened, the MD was a “rash Act,” uncharacteristic and not at all the sense of America, but historically significant for identifying a radical fringe. I’ll read your book and let’s explore this option, which seems somewhat plausible. Address: PO Box 979, 80 Barnes Lane, Redway, CA 95560
Since the publication of The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775 late last year I have received numerous inquiries and tips from interested parties on the much mooted question of the veracity of the “MecDec.” Usually, these retread familiar ground or the usual historical rabbit holes.
Recently, however, a new and interesting development has occurred, which to my knowledge was not known previously. This was a tip was sent to the Meck Historical Assoc by an intrepid researcher named Rebecca Fried.
Ms. Fried found a reference to the MecDec in the April 14, 1801 Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Weekly Advertiser (issue 78). The article records a gathering of “[t]he Republican citizens of the village of Charlotte, in Mecklenburgh County” in celebration of the election of President Jefferson. The gathering was “convened at the house of Mrs. M’Combs on the 17th ult.” and records a series of toasts, including the following:
“10. The citizens of Mecklenburg, being the first in their declaration of Independence, may they ever be the first in resisting usurpation by defending their civil righst.” [sic]
To my understanding, this is now the earliest contemporary reference to MecDec of record. The “rough notes” of John McKnitt Alexander and the Moravian diaries might, in each case, be earlier, but in both cases the exact date of those documents cannot be precisely dated to everyone’s satisfaction.
Similar references to MecDec have been found in 1808 and 1809 (including a similar set of toasts from an article in the same paper in 1808); however the reference Ms. Fried found is seven years earlier. Whatsmore, because the (ceremonial) language used in both cases (1801 and 1808) is so similar, it hints that earlier such toasts might even pre-date 1800. In any event, it proves conclusively that the story was considered true and part of local lore as early as 1801 (if not earlier).
A principal argument made by MecDec skeptics is that the story was not locally celebrated or even known until after the Jefferson-Adams letters were published around 1829 (ten years after their actual correspondence in the summer of 1819). According to this line of argument, no one really knew or talked about MecDec before Jefferson made it a sore subject with his “spurious” comments to Adams.
This discovery of an explicit and verifiable 1801 reference to MecDec comprehensively demolishes this argument, and proves beyond any doubt that the MecDec story was commonly known and locally celebrated in the area, almost two decades before the Adams/Jefferson letters took the story “viral.”
It’s ironic that although the MecDec Controversy has been at a stalemate for decades, important research is coming out of the woodwork due to advances in technology and a fresh look at the facts (such as the pension application discoveries). What could be next?