These Truths Blog
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence: Fact or Fiction? (Part I of II)
In 2010, I submitted the concept for a book on the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to a prominent university publisher. They responded that although they were “really intrigued,” they had reservations about the subject matter. “The history establishment of the state seems to be fairly solid in its skepticism of the MecDec,” was the response. They were reluctant to proceed “given the strongly held positions of the opposing sides.”
As their response indicated, even 237 years later the story of whether Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, made the first declaration of independence in the American colonies (known locally as the “MecDec”) continues to arouse strong passions. Most of the academic historical community dismisses the story as (at best) a myth or (at worse) a ridiculous hoax. The widely-held view is that the Mecklenburg Declaration is a fairy-tale, but an irritating one that refuses to go away. Even in Charlotte, where the story begins, raising the topic can elicit a visceral, negative response from many.
Supporters of MecDec are fewer, but no less passionate in their views. For over two centuries, die-hard enthusiasts in the Mecklenburg area have refused to let the story die. Some are local historians; others advocate the story out of civic pride; while still others (at last count, more than 1,400 nationally) are direct descendants of key participants in the tale. To say these people believe the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is an understatement. They are zealous, committed advocates to the cause. Between MecDec supporters and MecDec doubters, there is little common ground.
Believers in the story point to the existing written records, the testimony of numerous and highly credible eye-witnesses (many of whom were Presbyterian Ministers or Revolutionary war patriots, and thus could not be accused of simply lying) and the enduring local legend – in particular, the Moravian chronicles which record that the County declared itself “free and independent” sometime in the summer of 1775. Local lore in the area remains strong. For example, the nickname of the third son of Major John Davidson, a local patriot, was Benjamin Wilson Davidson. Ben was born on May 20, 1787 and was known among the neighbors as ‘Independence Ben’ because he was born on the date of the Mecklenburg Declaration.
Another interesting piece of family lore is the tombstone of the Rev. Humphrey Hunter in Steele Creek Presbyterian cemetery in Charlotte, which reads:
to the memory of the
Rev. HUMPHREY HUNTER,
who departed this life August 21st,
1827, in the 73d year of his age.
He was a native of Ireland, and
Emigrated to America at an early
period of his life. He was one of those
who early promoted the cause of
freedom in Mecklenburg county,
May 20th, 1775, and subsequently
bore an active part in securing
the Independence of his country.”
None of this is definitive proof, but as circumstantial evidence, it is very good.
On the other hand, the skeptics, particularly the late early Twentieth Century historians William Hoyt and A. S. Salley, Jr., provided compelling arguments that the story is false. They argue that the existing written evidence, such as John McNitt Alexander’s “rough notes” and the “copy in unknown handwriting” simply suffer too many evidentiary failings to prove anything. Similarly, upon closer examination the local lore (such as Benjamin Wilson’s alleged nickname “Independence Ben”) proves less than compelling. But even the skeptics’ best of arguments remain simply that – arguments.
In short, to a legal mind, the evidence, to the frustration of both camps, is inconclusive. This is what makes the controversy fresh and alive, just as it was nearly two hundred years ago, when President John Adams declared that the Mecklenburg Declaration represented the “genuine sense of America” while Thomas Jefferson deemed the tale “spurious.”
My own belief, after exhaustive research, consideration and thought on the subject over more than a decade, is that the “truth” of whether the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence existed or not cannot, on the existing evidence, be definitively proven or disproven; or least not to the satisfaction of everyone. Whether one believes the story or not comes down to personal preference, and, in particular, whether or not one believes the testimony of the eye-witnesses on its face. Nor in my view does the existence of the Mecklenburg Resolves “disprove” the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration, as many seem to believe. On the contrary, the Resolves can quite easily be interpreted as validating the overall story.
Is the story of the MecDec “genuine” or “spurious?” You be the judge. More to come in Part 2.
From the forthcoming book “Most Treasonable:” The Controversial History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (McFarland & Co., 2013).