These Truths Blog
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence: Fact or Fiction? (Part II of II)
As of 2013, the historical controversy over the truth of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence has clearly been won by the skeptics in the mind of the general public. The prevailing academic view (to the degree there is one), is that the existence of the Mecklenburg Declaration has been comprehensively disproved, and that those who believe in it are sad and naïve holdouts. Thomas Jefferson’s theory that the entire story is “spurious” has largely carried the day.
An anonymous comment on the Charlotte Observer chat page in May 2011 sums up the popular view: “Some historians do not question [the Mecklenburg Declaration’s] existence,” someone wrote, “ALL serious historians do…What snippets of anecdotal storytelling that have been passed down do not meet any standards of historical research. Unless some new evidence has emerged in the many years since I was a history major in college there is nothing to indicate this is any more than the nice ‘feel good’ local fable it has always been.”
While it’s probably more accurate to say that few historians are interested in the issue at all, a broader question is whether this appeal to authority is still true. Do “ALL” serious historians question the existence of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence?
For many years, the answer was clearly yes. For over a century the consensus view in academic circles has been that the story is, to use Jefferson’s word, “spurious.” The major historical works of the last several decades on North Carolina either ignore the subject altogether, or treat as a given that the entire episode is a hoax and unworthy of comment.
Noted historian Pauline Maier summarizes this perspective in her excellent book American Scripture:
“Today the predominant opinion of ‘most sensible’ modern historians, as Merrill Peterson, put it, supports Jefferson’s position…When compared to other documents of the time, the ‘Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence’ supposedly adopted on May 20, 1775, is simply incredible. It makes the reaction of North Carolinians to Lexington and Concord more extreme than that of the Massachusetts people who received the blow. The resolutions of May 31, 1775, of which there is contemporary evidence, were also radical, but remain believable.”
Simply incredible. Maier’s words have remained the consensus view for several decades. However, in the last decade, the prevailing (indeed, nearly unanimous) view among historians that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is entirely a myth has begun to change, and change greatly.
For example, when asked about the topic in 2007, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said:
“All my instincts, all my experiences over the years incline me to believe it is true. And well worth exploring, worth commemorating and keeping alive. The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s very good circumstantial evidence and there’s a good deal of it. And I’m very impressed by the opinions of John Adams, and he took it seriously.”
Writer and political commentator George Will agrees with McCullough. “What occurred [July 4th] in Philadelphia might have been a Declaration of Independence, but the first such occurred on May 20, 1775,” he wrote in an article in the Washington Post.
Cokie Roberts, an Emmy Award winning journalist and author of Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty, took the this theme even farther in a speech she gave at the dedication of a statue of Captain Jack in Charlotte in May 2010: “There is no question that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence happened,” she said.
“There is not a question in my mind. First of all, there is plenty of evidence but secondly when you have folk memory that’s that strong, it’s always right. And often people don’t like that, as in Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. But it turned out to be right…there is just no question in my mind that this is true.”
In 2011, Andrew Roberts, arguably Britain’s most prominent military historian and author of Masters & Commanders and The Storm of War, in a speech gave his take on the Controversy:
“I’ve learned in twenty years of writing history books that because there is no extant, contemporaneous documentary proof of something, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; fires that destroy crucial documents are incredibly common throughout history and that oral history can sometimes be more visceral and honest than written history anyhow.
“Of course, the Mecklenburgers of 1819 could not remember verbatim, precisely what they declared so bravely in 1775, but that doesn’t in any way undermine the likelihood of their having called for independence a year earlier than the Revolutionaries in Philadelphia. If twenty six North Carolinians say that something took place, my inclination as a historian is to believe them.”
In short, the consensus view that the story is a hoax has begun to crumble. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the stakes of the Mecklenburg Controversy no longer matter much to anyone. A century ago, people cared deeply about whether Virginia, Massachusetts or North Carolina could claim primacy for starting the American Revolution. Today, the issue is of little relevance to anyone.
Second, the belief in what constitutes “history” has undergone a sea-change. A century ago, historical work was driven by strict adherence to documents and literal interpretations. Secondary sources, in particular local or oral traditions of history, were considered unreliable. If something was not written down, it simply did not rise to the level of credible historical evidence. Today a belief in community tradition is given more credence.
Similarly, what is called a “bottom up” view of history is fashionable. In this theory, lesser known individuals such as McKnitt or Polk are considered as legitimate or important as iconic figures such as Hamilton of Jefferson.
And speaking of Jefferson . . .
Perhaps most importantly, disbelief in the Mecklenburg Declaration has weakened as a result of changing views of the character of Thomas Jefferson. The cult of defending his sacred name is now passé. As a result, the motivation of historians to clear Jefferson of the charge of plagiarism no longer exists.
In addition, Jefferson’s testimony as a character witness against the Mecklenburg Declaration has suffered gravely in recent years, given that another “local myth” with which he was associated, that of his slave/mistress Sally Hemmings, turned out to be true after all – 230 years later, and despite generations of defenders claiming the story was false. Simply put, Jefferson is no longer the last word on the Mecklenburg Declaration.
As a result of all of these factors, a more balanced view is evolving of the Mecklenburg Declaration, one that does not portray Jefferson as either a hero to be defended against his detractors, or a villain who committed plagiarism. An alternative explanation is that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence may have existed but equally was not known to the major characters of the time, is becoming accepted by many historians – and in the view of this author at least is the most reasonable explanation. As one local historian, Dan Morrill, himself a skeptic of the entire saga, was forced to conclude: “There is no question that Capt. Jack went to Philadelphia. The question is: What did he have in his saddlebag? We know he had the Mecklenburg Resolves, which were a remarkable display of defiance. Could he have had the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence? Maybe.”
Maybe was not an answer that would satisfy either the die-hard skeptics or the true-believers. But maybe that was the point. Morrill again: "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."
From the forthcoming book “Most Treasonable:” The Controversial History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (McFarland & Co., 2013).