The Mecklenburg Declaration – The Controversy

Between 1775 and 1819 The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was remembered and celebrated in Mecklenburg County and to some extent in North Carolina, but no one outside of North Carolina knew or cared much about it.  Only the Declaration was remembered and there is no mention of the 21 Resolves during this period.

The people had been busy building a new country and had paid little attention to their history.  However by 1819, 36 years after the end of the war, people were beginning to be interested in the history of the revolution.  A debate arose as to whether the Revolution was started in Virginia or in New England.  The North Carolina Assembly entered the discussion by asking Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander to go through the papers of his father, the late John McKnitt Alexander, secretary of the May 20th meeting, and write up the story of the Meck Dec.  He did so and his report was printed in the Raleigh Register on April 30, 1819.

That would have been the end of it – an interesting footnote to history – except that ex-President John Adams saw a copy of the report and sent it to ex-President Thomas Jefferson, implying that Jefferson had copied words and phrases from the Meck Dec for his own July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson responded at length saying that he thought the Meck Dec “spurious” and that he was an “unbeliever” in the document.  This exchange was a private correspondence known only to the two men.

Again, the Meck Dec would have remained an interesting foot-note except that Jefferson’s letter on this subject was published after Jefferson’s death and thereby publicized.  Jefferson’s condemnation had to be answered and the North Carolina Assembly appointed a committee to gather all of the documentary evidence available and publish an official North Carolina State Pamphlet on the subject in 1831.  Since then there have been at least 12 books published on the subject and countless magazine and newspaper articles and chapters in more general history books.

Perhaps the best, and the most recent, book on the subject is Chain of Error and the Mecklenburg Declarations of Independence by V. V. McNitt.  Originally published in 1960 it has been re-published by the MHA and is available for purchase at the Publications section of this web site.   This book features an exhaustive analysis of the original documents, revealing a basic error in interpretation of the hand-written documents.  When this error is corrected, and the chain of errors flowing from it likewise corrected, the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration is firmly established.

An interesting twist was given to the subject when the text of the 21 Resolves was discovered in 1838 and 1847.  They had been printed in newspapers in 1775 and lain undiscovered all those years.  While there may be some room for historians to debate the authenticity of the words of the Mecklenburg Declaration, these newspapers give proof positive that Mecklenburg County was in fact the first political organization to declare independence from the Crown of England on May 31, 1775 if not on May 20, 1775.

Today there is a difference of opinion as to the authenticity of the text of the Meck Dec.  Many prominent historians assert that the Meck Dec is spurious and remain unbelievers.  Others judge that a preponderance of evidence confirms the stated facts.  This debate is likely to continue until and unless a copy of the original is found in some attic or archive somewhere.

James H. Williams
June 10, 2008