Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence published in 1819, was asserted to be the first declaration of independence made in the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution. It was supposedly signed on May 20, 1775, in Charlotte, North Carolina, by a committee of citizens of Mecklenburg County, who declared independence from Great Britain after hearing of the battle of Lexington. If the story is true, the Mecklenburg Declaration preceded the United States Declaration of Independence by more than a year. The authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration has been disputed since it was published, forty-four years after it was reputedly written. There is no conclusive evidence to confirm the original document’s existence, and no reference to it has been found in extant newspapers from 1775.
Professional historians have maintained that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is an inaccurate rendering of an authentic document known as the Mecklenburg Resolves. The Mecklenburg Resolves were a set of radical resolutions passed on May 31, 1775, that fell short of an actual declaration of independence. Although published in newspapers in 1775, the text of the Mecklenburg Resolves was lost after the American Revolution and not rediscovered until 1838. Historians believe that the Mecklenburg Declaration was written in 1800 in an attempt to recreate the Mecklenburg Resolves from memory. According to this theory, the author of the Mecklenburg Declaration mistakenly believed that the Resolves had been a declaration of independence, and so he recreated the Resolves with language borrowed from the United States Declaration of Independence. Defenders of the Mecklenburg Declaration have argued that both the Mecklenburg Declaration and the Mecklenburg Resolves are authentic.
The early government of North Carolina, convinced that the Mecklenburg Declaration was genuine, maintained that North Carolinians were the first Americans to declare independence from Great Britain. As a result, both the seal and the flag of North Carolina bear the date of the declaration. A holiday commemorating the Mecklenburg Declaration, “Meck Dec Day”, is celebrated on May 20 in North Carolina, although it is no longer an official holiday and does not attract the attention that it once did.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was published on April 30, 1819 in an article written by Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette, of Raleigh, North Carolina. “It is not probably known to many of our readers,” wrote the editor of the Raleigh Register in an introduction to the article, “that the citizens of Mecklenburg County, in this State made a Declaration of Independence more than a year before Congress made theirs.”
According to Dr. Alexander, his father, John McKnitt Alexander, had been the clerk at a meeting convened in Charlotte on May 19, 1775. Each militia company in Mecklenburg County had sent two delegates to the meeting, where measures were to be discussed regarding the ongoing dispute between the British Empire and the American colonies. Relations between the colonies and the mother country had reached a crisis in Boston, Massachusetts, following the 1774 passage of the Coercive Acts by the British Parliament. During the meeting in Mecklenburg County, the delegates received official news that the battle of Lexington had been fought in Massachusetts one month earlier. Outraged by this turn of events, wrote Dr. Alexander, the delegates unanimously passed the following resolutions at about 2:00 a.m. on May 20:
1. Resolved, That whosoever directly or indirectly abetted, or in any way, form, or manner, countenanced the uncharted and dangerous invasion of our rights, as claimed by Great Britain, is an enemy to this County, to America, and to the inherent and inalienable rights of man.
2. Resolved, That we the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and abjure all political connection, contract, or association, with that Nation, who have wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington.
3. Resolved, That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people, are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing Association, under the control of no power other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress; to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other, our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.
4. Resolved, That as we now acknowledge the existence and control of no law or legal officer, civil or military, within this County, we do hereby ordain and adopt, as a rule of life, all, each and every of our former laws – where, nevertheless, the Crown of Great Britain never can be considered as holding rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein.
5. Resolved, That it is also further decreed, that all, each and every military officer in this County, is hereby reinstated to his former command and authority, he acting conformably to these regulations, and that every member present of this delegation shall henceforth be a civil officer, viz. a Justice of the Peace, in the character of a ‘Committee-man,’ to issue process, hear and determine all matters of controversy, according to said adopted laws, and to preserve peace, and union, and harmony, in said County, and to use every exertion to spread the love of country and fire of freedom throughout America, until a more general and organized government be established in this province.
A few days later, wrote Dr. Alexander, Captain James Jack of Charlotte was sent to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Jack carried a copy of the resolves and a letter asking North Carolina’s congressmen to have the Mecklenburg proceedings approved by Congress. The North Carolina congressional delegation—Richard Caswell, William Hooper, and Joseph Hewes—told Jack that although they supported what had been done, it was premature to discuss a declaration of independence in Congress.
Dr. Alexander concluded by writing that although the original documents relating to the Mecklenburg Declaration were destroyed in a fire in 1800, the article was written from a true copy of the papers left to him by his father, who was now deceased.