The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

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The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

by Archibald Henderson, Ph.D.

Member of the Faculty of the University of North Carolina, Author's Club of London, North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, Etc.; Author of "Interpreters of Life, and the Modern Spirit," "Mark Twain," "George Bernard Shaw; His Life and Work.," Etc.

[Published in The Journal of American History,1912]

THE classic controversy of a century, over the famous Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, once more has come into rational prominence. The date, May 20, 1775, stands upon the State flag of North Carolina. In 1831, under the authority and direction of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, the Governor of the State, Montford Stokes, published a pamphlet containing the text of the reputed Declaration of Independence, together with the testimony of the eye-witnesses of that event, and other documents. Once more State sanction has been given to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the Historical Commission of North Carolina having granted the Colonial Dames the privilege of placing a tablet in the rotunda of the State Capitol, at Raleigh, North Carolina. This was dedicated with appropriate cere monies on May 20, 1912. The tablet bears the inscription:

In Commemoration
of the
Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence
May 20, 1775,
And the Twenty-Seven Signers.
Erected by the
North Carolina Society of Colonial Dames of America
1912

It seems appropriate, in view of such decisive action in assertion of the authenticity of the Mecklenhurg Declaration of Independence, of May 20, 1775, to review in detail the evidence on both sides of the famous controversy. Historians still differ strongly in regard to the issue, the majority disputing the authenticity of the Declaration, On the one side are those who rely upon the testimony of numer .ous eye-witnesses of the event, many of whom affirm that they were present at meetings on May 19 and 20, 1775, at which were passed a Declaration of Independence.[1] On the other side are those who assert that the Mecklenburg Resolves, printed contemporaneously in various newspapers with the date May 31, 1775, associated therewith, constituted the only action taken by Mecklenburg patriots in May, 1775, looking toward independence.[2] Despite the indefatigable researches made in all directions and covering well-nigh a century of time, as well as the wealth of printed discussion of the subject, there is still lacking indisputable evidence in support of either side of the controversy. The historians who aver that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775, is a myth, have failed to adduce any convincing evidence that there was even a meet ing on May 31, 1775, or that the Resolves were not passed on May 20, 1775. The historians who assert the authenticity of the Declaration of May 20, 1775. rest their claim upon the testimony of the eye-witnesses, the now indis putable evidence that whatever action was taken in May. 1775, was contem poraneously regarded as a declaration of independence, and the citations of allusions in contemporary literature which may be construed as referring to a declaration of independence. But on the other hand, they have been unable to discover any published accounts of the proceedings in Charlotte on May 19-20, 1775, in the newspapers of that period, whereas the Resolves, carrying in sonic instances the date of May 31, 1775, appeared printed, in part or in full, in numer Otis contemporary prints.

Before setting forth the evidence in support of the authenticity of the Declaration of May 20, it will be well to record certain indisputable facts clearly demon strated by the investigations of the last eight years. It is now established beyond doubt that the copy of the Cape Fear Mercury, until recently supposed to contain the text of the Declaration, which Governor Martin transmitted to Lord Dartmouth, contained not the text of the Declaration, but the text of the Resolves; that there were not two meetings, one on May 19-20, at which the Declaration was passed, another on May 31. at which the Resolves were passed, and further more that the decisive action in May, 1775, by Mecklenhurg patriots, whatever its exact nature, was generally regarded at the time and throughout the period up to 1800, when the records were destroyed by fire, as constituting a genuine declaration of independence. It remains to set forth the positive evidence in support of the authenticity of the Declaration, the date of its promulgation, and the character of the action taken.

The discovery, in September, 1904, in the Moravian Archives at Bethania, North Carolina, of the record kept by Trangott Bagge and made by him about September, 1783, containing an explicit allusion to the action of Mecklenburg patriots in May, 1775, brought to light the most valid evidence now known in support of the Mecklenhurg Declaration of Independence. The present writer has recently published the record of a conversation with George Washington in 1791, by Dr. Charles Caldwell, taken from his Autobiography,[3] containing explicit reference to the Mecklenburg Declaration of independence, and the assertion that it was passed in Charlotte, in May, 1775. Neither constitutes irrefutable proof of the Declaration, it must distinctly be noted; but both constitute indisputable evidence that the action taken in Mecklenburg in May, 1775, was regarded by the patriots of that section as constituting an unquestioned declaration of independ ence. Perhaps the strangest feature of the controversy arising Out of the discovery of Trangott Bagge's reference is the failure, on the part of the supporters of the Declaration, to discern the striking support thereby given to their contention. In order to exhibit this, I will outline the only tenable theory now left in view of all known evidence documentary and printed in support of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. This theory is a working hypothesis, not indis putahly proven by evidence, and constitutes the ultimate basis of all claims for the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775. This theory may he succinctly set forth in a series of syllogistic statements.

There was a meeting in Charlotte, Mccklcnhurg County, North Carolina, on May 19, 1775, lasting until two o'clock on the morning of May 20, and there was an adjourned meeting on May 20, at noon. The date of the meeting is specifically given, by eight of the fourteen eye-witnesses who testified, as May 20, 1775—i. e., the date of the meeting at which independence was declared.

There was no meeting on May 31. None of the witnesses refer to two meet ings, one on May 20th and one on any subsequent date.

The Resolves, which constituted a conditional declaration of independence, had been elaborately prepared in advance of the meeting of May 19. The news of the Battle of Lexington. arriving in Charlotte on that date, aroused such an outburst of patriotic fervor that the temper of the people could not be satisfied with the mediately temperate Resolves previously prepared. A long and stormy session ensued, lasting until two o'clock on the morning of May 20, and resulting in the postponement of decisive action to an adjourned meeting on May 20. An unconditional declaration of independence was now prepared which, owing to the brief time allowed for its composition and the stress of the excitement of the hour, was inevitably inferior in composition, that is, in literary form and expression, to the Resolves, which had bcen prepared with great care and deliberation in advance of the meeting of May 19.

On May 20, 1775, two papers were read: the Declaration of Independence, and the Resolves. Despite the seeming weakness of the later paper in comparison with the former, both papers were read, and for the following reasons. After the declaration oi independence was adapted in camera, it was clearly seen by the calmer heads that this document did not adequately provide, in detail and in extenso, for the administration of the affairs of the county under an independent regime, i. e., "certain rules and regulations for this country, until laws shall be provided for us by the congress." Moreover, it would be exceedingly impolitic in view of the strong Tory sentiment in the county and in the province, to give general publicity throughout North Carolina to the declaration of independence—an incredibly forward and revolutionary step by a single frontier county in a single colony whose representatives in the Continental Congress were by no means committed to independence. The Resolves constituting a conditional assertion of independence, and providing for the exigencies of the county under an inde pendent government, were to he generally disseminated abroad as the fundamental expression of the people. The more radical and unconditional Declaration, expressing the most vigorous spirit of independence, was to he referred to North Carolina's representatives in the Continental Congress. with request for action, and advice upon the step taken.

The Declaration of Independence was withheld from publication for the wellfounded reason that such action would be inexpedient until given sanction by North Carolina's representatives in the Continental Congress sitting at Philadelphia. The Resolves were given out to the press generally, appearing in the South Carolina Gazette, and County Journal of Tuesday, June 13, 1775, in "CharlesTown," South Carolina: the North Carolina Gazette, New-Bern, on Friday, June 16, 1775; the Cape Fear Mercury, Wilmington, North Carolina, almost certainly in its issue of June 23, 1775; and in a number of other newspapers, in a more or less fragmentary form.[4]

Some days after the meeting of May 20, that is, early in June, Captain Jack was dispatched to Philadelphia with a copy of the proceedings of that meeting, which he transmitted to the North Carolina delegates, Richard Caswell, William Hooper and Joseph Hewes, on or before June 23, 1775. This delegation regarded the declaration of independence as premature maintained a discreet and vigilant silence on the point in the Congress and to their colleagues there, and returned a message to the people of Mecklenburg by Captain Jack, expressing their opinion that the declaration of independence passed by the Mecklenburg patriots was at that time premature.

The evidence of the witnesses is to the effect that at the adjourned meeting on May 20, two papers were read and adopted in committee, and the whole read to the assembled multitude from the court house steps by Colonel Polk. These two papers were the declaration of independence, and the Resolves, in an amended form. The Resolves, as printed in Charlestown and New-Bern and indisputably emanating from the same source because of their identity, bear the date May 31—explainable as the date of transmission of the copy to the papers, not as the date of their passage. It is noteworthy that the copy of the Resolves taken from the Cape Fear Mercury, presumably of June 23, 1775, and transmitted by Governor Martin to Lord Dartmouth, contains no date attached.

It is no ground for surprise that the North Carolina delegates preserved such a discreet silence on the subject of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. It is indisputable that neither the Continental Congress as a body, nor even the Adamses themselves, were in favor of independence in June, 1775. It was the then policy of the Continental Congress that reconciliation with Great Britain was first to be sought by every legitimate means, and any defiance of royal authority, such as the independent action of the Proprietors of Transylvania of May 25, 1775, was frowned upon by the Adamses as late as December, 1775. It is scarcely to be doubted, in view of their publication in so many newspapers at the time, that the Resolves were known to members of the Congress other than the three North Carolina delegates, and yet the evidence is very strong that even the Resolves were regarded as so revolutionary in tone that they were suppressed in Philadelphia and not published by Philadelphia newspapers which copied news from the very issues of the papers containing the text of the Resolves. Care was thus sedulously taken against giving any rein to free expressions favoring national independence by that body, since such expressions might effectually upset the efforts then going forward for the purpose of effecting reconciliation with Great Britain.

The above theory, the only tenable theory now remaining, in the light of all the evidence, in support of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775, is strengthened greatly by the record recently discovered, which was written at Salem, North Carolina, in the autumn of 1783, by Trangott Bagge, a merchant and man of affairs in the town during the Revolutionary War. The English translation of the German record reads[5]:

"I cannot leave unmentioned at the end of the 1775th year that already in the summer of this year, that is in May, June, or July, the County of Mecklenbnrg in North Carolina declared itself free and independent of England, and made such arrangements for the administration of the laws among themselves, as later the Continental, Congress made for all. This congress, however, considered these proceedings premature." The real significance of Bagge's statement, which seems to have escaped the notice of historians, is the explicit statement that two distinct actions were taken: (1) The County of Mecklenburg in North Carolina "declared itself free and independent of England," and (2) the County of Mecklenburg "made such arrangements for the administration of the laws among them selves, as later the Continental Congress made for all." Both of these statements do not pertain to the Declaration alone, by which no adequate and detailed arrange ment was made for "the administration of the laws among themselves." Both of these statements do not pertain to the Resolves alone, which did not declare the County of Mecklenburg "free and independent of England." The two statements of Bagge, taken together, point to both the Declaration and the Resolves—the first statement to the Declaration, the second statement to the Resolves, as we know them or in an amended form. The opponents of the May 20th Declaration have advanced the plausible theory that Bagge was the victim of a popular delusion of the period, to the effect that the Resolves actually constituted a declara tion of independence. This theory is defied by the unmistakable language of the Resolves, which nowhere declare or imply that the County of Mecklenburg proclaims itself free and independent of England, but explicitly states that since "By an address presented to his Majesty by both houses of Parliament in February last, the American colonies are declared to be in a state of actual rebellion, we conceive that all laws and commissions confirmed by, or derived from, the authority of the king or Parliament are annulled and vacated, and the former civil constitution of these colonies for the present wholly suspended." The ones of responsibility for their state of affairs requiring the passage of the Resolves is thus clearly thrown upon the Parliamentary Address to the King, of February, 1775. The evidence of the Rev. Humphrey Hunter, who testified that he was present on May 19-20, 1775, refers to two papers, each representing distinctive action, at the meeting in camera on May 20. "The 20th of May, at 12 o'clock," says his Memoir, "the Delegation, as above, had convened. The select committee was also present, and reported agreeably to instructions, viz., a statement of grievances and formal draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Ephraim Brevard, chairman of the said committee, and read by him to the Delegation. The resolves, bye-laws and regulations were read by John McKnitt Alexander. It was then announced from the Chair, are you all agreed? There was not a dissenting voice. Finally, the whole proceedings were read distinctly and auditbly, at the Court-House door, by Col. Thomas Polk, to a large, respectable and approving assemblage of citizens, who were present, and gave sanction to the business of the day. A copy of all those transactions were then drawn up, and given in charge to Capt. James Jack, then of Charlotte, that he should present them to Congress, then in session in Philadelphia."

One other striking bit of evidence, to which the present writer has recently given publicity, is the record of the conversation of Dr. Charles Caldwell, then a young man of nineteen, afterwards a distinguished physician, with George Washington, during the latter's tour through the South in 1791. Thirteen young men, one for each of the Colonies, with Caldwell at their head, were sent forward ahead of the main body, the Rowan Light Horse Company to meet General Washington at the line between North Carolina and South Carolina. The great grandfather of the present writer, General John Steele, Representative of the Salisbury District in Congress, and afterwards first Comptroller of the Treasury, went to Char lotte to meet General Washington who was his personal friend. ln Washington's Diary, we read under date of Monday, May 30th:

"At o'clock I was out from Maj. Fifer's, and about ten miles at the line which divides Mecklenhurg from Rowan Counties, I met a party of horse belonging to the latter, who came from Salisbury to escort me on. (It ought to have been mentioned also that upon my entering the State of No. Carolina I was met by a party of the Mecklenburg horse—but these being near their homes I dismissed them).

"I was also met miles from Salisbury by the Mayor of the corporation, Judge McKoy and others—Mr. Steel, Representative for the District was so polite as to come all the way to Charlotte to meet me."

Washington omits to mention the smaller detachments which went to meet him—the thirteen young men, headed by Caldwell, and a compahy of young boys, with bucktails in their hats—a symbol of independence—which met him about half a mile from Salisbury. Caldwell described with exceptional particularity the details of his meeting and conversation with the revered Washington. A portion of the conversation follows:

"During the late war, if my information be correct," observed Washington, "the inhabitants were true to the cause of their country, and brave in its defense."

"Your information is correct, sir," replied Caldwell. "They were, almost to a man, true-hearted Whigs and patriots, and as gallant soldiers as ever drew swords or pointed rifles in behalf of freedom. In Mecklenburg County, where we now are, and in Rowan, which lies before us, a Tory did not dare to show his face—if he were known to he a Tory. It was in a small town, which we shall pass, that Lord Cornwallis lay encamped, when he swore that he had never before been in such a d..m..d nest of Whigs—for that he could not, in the surrounding country, procure a chicken or a pig for his table, or a gallon of oats for his horse, hu by purchasing it with the blood of his soldiers, who went in quest of it." "Pray, what is the name of that town?" queried Washington.

"Charlotte, sir," replied young Caldwell proudly, "the county town of Mecklenburg, and the place where independence was declared about a year before its declaration by Congress * * * * Later in his account, Caldwell records: "He (Washington) at length inquired of me whether he might expect to meet at Charlotte any of the leading members of the convention which prepared and passed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, and especially whether my father would be there. I replied that my father was dead, and that Dr. Brevard (misspelled Prevard), the author of the Declaration, who also dead; that, of the members of the convention still living, I knew personally but two—Adam Alexander, who had been president of the body, and John McKnitt Alexander, his brother, who had been its secretary; that they were far advanced in life, and lived at some distance from Charlotte, but that I felt confident their ever-green spirit of patriotism, united to their strong desire to see him, would bring them there, should they be able to travel." It is a matter of enduring regret that Washington, in his Diary, makes no allusion to the action of Mecklenburg patriots in May, 1775.

The weight of historical evidence and the majority of historians who have considered the incident, tend to discredit, in the minds of many, the contention, concretised in the memoiral tablet erected on May 20, 1912, in the Rotunda of the State Capitol at Raleigh, N. C., that on May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg County declared itself free and independent of Great Britian. The verdict against the opponents of the Declaration must be the Scotch verdict: "Not proven." The adherents of the Declaration rest their case upon the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses who assert that a Declaration of Independence was passed on May 20, 1775. The opponents of the Declaration have failed to prove, or even to adduce satisfactory evidence, that there was any meeting on May 31, 1775.

The case remains one of the most interesting of mooted historical mysteries. If, as many careful historical investigators affirm, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775, is a myth, then it must assuredly be what Mr. W. H. Hoyt describes it to be: "A strange and almost incredible story of the fallibility of human memory."

Notes:

  1. This side of the controversey is best set forth by Dr. George Grabnm in his book, The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, May 20, 1776, and Lives of Its Signers, Neale Publishing Company, 1905.
  2. This side of the controversy is extensively presented by Mr. W. H. Hoyt In his pains taking work, entitled The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1907
  3. Autobiography of Charles Caldwell, M. D., with a Preface, Notes, and Appendix, by Harriot W. Warner. Lippincott Grambo & Co., Philadelphia 1855
  4. New York Journal or The General Adviser June 29, 1775, Massachusetts Spy or American Oracle of Liberty, July 12, 1775.
  5. Article by Miss Adelaide Pries in the Charlotte Observer. April 15 1906. The translation of the extract given in S. A. Ashe's History of North Carolina, Vol. I pp. 459-460, is imperfect and ungrammatical.