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Sorry George, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence Was Probably a Myth

On July 3rd an article by respected journalist George Will appeared in the Washington Post, called "Independence Days," about the citizens of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina declaring independence from Britain on May 20, 1775--more than a year ahead of the Continental Congress. As wonderful and patriotic as this appears, the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, shrouded in controversy since the American Revolution, is considered a myth by most historians.

Will’s article tells the story of Mecklenburg and sets it up against Jefferson’s Declaration and explores the historic struggle to get both recognized as the first true declaration of independence from Great Britain.

Wills writes:

The impatient patriots here had splendidly short fuses in 1775. Those who tilled the startlingly red clay or who lived in the town named for George III's wife Charlotte might have been bemused had they foreseen the annual hoopla that commemorates July 4, 1776.

What occurred that day in Philadelphia might have been a Declaration of Independence, but the first such was enacted here on May 20, 1775.

Will does not tell the whole story surrounding the Mecklenburg Declaration though. He treats the story as if it is fact, ignoring the likely possibility that it is false.

The hoary story, based on the memories of eyewitnesses and oral histories, is that on May 20, 1775 a group of Protestant men gathered in Charlotte, in the county of Mecklenburg, to declare independence from Great Britain; a declaration of independence of some sort was supposedly signed. Believers later suggested that they knew where the declaration was precisely made. Former North Carolina Governor William Alexander Graham said in in a speech delivered in 1875 that “The event occurred (as I believe it did occur) in the immediate vicinity of the residence of the families from which I am descended.” Yet there is no documentary evidence from 1775 in support of the claim.

Historian William Henry Hoyt, writing in The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (1907), summed up the known facts: “evidences dating from 1775 and onward of a document of this nature, copies of doubtful origin of the document in question, a copy written from memory in 1800, testimony of reliable persons who stated between 1819 and 1830 that they had been spectators and participants at a meeting which adopted it, and traditions are cited to prove the genuineness and authenticity.”

For generations people have fought over the legitimacy of Mecklenburg’s Declaration. The most widely known participants in the debate were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams charged that Jefferson had plagiarized the Mecklenburg Declaration when writing his own draft in 1776.

The first time a text of the document appeared was in 1800, fifteen years after the alleged 1775 creation, when it was written down by someone who claimed to remember it from memory. The absence of a contemporary record is suspicious. The citizens of the county of Mecklenburg did indeed express patriotic fervor early on. In May 31, 1775 they barred loyal British workers from employment. But the passage of a formal declaration of independence would have been a far more serious matter.

The state of North Carolina has put the date May 20, 1775 on its state seal and flag. The state rests its case on an investigation of the declaration undertaken in 1820 by the North Carolina Legislature. On the basis of interviews with several witnesses researchers concluded the story was accurate. But it strains credulity to believe that the act of declaring independence would not have been published or at least written down at the time the action was reputedly taken. For George Will to report the story as if it were true is misleading.