DG MARTIN COLUMN: Meck Dec time again

Almost every year about this time, I remind my readers about North Carolina’s claim that Mecklenburg County declared independence from Great Britain on May 20, 1775, more than a year before the July 4, 1776, American Declaration.

D.G. Martin

But many North Carolinians today do not recognize the date, even though it is enshrined on our state flag and official seal.

The first widely circulated report of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (“Meck Dec”) came in the April 30, 1819, “Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette.”

The Raleigh paper’s version of the Declaration included language asserting independence from Great Britain and echoing or anticipating the American Declaration.

For example, it quoted the Meck Dec: “Resolved, That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people; that we are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing people under the power of God and the General Congress; to the maintenance of which independence we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes and our most sacred honor.”

As the Raleigh paper noted, the Meck Dec was “not known to many” in 1819. For 44 years between 1775 and 1819, there had been no other publication of this text of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

All that changed in 1819. Newspapers throughout the country published the story, launching a nationwide firestorm of interest and argument about Meck Dec. Former President John Adams wrote former President Thomas Jefferson, suggesting that the Mecklenburg Declaration had been the source for Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration. Jefferson responded that the Mecklenburg version was “spurious.”
Finally, after 50 years, on May 20, 1825, Charlotte held its first celebration of the anniversary of the event.

When Jefferson’s letters were published in 1829, his “spurious” description prompted loyal North Carolinians to stand up for the validity of our state’s early version of a declaration of independence.

In 1831, the state legislature established a special committee to settle what had become known as the Mecklenburg Controversy. The committee, after an investigation that included interviews of 13 eyewitnesses to the events of May 1775, concluded that the Meck Dec was genuine and that it was incumbent “to usher to the world the Mecklenburg Declaration, accompanied with such testimonials of its genuineness, as shall silence incredulity … [and] forever secure it from being forgotten.”

The committee’s report did not quiet the controversy, but its sanction gave credibility and cover to the state’s official embrace of the Meck Dec and 150 years of bragging about our “First in Freedom” status.

According to Scott Syfert, author of the 2014 published “The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775,” interest has diminished.

Why was there so little known and reported about the Meck Dec before 1819? And why, after more than 150 years of attention, did interest in the Meck Dec wane?

In his book Syfert deals with both questions. He also lays out the facts, pro and con, so readers can form their own conclusions. Syfert says that he began his research a believer but became a skeptic as he reviewed the many challenges to its authenticity. Finally, though, all the evidence convinced him that the story of its adoption was true.

Syfert respectfully presents the opinions of both adherents and detractors. He encourages his readers to come to their own conclusions about a riddle that could be called North Carolina’s “Da Vinci Code.”

Last year David Fleming, a former writer and commentator for ESPN who has lived in Davidson, published “Who’s Your Founding Father? One Man’s Epic Quest to Uncover the First, True Declaration of Independence.” Less balanced than Syfert, Fleming is an uncompromising advocate for the validity of Meck Dec.

Only one thing is for certain. This time next year I will offer you another column about Meck Dec.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”