Episode #18: The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence
Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.
Whether you've lived here five months or five decades – there's one story every Charlottean is required to know. It's the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence – also known as the Meck Dec. It answers a lot of questions for local historian Scott Syfert:
"What is this city really all about? Why is it where it is? You know – who were the people who lived here? Where did this come from?" Syfert says. "That story – the Meck Dec story is the story of Charlotte."
Syfert is an attorney, historian and "the world's expert on this obscure local, historical event."
"This is the most important historical controversy of the 19th century," Syfert says. "It's sort of The Da Vinci Code. Did Jefferson plagiarize from the Declaration of Independence? Did this small county in North Carolina declare independence first? And the story is never resolved."
May 20, 1775 is the day that 25 prominent citizens signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. That's the date engraved on our state seal … on our state flag and it's the date that Colonel Thomas Polk reportedly read this on the steps of the courthouse on Trade and Tryon Street:
Resolved: That we the citizens of Mecklenburg county, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us with 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 Americans at Lexington.
Delivering The Meck Dec
Captain James Jack, “The Paul Revere of the South”, was the captain of the local militia. He hand carried the Meck Dec on horseback from Charlotte to Philadelphia. It took him 38 days. But nothing came of it.
"Whereupon I said – you may continue to honor your king, and to negotiate with your king," Jack says. "But as for me and my fellow Mecklenburgers, we're finished with the crown forever!"
Captain Jack went home while the Continental Congress worked on the Olive Branch Petition. Of course that didn't work out. A year later, there was the Declaration of Independence. You know the rest.
Did Jefferson Plagiarize?
For a long time, hardly anyone knew of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Until 1819.
"One of the descendants of one of the main guys who wrote the Meck Dec, publishes an account of it in the paper," Syfert says. "And that paper makes its way to John Adams – former president John Adams. And John Adams reads it and says "the genuine sense of America at that moment has never so well been expressed before nor since."
And then Adams writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who of course wrote the actual Declaration of Independence.
"Adams writes to Jefferson a very passive-aggressive snide letter that's basically saying, 'You must have seen this'. Jefferson writes a very lengthy reply saying, 'I've never seen this, I've never heard of it, nobody I know has ever heard of it' and setting out a series of objections as to why it may be true," Syfert says. "And so that kicks off what's called the Mecklenburg controversies. So for 150 years, historians in the 19th century and the early 20th century debate each other about whether the Meck Dec's true."
Signers Of The Meck Dec
There were at least 25 prominent citizens – some say 27 – who supposedly signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, but there are no original documents to prove it. Legend has it, the original copy was burned during a house fire in 1800.
Syfert and I visited the Settler's Cemetery behind First Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte.
"The Settler's Cemetery is a local cemetery," Syfert says. "A lot of the old patriots are buried here. It's right under the shadows of some of the biggest buildings in Charlotte … So this is the grave of Thomas Polk. As you can see he is a revolutionary war patriot. His wife and kids are buried nearby too, but he was the founder of Charlotte. Charlotte is where it is because Thomas Polk had a house on the corner of Trade & Tryon Street."
More than 300 people are buried at Settler's cemetery. The oldest marker is from 1776. It has a lot of old Charlotte names: the Alexanders, the Grahams, the Caldwells, the Davidsons. And there are usually special markers by the graves of people like Thomas Polk who signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
Syfert says there's an overwhelming amount of evidence that has convinced him that it did exist. For one thing, there were 16 credible eyewitnesses who say they were present during the signing of the Meck Dec, including Revolutionary war soldiers, Presbyterian ministers and even a governor of North Carolina (Montford Stokes).
But the problem with that is they testify 30 years after the fact and they've passed away by the time the story becomes nationally known.
"And most importantly to the story, the original papers are lost in a fire in 1800," Syfert says. "So all we have is circumstantial evidence. Now circumstantial evidence is still evidence. And it can be quite good evidence. But the story cannot be proven to the satisfaction of the people who believe in it. And it cannot be disproven by the doubters, which is really the fun of the whole thing, cause it keeps it alive."