May 20 -- Did you miss it again this year?
“It is probably not known to many of our readers, that the citizens of Mecklenburg County, in this state made a declaration of independence a year before Congress made theirs.”
This item could be an introduction to a contemporary story about the anniversary of the May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
Most North Carolinians today do not recognize the date, even though it is enshrined on our state flag and official seal.
But the quoted report came from the April 30, 1819, “Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette” to introduce its publication of the Mecklenburg Declaration and a narrative of the May 20, 1775, events leading up to the county’s action more than a year before the July 4, 1776, American Declaration of Independence.
The Raleigh paper’s version of the Declaration included language asserting independence from Great Britain and echoing or anticipating the American Declaration.
For example, the Mecklenburg Declaration: “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 Mecklenburg Declaration 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 nation-wide firestorm of interest and argument about the Mecklenburg Declaration. 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 their 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 bragging about our “First in Freedom” status.
Recently though, according to Scott Syfert, author of “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 Mecklenburg Declaration before 1819? And, why, after more than 150 years of attention, has interest in the Meck Dec waned?
In his new book Syfert deals with both these questions. He also lays out the facts, pro and con, so his readers can form their own conclusions about the Meck Dec. 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.
Because he respectfully presents the opinions of both adherents and detractors, Syfert gives his readers a welcome chance to come to their own informed conclusions about a riddle that could be called North Carolina’s “Da Vinci Code.”
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel (Time Warner #1276 or #4.4) on Fridays at 9 p.m. Next week’s (Sunday, May 29 guest is Wiley Cash, author of “A Land More Kind Than Home.” To view prior programs: http://video.unctv.org/program/nc-bookwatch/episodes/ For upcoming programs: www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.