Published August 24, 2023
By D. G. Martin
A book about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence published in April has raised again the question of whether on May 20, 1775, a group of county residents adopted such a resolution more than a year before the American Declaration.
“Who's Your Founding Father? One Man’s Epic Quest to Uncover the First, True Declaration of Independence” was written by David Fleming, a writer and commentator for ESPN. He lives in Davidson.
The publisher’s notes for Fleming’s book assert, “A centuries-old secret document might unravel the origin story of America and reveal the intellectual crime of the millennia in this epic dive into our country’s history to discover the first, true Declaration of Independence...Composed during a clandestine all-night session inside the Charlotte courthouse, the Mecklenburg Declaration was signed on May 20, 1775—a date that’s still featured on the state flag of North Carolina. A year later, in 1776, Jefferson is believed to have plagiarized the MecDec [a shorthand term for the Mecklenburg Declaration], while composing his own, slightly more famous, Declaration and then, as he was wont to do, covered the whole thing up.”
A book about the MecDec, “The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775,” written by Charlotte attorney Scott Syfert and published in 2014, takes an evenhanded approach to the question of the genuineness of the MecDec. Fleming, on the other hand, is an unambiguous advocate.
The controversy about the MecDec’s genuineness has a long history. Not much was said or written about it and there was little argument until 1819 when a Raleigh newspaper and then newspapers throughout the country published a story with the recollected text of the MecDec. This launched a nationwide 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.”
Fleming argues that the Mecklenburg version was a genuine declaration of independence and that Jefferson copied parts of it for use in the version that he drafted and which became the American Declaration of Independence.
A big problem for Fleming, maybe an insurmountable one, is that no early copies of the Mecklenburg Declaration are available, the original and early copies having been burned or lost over the years. The copies available are largely reconstructions based on memories.
However, as he points out, there is general agreement that a complete text of the Mecklenburg document was published in an edition of a contemporary newspaper, the Cape Fear Mercury. That copy would show, according to Fleming, the complete text of the original 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration and thus prove that similar language in Jefferson’s 1776 declaration was plagiarized.
Records show that colonial Governor Josiah Martin sent a copy of the newspaper to authorities in Britain to show how far the colonists’ rebellion had progressed. Martin’s message and the newspaper had been placed in the British archives.
In a gripping part of his book, Fleming describes his efforts to see that copy. He tells about his recent visit to the British Archives where he found a file that contained copies of the Cape Fear Mercury. But there was a note that the edition containing the text of the Mecklenburg document had been taken in 1837 by the American ambassador, Andrew Stevenson, and was never returned to the archives.
Stevenson, a Virginian and admirer of Thomas Jefferson, had served as speaker of the House of Representatives. Fleming thinks that Stevenson, believing that MecDec’s true text in the newspaper would harm Jefferson’s reputation, disposed of it.
Disappointed, of course, that his key evidence was missing, Fleming is undaunted. In conclusion, he writes about plans for the celebration of MecDec’s semiquincentennial (250th) anniversary in 2025.
NOTE TO READERS:
In working with the MecDec again I have come to two conclusions:
First: There were no actual signers of MecDec. After the resolutions were passed, I doubt they had time to collect signatures. It took more than a month after the American Declaration of Independence was adopted to prepare a formal signing document and collect signatures. The list of signatures on modern copies of MecDec was probably based on the notes and memories of those preparing the copies.
Second: The term “Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence” was not originally a part of the resolutions adopted on May 20. The identifying heading or caption was added later to the various copies. The working title of the American Declaration was “A Declaration of the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress assembled.” I think that the term “Declaration of Independence” was first used in the final of the American Declaration.
D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.