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The First Declaration of Independence Drafted in the 13 Colonies Was (Probably) a Hoax

Although some are still very invested in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the scholarly community maintains it was never real

The flag of North Carolina includes the dates traditionally associated with the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the 1776 Declaration of Independence. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1775, the county of Mecklenburg, North Carolina hosted a momentous event: the passing of the Mecklenburg Resolves.

What may or may not—but probably didn’t—happen a week earlier, on May 20, 1775, was the drafting of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, declaring the citizens of Mecklenburg County has seceded from British rule. The Declaration has made its way down through history. In North Carolina, “MeckDec Day” is still celebrated and a “May 20th Society” exists for the sole purpose of commemorating the Mecklenburg Declaration. The MeckDec (or MecDec) is even referenced on the North Carolina flag. But there are many, from Thomas Jefferson to scholars today, who don’t believe the document ever existed.

Scott Syfert, a pro-MecDec attorney from Charlotte who has written a book looking at the controversy, articulates the reasons why people believe in the document:

For over two centuries, die-hard enthusiasts in Mecklenburg have refused to let the story die. Some are local historians; others advocate the story out of civic pride; while still others… are direct descendants of key participants in the tale. To say that these people believe the story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is an understatement. They are zealous, committed advocates to the cause. Between MecDec supporters and MecDec doubters, there is little common ground.

MecDec supporters are invested in the belief that some of the language of the Declaration of Independence was borrowed from the MecDec, while MecDec doubters believe that the first existing copy of the MecDec, drafted around 1800, borrowed from the Declaration of Independence.

Historians are sure the Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31 were written. The Resolves, while not a formal declaration of independence, stand out as a deliberate rejection of the British government’s rule over the county and show that “citizens of Mecklenburg County were deliberately beginning to govern themselves more than a year before the Continental Congress finally severed ties with Britain,” according to North Carolina Digital History, which reproduced the Resolves online. That document declared British authority to be "annulled and vacated" and drafted rules for how the county was to govern itself.

The pro-MecDec movement claims that the Resolves are merely a more rational and clearly thought-out version of the Declaration of Independence written and signed just 11 days before. The May 20th Society provides a lengthy response to the controversy on its website (scroll down to “What Proof is There That the MecDec Really Existed?”), writing “despite the fact that no original copy has ever been discovered, there exists substantial evidence that the citizens of Mecklenburg County adopted the MecDec at the Convention of May 20th” before listing the specific evidence. To the May 20th Society, there is ample evidence to suggest the Declaration.

But to others, like historian Ronnie W. Faulkner, the MecDec was never real. “The authenticity of the document was not seriously questioned until the posthumous publication of the works of Thomas Jefferson in 1829,” he writes. “In a letter of 9 July 1819 to John Adams, Jefferson dismissed the Mecklenburg Declaration as a hoax.”

Although an investigation by the North Carolina legislature concluded the document was authentic, Faulkner suggests it was accepted because North Carolinians were already so invested in the mythology of the Declaration. "Although modern scholars no longer accept the Mecklenburg Declaration as authentic, it has long been maintained and celebrated," he writes. "The document emerged at a time when North Carolina was the sleeping and backward 'Rip Van Winkle State' and thus appealed to pride by establishing that the state was not only progressive but also in the vanguard of the independence movement."

One version of North Carolina’s license plate includes the slogan “first in freedom.” Although the Declaration may not have been an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence authored in 1776, that slogan still rings true: the Mecklenburg Resolves were still an important early rejection of British rule.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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