Happy Friday everyone!
Alexander Craighead’s principal legacy was to instill among the people of his congregations a fierce determination to resist the imposition of unwanted authority. “Social historians studying the more than two-century of Mecklenburg might well agree that this community’s character has its roots in the independent-mindedness of her early citizenship,” writes LeGette Blythe in his popular 1961 history of Mecklenburg County. Dramatic proof of this commitment to noninterference occurred during the so-called “Sugar Creek War” in 1765, the year preceding Craighead’s death and three years following the creation of Mecklenburg County from a portion of Anson County in 1762.
Conflict arose when Henry McCulloh, one of Governor Dobb’s partners in land speculation and an agent for another absentee property owner, Lord George Augustus Selwyn, assembled a team of surveyors in the area to determine the boundaries of Lord Selwyn’s land. A group of local ruffians, led by Thomas Polk, warned McCulloh to desist or he would be “tied Neck and heels and be carried over the Yadkin, and he might think himself happy if he got off so.” Undeterred, McCulloh attempted to perform his duties and ordered the “parcel of blockheads” to stand aside, whereupon the squatters, their faced blackened, attacked McCulloh’s men. McCulloh retreated and departed for New Bern.
Caption: The log cabin at McIntyre Farm. The skirmish fought here helped give rise to Charlotte’s reputation as a “Hornets’ Nest” of rebellion.
An even more dramatic manifestation of defiance of Royal authority by the Scots-Irish of Mecklenburg County happened in May of 1775. Allegedly, a group of leading citizens Mecklenburg County drafted and signed the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775 and were therefore the first colonists to break their legal ties to Great Britain. It was not until 1819, 44 years later, when Virginia and Massachusetts were arguing over which of the two states had been first to break with Great Britain, that U.S. Senator Nathanial Macon and William Davidson, the latter representing the Mecklenburg County district in the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed that the Scots-Irish of North Carolina were the first to declare their independence.
Caption: A drawing of the first courthouse, a log structure erected in the intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets.
Even its staunchest defenders admitted that no copy of the actual document existed. “Nearly all of my father’s papers,” declared a son of John McKnitt Alexander, “were burned in the spring of 1800.” To bolster their case, supporters of the so-called “Meck Dec” interviewed several alleged signers. These elderly gentlemen agreed that they had attended a meeting in May 1775 but could not recall the exact date. William Polk, son of Thomas Polk (and cousin to Mecklenburg county native U.S. President James K. Polk), published a pamphlet containing these testimonials and declared the matter settled.
Caption: The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. This, the oldest known extant copy, was printed in 1826 in Knoxville, TN. Lack of an original copy of contemporary references to the “Meck Dec” call its authenticity into question.
Trouble for the backers of the “Meck Dec” surfaced in 1838. An archivist uncovered an article in the July 12, 1775, issue of a Massachusetts newspaper that reproduced a series of resolutions that had reportedly been drawn up in Charlotte on May 31, 1775. Unlike the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the Mecklenburg Resolves expressed the hope that the exercise of independent authority by officials of Mecklenburg County would end if Great Britain would “resign its unjust and arbitrary pretensions with respect to America.” Any doubt about the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Resolves disappeared in 1847, when scholars found the entire text published in the South Carolina Gazette of June 13, 1775.
The fact that the leaders of Mecklenburg County backed a conditional separation from British rule just 11 days after they allegedly declared their independence seems oxymoronic. Also, none of the participants who were interviewed years after the dramatic events of May 1775 made any mention of the Mecklenburg Resolves. One cannot help but wonder whether these aged men remembered the meeting where the Mecklenburg Resolves was signed, not the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
Defenders of the authenticity of the "Meck Dec" have labored tirelessly to prove their case. They note that a diarist in the Moravian settlement at Salem, now part of Winston Salem, recorded in June 1775 that the citizens of Mecklenburg had "unseated all Magistrates and put Select Men in their places."
This diary entry, discovered in 1904, is one of the strongest pieces of nearly contemporaneous evidence in support of the Mecklenburg Declaration. The entry is unsigned and undated, but internal evidence suggests that it was written in 1783 by a merchant named Traugott Bagge. The English translation of the German entry reads:
I cannot leave unmentioned at the end of the 1775th year that already in the summer of this year, that is in May, June, or July, the County of Mecklenburg in North Carolina declared itself free and independent of England, and made such arrangements for the administration of the laws among themselves, as later the Continental Congress made for all. This Congress, however, considered these proceedings premature.
Skeptics of the Mecklenburg Declaration argued that the diary entry merely suggests that Bagge, writing eight years after the event, misinterpreted the Mecklenburg Resolves as having been an actual declaration of independence. Archibald Henderson, however, argued that the entry attested to both the Declaration ("declared itself free and independent") and the Resolves ("arrangements for the administration of the laws").
The bearer of this news (regarding the Battle of Lexington, Mass. that had occurred 1 month prior) to the Moravians was Captain James Jack, who delivered a document or documents to the North Carolina representatives to the Continental Congress then meeting in Philadelphia. The question is what did captain Jack have in his satchel, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the Mecklenburg Resolves, or both? The evidence suggests that it was the Mecklenburg Resolves. Captain Jack, for example, traveled through Salisbury when the court was in session in early June 1775. The timing of his arrival in Rowan County is congruent with May 31, not May 20, when the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was purportedly signed.
According to Chalmers Davidson, professor of History and later archivist at Davidson College, Archibald Henderson provided the strongest evidence for the authenticity of the "Meck Dec." A member of the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Henderson calculated that the news of the battle of Lexington outside Boston had arrived in Charlotte on May 19, the date when the heads of Mecklenburg militia units and other leaders had supposedly gathered to consider an appropriate course of action in light of this auspicious news and the day preceding the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
Caption: President Woodrow Wilson visited Charlotte on May 20, 1916 to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.” Annual observances still take place every May 20th to commemorate “Meck Dec,” despite the fact that no copies of it have yet been found.
The controversy over the "Meck Dec" is unending. Despite solid evidence produced against it by a distinguished list of scholars, supporters of the document are unyielding. Edward S. Perzel of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a disbeliever, knows what it is like to be a skeptic. "This is very, very serious to a lot of people here," he declared. When they figure out who I am, they're just not nice."
Nonetheless, the North Carolina government has endorsed the story, and the date of the Mecklenburg Declaration, and not the Mecklenburg Resolves, is memorialized on the State Seal and the North Carolina Flag.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
Information taken from:
Historic Charlotte: An Illustrated History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, Dan L. Morrill, 2001
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass