MAY 20 1775: THE COUNTY'S DECLARATION
In 1762, Mecklenburg County was created from Anson County. The choice of this unusual name was to honor Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany, the new bride of King George III. But trouble had been brewing in the American Colonies for some time. Issues such as taxation without representation, religious persecution, and unfair practices of law by the British began to steadily add fuel to an already smoldering flame.
Tempers reached a boiling point when in June, 1774 news came that Britain had decided to punish the town of Boston for their role in the Boston Tea Party by closing the harbor. The harbor was the life blood of Boston, the busiest town in America, and this harshness angered all Americans. A cry went out from the Massachusetts Colony for all other colonies to select delegates to convene a new government, a Continental Congress. They also asked the colonies to set up Committees of Correspondence to share information between the separate groups.
Support poured in from the colonies. To aid the sufferers in Boston, the people of Wilmington, North Carolina sent a shipload of provisions to Massachusetts in order to be hauled into Boston by wagon. The British Governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, heard that the colonists planned to convene a Continental Congress in Philadelphia during September. In an attempt to keep the North Carolina Assembly from sending delegates to the congress Martin refused to call a meeting of the assembly until after September. In July, the moderator of the North Carolina Assembly, John Harvey sent word for the people to send members to a convention to be held in New Bern on August 25, 1774. Governor Martin was wild with anger. He sent out letters forbidding the convention and called on the king’s officers to stop it. Martin’s attempts were futile however, and the convention went ahead as planned. No such group had ever before assembled without the consent of the Governor.
John Harvey was chosen to be the moderator of the convention. Among many issues considered, the convention declared that it was wrong to tax people without their consent, and that it was wrong to close the port of Boston. They requested each county appoint a committee of five to carry out the wishes of the convention and to aid the Committee of Correspondence. They chose as delegates William Hooper, Joseph Hewes and Richard Caswell. These men were to represent North Carolina at Continental Congress to be held in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. Governor Martin’s efforts to block North Carolina’s attendance to the meeting had failed.
The committees requested by the convention were later called Committees of Safety. With government authority deteriorating in the communities, these committees soon took on the role of the courts, buying and selling ammunition as well as forming and drilling companies of soldiers. Major John Davidson was appointed to the Committee of Safety in Mecklenburg County. During this time he attended numerous meetings held in Charlotte to discuss grievances and methods of action.
Governor Martin tried to regain control by calling a meeting of the North Carolina Assembly for April 4, 1775. At the same time Speaker John Harvey was asking the people to elect members to a second convention also to meet in New Bern one day before the governor’s assembly. The convention met on April 3, the assembly on April 4. Of the sixty-eight members of the North Carolina Assembly, sixty–one were also members of John Harvey’s convention. Governor Martin would never call an assembly again.
One of the Mecklenburg County Committee of Safety meetings which would become a significant date in North Carolina history was called to order on May 19, 1775, by Col. Thomas Polk. Two men from each militia captain's company were selected to attend. John Davidson and John McKnitt Alexander were the representatives of the Hopewell District.
THE MECKLENBURG DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Excitement was high. The New Bern’s Royal Governor Josiah Martin had lost control of the North Carolina Assembly and refused to call it into session. On May 19th, 1775, the meeting called by Col. Thomas Polk was packed. Polk had expected 18 delegates to attend the meeting but there were so many influential men present that an argument broke out and 27 were ultimately seated, with others listening at the door and the windows. Chief considerations discussed were: lack of security for the unarmed province, restraint on provincial and export trade, unjust taxation, and the immediate need for some form of local government.
That same day a tired rider arrived in Charlotte with news of bloodshed in the northern colonies. The British soldiers, or “redcoats”, had fired on Americans at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. This was inconceivable, and with respect to their other grievances, unacceptable. Once cautious men now shouted for a declaration of independence.
They appointed a committee consisting of Rev. Hezekiah Balach, Col. Kennon and Dr. Ephraim Brevard to draw up resolutions for consideration. The declaration proposed a list of resolves stating, "that all laws and commissions confirmed by, or derived from the authority of the King and Parliament, are annulled..." and the words, “we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people.” Following careful consideration at 2 am of the following day, May 20, 1775, the delegates all signed the document to be known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
As his grandson Adam Brevard Davidson would tell, Major John Davidson and Richard Barry waited for the cover of night to make the 14 mile trip home, following side roads for fear of being killed by the British in the cause of the Declaration.
As a member of the Mecklenburg County Committee of Safety, Major Davidson attended a meeting on May 31 where delegates had met to adopt the Mecklenburg Resolves. The Resolves were intended to fill the legal gap between Royal and Continental governments. The document contained 20 amendments, each outlining how the people would elect leaders and maintain law and order until laws could be authorized by an American Congress. They were to provide a framework for government by the Committee of Safety until proper laws were passed by the Continental and Provincial (North Carolina) Congresses. Captain James Jack delivered these documents to North Carolina delegates attending the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. On May 20th, 2010, a statue commemorating Captain Jack’s journey was unveiled in downtown Charlotte. The staff of Rural Hill was in attendance.
Many believe the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the Resolves form the first official declaration of American independence from Britain. Unfortunately these documents, or any existing copies, due to either having been lost or destroyed, have never been found. John McKnitt Alexander, himself a signer of the declaration, was said to have kept the original Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence as well as five copies. On April 6, 1800 many records, reportedly including the original declaration, were destroyed in a fire at his home.
In 1819, Dr. Joseph Alexander transcribed a copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence that his father had written from his notes after the fire, and he submitted a copy for publication in the Raleigh Register. John Adams read the newly transcribed declaration in the Essex Register, in June of 1819, and forwarded a copy to Thomas Jefferson with a note saying that he believed it to be genuine, stating, “The genuine sense of America at that moment was never expressed so well before, or since.” Jefferson replied to Adams’ praise in quite the opposite manner, stating that he had never heard of such a declaration and that the recount was most “spurious”.
Opponents of Thomas Jefferson circulated a rumor that Jefferson had indeed copied “the spirit, the sense and the expressions” from this Mecklenburg Declaration in drafting his own 1776 work of independence. In response to the rumor, supporters of Jefferson accused the North Carolina Alexanders of forgery and began denying that The Mecklenburg Declaration had ever even existed, a position which is maintained by many today.
In 1830, when Major John Davidson was 95 years old, apparently in response to Thomas Jefferson’s accusations, he wrote that he believed himself to be the last person living who had attended the May 19th - 20th, 1775 meeting when the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed.
A pamphlet about the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was published by the North Carolina legislature in 1831. It contains a copy of the declaration, the names of its signers, the 1819 newspaper article that was forwarded by Adams to Jefferson, and several letters of interest, including Major John Davidson’s.
The state of North Carolina has placed two dates on the state flag to commemorate these revolutionary actions. One, April 12, 1776, is to recognize the Halifax Resolves that authorized North Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. It was the first official action by a colony calling for independence. The other date, May 19 and 20, 1775, recognizes the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
SIGNERS OF THE MECKLENBURG DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
General Thomas Polk
Dr. Ephraim Brevard
General Robert Irwin
Reverend Hezekiah Balch
Captain Zaccheus Wilson
Colonel James Harris
Major John Davidson
Colonel Abraham Alexander
Colonel Adam Alexander
John McKnitt Alexander
Colonel William Kennon
General Joseph Graham
General George Graham
Reverend Francis Cummings
Colonel Ezekiel Polk
Robert Harris Sr.
David Rose (Grandfather of Pres. Polk