By Scott Syfert
Syfert is a corporate attorney at Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte. He is a co-founder of the May 20th Society, a non-profit dedicated to commemorating the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. His first book, The First Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775, was published in 2013.
The story of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence could have quietly faded away, becoming at best a local curiosity, except for some incredible developments around 1819. Around that time, Dr. Joseph Alexander, son of John McKnitt Alexander, found among his father’s surviving papers a written account and text of the Mecklenburg Declaration story. He had the story printed in the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette, the State’s largest newspaper.
The Raleigh Register story was reprinted nationally in other papers, one of which was the Essex Register. Former President John Adams read the story, and was astonished. He wrote to his ex-colleague Thomas Jefferson on June 22, 1819 saying, “May I inclose you one of the greatest curiosities and one of the deepest mysteries that ever occurred to me?” It is in the Essex Register of June 5, 1819. It is entitled the Raleigh Register [Mecklenburg] Declaration of Independence.”
The Mecklenburg Declaration came as a great surprise to Adams. “How is it possible that this paper should have been concealed from me to this day?” he asked rhetorically. “What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass is Tom Paine’s ‘Common Sense,’ in comparison with this paper!...The genuine sense of America at that moment was never expressed so well before, nor since.”
What Adams didn’t write to Jefferson, but what he found even more curious, was how similar many of the passages of the Mecklenburg Declaration were to the National Declaration of Independence, including language such as “dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the mother country” and “our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.”
Adams was convinced this was more than a coincidence. He believed Jefferson must have seen the Mecklenburg Declaration, and copied passages of it into the more famous July 4th document. On July 15, Adams wrote to a friend, Reverend William Bentley:
"I was struck with so much astonishment on reading this document, that I could not help inclosing it immediately to Mr. Jefferson, who must have seen it, in the time of it, for he has copied the spirit, the sense, and the expressions of it verbatim, into his Declaration of the 4th of July, 1776.”
Jefferson refused to take Adams’ bait however, responding with a lengthy, well-argued and reasonable analysis of the Mecklenburg document. He replied:
“What has attracted my peculiar notice, is the paper from Mecklenburg county…And you seem to think it genuine. I believe it spurious.” Jefferson further argued, why had no one ever heard of this Mecklenburg Declaration? Jefferson wrote, “Would not every advocate of independence have rung the glories of Mecklenburg county, in North Carolina…Yet the example of independent Mecklenburg county, in North Carolina, was never once quoted.”
Jefferson concluded by stating that although there was no evidence that the Mecklenburg Declaration was true, he would keep an open mind. He wrote, “Nor do I affirm, positively, that this paper is a fabrication; because the proof of a negative can only be presumptive. But I shall believe it such until positive and solemn proof of its authenticity shall be produced. For the present, I must be an unbeliever in the apocryphal gospel.”
This was the beginning of a debate that continues to this day. The battle lines were set; the hunt for evidence began.
Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adam-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill, 1988).
Adams letter to William Bentley, dated July 15, 1819, in Adams, John, The Works of John Adams. Vol. 10 (Boston, 1856).