The decisive piece of evidence that would settle the Mecklenburg Controversy once and for all – an original copy of the declaration itself – has never been produced, as all the originals were lost in a fire in 1800. Therefore, supporters of the story are forced to produce the next best thing – eyewitness testimony of people who witnessed the event or even participated in it.
In 1829, the North Carolina General Assembly created a select committee to settle the controversy once and for all. The committee reached out to witnesses in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, even as far as Georgia and Tennessee for any surviving participants or observers from the meetings in May 1775, such as Captain James Jack, General Joseph Graham and Major John Davidson. In 1831 they produced a 32-page report on their findings.
The eyewitness testimonies were compelling, and the witnesses themselves beyond reproach. Many were decorated veterans of the American Revolution and two were ordained Presbyterian ministers. The following gives some flavor of their testimony:
“When the members met, and were perfectly organized for business, a motion was made to declare ourselves independent of the Crown of Great Britain, which was carried by a large majority.” [John Davidson]
“[O]n the 20th they again met, with a committee, under the direction of the Delegates, had formed several resolves, which were read, and which went to declare themselves, and the people of Mecklenburg county, Free and Independent of the King and Parliament of Great Britain.” [George Graham, William Hutchinson, Jonas Clark and Robert Robinson]
According to Graham, also cited in the Governor’s Report:
“It was unanimously adopted, and shortly after it was moved and seconded to have [the] proclamation made and the people collected, that the proceedings be read at the court house door, in order that all might hear them. It was done, and they were received with enthusiasm. It was then proposed by some one aloud to give three cheers and throw up their hats. It was immediately adopted, and the hats thrown. Several of them lit on the court house roof. The owners had some difficulty to reclaim them. The foregoing is all from personal knowledge.”
For supporters of the story, the eyewitness testimony was conclusive. In addition, advocates point to the records of John McKnitt Alexander, which were found after his death. These fragmentary and rough notes, although undated and torn, communicate a clear picture of the events of May 19 – 20. For example:
[A]fter a short conference about their suffering brethren besieged and suffering every hardship in Boston and the American Blood running in Lexington,” he wrote, “the Electrical fire flew into every breast,” and “by a solemn and awfull vote, [we] Dissolved (abjured) our allegiance to King George and the British Nation.”
“By the publication of these papers,” concluded the Governor’s Report, “it will be fully verified, that as early as the month of May, 1775, a portion of the people of North Carolina … did, by a public and solemn act, declare the dissolution of the ties which bound them to the crown and people of Great Britain, and did establish an independent, though temporary government for their own control and direction.”
Of course, this was not the end of the controversy as an important piece of evidence – the Mecklenburg Resolves – had yet to be discovered. This muddied the waters further and the Mecklenburg Declaration controversy continues, and looks likely to continue in perpetuity.
The Declaration of Independence by the Citizens of Mecklenburg County, published by the Governor under the authority and direction of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina (“Governor’s Report”) (Raleigh, 1831), 27. An online version is maintained by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library at www.cmstory.org in document index in “All About the Declaration” section.
John McKnitt Alexander, “Rough Notes,” in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence Papers in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.