The May 20th Society is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established in 2003 by a group of Charlotte’s young professionals to capture and celebrate Charlotte’s rebellious and visionary spirit – a spirit defined by so many activities in which Charlotte has been a leader in the nation. In particular, The May 20th Society was founded to restore the MecDec commemoration to its rightful place in Charlotte Mecklenburg’s history.
On May 20, 1775, more than 25 civic leaders from Mecklenburg County approved and unanimously adopted the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence – the first declaration of independence from Great Britain in the American colonies.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (widely known as the “MecDec”) was unanimously adopted during a convention of Charlotte Mecklenburg’s civic leaders held on May 19 – 20, 1775. It was a reaction to the news that colonists had been massacred by the British at Lexington. On May 31, they drafted a second document—a set of Resolves, now known as the Mecklenburg Resolves, further outlining their independence and organizing their new governance.
The MecDec was the first declaration of independence from Great Britain by any civic or municipal body in the American colonies – more than a year before the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. For this reason, the date “May 20, 1775” is on the State Flag of North Carolina. A copy of the MecDec was given to Captain James Jack to deliver to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Visit our History of MecDec for the full account.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was drafted by a three-member Resolutions committee which met in the Queen’s Museum on May 19 – 20, 1775. The authors were Dr. Ephraim Brevard, Clerk of the Committee, Rev. Hezekiah James Balch, a Presbyterian elder, and William Kennon, a lawyer from Salisbury.
Because an original copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration has never been found (the original minutes were lost in the fire which destroyed John McKnitt Alexander’s home in 1800), it is not 100% certain who the signatories were.
However, a committee of the North Carolina legislature interviewed survivors and reviewed documents in 1830-31 and concluded that there were twenty six (26) signatories. These were:
Of the names identified by the State, some historians believe that John Davidson was also a signatory. Some also believe that Richard Harris did not actually attend the May 20th convention. However, the generally accepted number of Convention attendees and signatories of the MecDec is 26.
No one was is certain. A fire destroyed the home of J. M. Alexander (the Secretary of the Convention and keeper of the minutes) in April 1800, including virtually all of the original records of the original Convention.
Based upon the surviving records and the testimony of witnesses, some historians have concluded that at least seven contemporaneous copies of the MecDec existed before the fire at Alexander’s home destroyed any originals in his possession.
Four copies were given to James Jack at the direction of the Convention with instructions to deliver them to the delegates at the Second Continental Congress: one copy to the President, and one copy each to the three delegates from North Carolina.
A fifth copy is believed to have appeared in the Cape Fear Mercury in June 1775, within thirty days after the MecDec was adopted. No original copy of the Cape Fear Mercury has been found.
A sixth copy was given to Dr. Hugh Williamson, a historian, by J.M. Alexander. North Carolina Governor Stokes, in the preface to a report issued by the North Carolina legislature in 1831, testifies to having seen this copy first hand. Unfortunately, Dr. Williamson’s history ended before the events of 1775 and the original copy has not been discovered in his records.
Finally, a seventh copy was believed given to Francois Xavier Martin, a historian and later judge, prior to 1800. He records the text in his History of North Carolina published in 1829.
Colonel Thomas Polk, one of the early founders of Charlotte, was a leading civic leader of time. He was a member of the Provincial Congress and a militia leader. His wife, Susanna Spratt, came from another family of early Charlotte immigrants. The Polk’s home stood on Tryon St. near the corner of Trade. He was related to James K. Polk, who was born in southern Mecklenburg County, and later became the 11th President of the United States.
Polk, who served as commissioner, justice of the peace and the first treasurer, also was a trustee for Queens College, which later became Liberty Hall, one of the earliest schools of higher education in the South. He was instrumental in erecting the first county courthouse building in the center of what is now Trade and Tryon Streets in uptown Charlotte. He then incorporated the town of Charlotte and arranged for a bill that made Charlotte the permanent county seat of Mecklenburg. Polk’s home was the only home painted at the time and was known as the “White House.” A bronze plaque now marks the spot where it stood.
In the Mecklenburg Resolves, Polk and Dr. Joseph Kennedy are appointed to purchase 300 pounds of power, 600 pounds of lead, and 1,000 flints for use by the militia of Mecklenburg County.
When the British captured Charlotte in 1780, Lord Cornwallis took Polk’s house as his headquarters. General Washington stayed with Polk at his home when visiting Charlotte in 1791. The Polk house was later a tourist attraction and tobacco shop before being torn down sometime after 1875.
Polk called the Convention that adopted the MecDec and read the MecDec aloud from the courthouse steps on May 20, 1775. Thomas Polk is buried in the Old Settler’s Cemetery in Charlotte.
Jack was the son of Patrick and Lillis Jack. The family left Pennsylvania and first moved a Presbyterian settlement west of Salisbury, NC. They later moved to Charlotte and ran a tavern. It is likely that James heard many discussions about discontent with the government, while working in his father’s business. In June 1775, James Jack was committed and volunteered to carry the MecDec by horseback to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. If he had been captured by loyalists or British soldiers he would have been hanged for treason – and in fact, he was nearly arrested in Salisbury not long into his journey. A painting by artist Chas Fagan of Captain Jack depicts him riding north from the Courthouse on Trade & Tryon to deliver the MecDec to the Congress.
He rode over 1100 miles and was recorded to have returned through Salem, NC, on July 7, 1775. When war broke out, he became a Captain in the militia. Later in his life, he moved to land now known as Tennessee, petitioning North Carolina to make Tennessee a state. Before this happened, he moved to Georgia to farm, where he died at about age 91.
According to contemporaneous accounts (and his own testimony), Captain James Jack was chosen by the delegates to deliver copies of the MecDec to North Carolina’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress then sitting in Philadelphia.
When Capt. Jack reached Salisbury, the MecDec was read before a session of court. Two loyalist lawyers – Booth and Dunn – attempted to arrest Jack but he was able to escape and made his ride to the Congress. Booth and Dunn were later arrested, tried, and banished by a Committee of Public Safety the Mecklenburg patriots organized.
Jack completed his mission, meeting with the North Carolina delegates and delivering the MecDec. However, the Congress was then preparing for adoption a Petition to the King of England that proposed reconciliation with the Crown. Therefore the MecDec was not brought before the Congress. Jack was there to watch the newly commissioned General Washington ride from Philadelphia with his staff before returning to Charlotte. His journey is recorded by several eye witnesses and some contemporaneous records.
For nearly two hundred years, skeptics have doubted the existence of the Mecklenburg Declaration. The first such skeptic was Thomas Jefferson Throughout the 19th century, historians debated whether or not there was such a document and whether the Mecklenburg Resolves were in fact the “real” MecDec. The basis of the controversy is the fact that no original copy of the MecDec has been discovered.
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. Specifically:
- In 1830 – 31, the Legislature of North Carolina appointed a special commission to settle the controversy “once and for all.” That commission reviewed existing records, interviewed eye witnesses and survivors and published a report, under the auspices of Governor Montfort Stokes by authorization of the North Carolina legislature, that contained fourteen affidavits (including one from James Jack) and various certificates vouching for the authenticity of the MecDec.
- The second piece of evidence are the numerous deeds for real property executed after 1775. Prior to the revolution, deeds were generally dated as “in the reign of King George III.” After May 20th, numerous deeds are dated with reference to May 20th. Some examples include deeds “made this 13th day of February, 1779, and in the fourth year of our independence” or “made this 28th day of January in the fifth year of our independence.” All these deeds date “independence” in Mecklenburg County from 1775 – not 1776.
- Among the surviving records of John McKnitt Alexander are his written records of the May 20th Convention that record in detail the events of the Convention and the text of the MecDec. These survive and are in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They leave a specific written record in rough draft format and some text of the MecDec and the events during the Convention of May 20th.
- Skeptics long pointed to a lack of contemporaneous written evidence of the MecDec. However, in 1903 researchers discovered journals of the Moravians from Salem North Carolina, in which merchant Traugott Bagge wrote:“I cannot leave unmentioned at the end of the 1775th year that already in the summer of that year, that is 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 the proceedings premature.” Bagge’s annals were the first contemporaneous evidence of the MecDec and corroborate the widely held account in all major respects. Also note that Bagge records that Mecklenburg County “declared itself free and independent.” Therefore, he must have been speaking of the MecDec, not simply the Mecklenburg Resolves.
- Among the citizens of Mecklenburg County at the time, of course, there was no controversy at all and they considered MecDec a fact. One citizen, Adam Brevard, composed a poem in 1775 entitled “The Mecklenburg Censor” which includes the lines: “When Mecklenburg’s fantastic rabble/Renowned for censure, scold and gabble/In Charlotte met in giddy counsel/To lay the constitutions’ ground-sill…Their Independence did declare.” Why would this poem have been written if there were no MecDec?
- Similarly, one school boy, James Wallis, in 1809 made the following pronouncements at his graduation: “On May 19, 1775, a day sacredly exulting to all Mecklenburg bosoms … [a Convention] solemnly entered into and published a full and determined Declaration of Independence, renouncing forever all allegiance, dependencies or connection with Great Britain – dissolved and judicial and military establishments from the British crown…May we ever act worthy of such predecessors.” Where did the young James get these facts if they were not common knowledge?
- On May 20, 1787, a young boy, Benjamin Wilson was born to Major John Davidson. He was known as “Independence Ben.” His tombstone (and date of birth – May 20th) can be found in Hopewell Cemetery. Why would his father have called him “Independence” if the MecDec were not true?
- Finally, the British officials themselves make note of the rebellious Mecklenburgers. Royal Governor Martin records his dismay at “the treasonable proceedings” of “the people of Mecklenburg.” English advisors believed “His Excellency should take every lawful measure in his power to suppress the unnatural rebellion now fomenting in Mecklenburgh.”What were the British referring to if not the May 20th Convention?
- Even Captain Jack’s ride to Philadelphia is corroborated by British records. In Governor Martin’s letter to Dartmouth he noted, “A copy of the Resolves, I am informed, were sent off express to the Congress in Philadelphia as soon as they were passed in Committee.” Why would Captain Jack have ridden to Philadelphia to meet with the North Carolina delegates if there were no MecDec?
Skeptics of the MecDec point to the fact that no original copy of the MecDec exists. They are unable however to address the substantial circumstantial evidence of the rebellion in Mecklenburg County and the MecDec.
After unanimously approving the Declaration of Independence, the delegates organized a Committee of Pubic Safety and then drafted a series of bylaws to govern Mecklenburg County in the absence of British rule. The purpose of these bylaws, according to J.M. Alexander, was “to protect the association from confusion & to regulate their general conduct as citizens.”
These bylaws, now known as the twenty Mecklenburg Resolves, were likely drafted by William Kennon, a lawyer, with the assistance of Dr. Ephraim Brevard, Clerk of the Committee.
Although many at one time believed the Mecklenburg Resolves were a myth, historians have now since shown that the Resolves were published in at least three newspapers shortly after their adoption by the May 20th Convention: the North-Carolina Gazette, New Bern (June 16, 1775); the Cape-Fear Mercury (June 23, 1775); and South Carolina Gazette, and County Journal (Charleston).
In addition, we know that British authorities saw copies of the Resolves. In a letter of June 30, 1775 to the British Colonial Secretary, the Earl of Dartmouth, North Carolina Royal Governor Josiah Martin wrote:
“The Resolves of the Committee of Mecklenburg which your Lordship will find in the enclosed Newspaper, surpass all the horrid and treasonable publications that the inflammatory spirits of this Continent have yet produced…”
Controversy over the existence of the MecDec began in June 1819 when John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson enclosing a copy of the text of the MecDec that had recently been published in the Raleigh Register (reprinted in the Massachusetts Essex Register). Adams wrote to Jefferson:
“May I inclose you one of the greatest curiosities and one of the deepest mysteries that ever occurred to me? It is the Essex Register of June 5, 1819. It is entitled the Raleigh Register Declaration of Independence. Had it been communicated to me in the time of it, I know, if you do not know, that it would have been printed in every whig newspaper upon this continent. You know, that it I had possessed it, I would have made the hall of Congress echo and reecho with it fifteen months before your Declaration of Independence. 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.”
Jefferson, however, was unimpressed, responding:
“[W]hat has attracted my peculiar notice, is the paper from Mecklenburg county, of North Carolina, published in the Essex Register, which were so kind as to enclose in our last, of June the 22nd. And you seem to think it genuine. I believe it spurious… I must not be understood as suggesting any doubtfulness in the State of North Carolina. No State was more fixed or forward. 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.”
The battle lines were drawn. For the next hundred years the two camps – pro-MecDec and disbelievers – began a protracted debate over the authenticity of the MecDec. As the controversy grew more heated, pro-MecDec historians accused Jefferson of a cover up of his plagiarism in using words or phrases in the MecDec while pro-Jeffersonians accused the North Carolinians of fraud. One side pointed to the lack of an existing copy of the MecDec, the other to the circumstantial evidence of the Convention and the accounts of eye witnesses. The controversy continues to this day.
For more than two hundred years, May 20th and the spirit that led to the bold declaration of independence was the proudest civic event in our region – commemorated with the date on the State Flag and with many civic celebrations. Four sitting U.S. Presidents, most recently President Gerald Ford in 1975, came to Charlotte to celebrate this historic event. It was only in recent times that May 20th was largely forgotten by North Carolinians. Please visit past MecDec events for images of this commemoration in Charlotte’s history. The May 20th Society was founded to restore this important commemoration to its rightful place in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s history.
In 1775, the town limits of Charlotte comprised approximately eighty lots. The population of Charlotte was less than 100 people, although there were probably around 7,000 citizens of Mecklenburg County. In what is now downtown Charlotte, there were a cluster of wooden homes near the log courthouse in the center of Trade & Tryon. Only Thomas Polk’s house was painted; the remainder were simple log cabins. Nearby were two taverns: Nicholson’s and Pat Jack’s taverns. There were seven Presbyterian churches in the county; the oldest, Hopewell, stands near Latta Plantation on Beatties Ford road, where many of the signatories of the MecDec are buried.
The center of Charlotte is located where two former Native American trading paths crossed. When Thomas Polk and other early white settlers came to this region on the Great Wagon Road, which ran from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, they stopped where these well-worn routes intersected and founded Charlottetown, as it once was called. Since these paths were created by the Indians and not made by scientific surveying instruments, the entire town is not true north, south, east and west, although the downtown area is divided into quadrants.
The center of the town, we now know as Charlotte, is “Independence Square” or to the locals, “the Square.” The first county courthouse building once stood in the middle of the intersection. Thomas Polk was instrumental in getting the courthouse built in Charlotte rather than a site further east that was more thickly populated. According to eye-witness testimony, it was at this courthouse in the center of town where the words of freedom were first proclaimed publicly to local citizens and visitors and signed into local law on May 20, 1775.
The MecDec has a long and rich history. For the full story of the MecDec and the controversy surrounding it, visit About The May 20th Society.
Contact us at info@May20thSociety.org to learn more about becoming a member of The May 20th Society.