This afternoon, members of the North Carolina House of Representatives will hold session in the Old Capitol Building — instead of in their normal digs over at the Legislative Building. The special occasion is to commemorate the 242nd anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the first declaration of independence made in the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution. (This week also marks the 223rd anniversary of the General Assembly’s first session in that historic old building.)
The date — May 20, 1775 — is emblazoned on both our state flag and our state seal. It’s also why North Carolina gets to claim the mantle of “First in Freedom,” which you may have seen on our license plates.
In early 1775 the 13 British Colonies in North American were in ferment. In the 12 years since the end of the French and Indian War the King and Parliament had attempted to increase their power over these independent minded citizens. These attempts such as the Stamp Act and the Tea Taxes were unsuccessful, only causing the colonials to contemplate making a break with the mother country. The reaction of the Crown to the Boston Tea Party was to close the port of Boston and occupy the city with the British Army. As word of this spread through the North Carolina Colony and into the back country, people in Mecklenburg met by twos and threes to discuss what should be done. At length they determined to have a county-wide meeting and authorized Colonel Thomas Polk, the commander of the county Militia, to call this meeting. There were to be two representatives from each of the nine Militia Companies and their decisions would be binding on the citizens of the county.
On Friday, May 19th the elected representatives met at the courthouse in the middle of Charlotte and began their discussions. It just so happened that on that particular day an express rider arrived with the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord. As can be imagined, after hearing that British soldiers had fired on, and killed and wounded, fellow British citizens, the discussion increased in urgency and intensity, resulting in the five resolutions that make up the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. This document was not called a declaration at that time or for many years afterwards. Rather it was a resolution of the citizens of Mecklenburg County, to be sent to the North Carolina representatives at the Continental Congress, declaring the fact that they had separated themselves from the mother country.
The essence of these five resolutions was that Great Britain had “wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington” and that we “dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother country” and declare ourselves “a free and independent people.” The laws were to remain the same but “The Crown of Great Britain never can be considered as holding rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein.” To read the complete text of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, click here.
This document was read from the courthouse steps the next day at noon to the acclamation of a large assembly of Mecklenburg citizens. Everyone knew of the meeting on Friday the 19th and that whatever resulted, the news would be read out from the courthouse steps on Saturday. The news of Lexington and Concord greatly increased the people’s interest. Since the decisions made here would be binding on all of the citizens of the county, people came from far and wide to hear the news.
Even as they were debating and approving what came to be known as The Mecklenburg Declaration, the delegates had realized that it lacked coherence and organization and they appointed a committee to revise it. By May 31st the committee had completed their work which was not a revision but rather a completely new document, and which came to be called the Mecklenburg Resolves. This new document was less emotional, more logical, and much better organized than the original:
- The introduction states the reason for declaring independence: Parliament had declared the Colonies to be in a state of rebellion, thereby annulling the King’s authority and forcing the colonies to provide for their own governance.
- The first three resolves remove all royal officers, suspend all royal laws and place all legislative and judicial powers in the Congress of each Province.
- Resolves 4-15 lay out laws governing the Militia and the courts of justice and is concerned mostly with debts, rents and taxes.
- Numbers 16 and 17 deal with the punishment of those who remain loyal to the King and Parliament.
- Number 18 says that these resolves are in force until the NC Provincial Congress says otherwise, or until Great Britain changes its attitude toward the Colonies.
- Number 19 says that everyone should arm themselves and be ready for action.
- And finally resolve number 20 directs Col. Thomas Polk and Dr. Joseph Kennedy to buy 300 pounds of gunpowder, 600 pounds of lead and 1,000 flints on behalf of the county.
In short, finding themselves declared outlaws by the King, they set up their own government and prepared to defend themselves. And note that they did this not just for Mecklenburg County, but for the whole thirteen colonies. To read the complete text of the Mecklenburg Resolves, click here.
On about June 1, 1775 Militia Captain James Jack set off for Philadelphia with both documents to lay them before the Second Continental Congress then meeting in that city. When he returned he said that the representatives from North Carolina had read and approved the documents. However, at that time the Congress was debating and approving a petition to the King asking for reconciliation so the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was forgotten and not heard from outside of Mecklenburg County for many years.