The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence presents us all, but especially Charlotteans, with a question.
“If it’s the first declaration in the American colonies, it ought to be a bigger deal than it is, frankly. It’s a historical fact,” says Scott Syfert, an attorney at Moore & Van Allen, author, and amateur historian. For two decades, Syfert has been the chief spokesman of an informal group of local history enthusiasts who believe Charlotte, like an overeager NASCAR rookie, declared independence from Britain more than a year before some folks in Philadelphia affixed their signatures to another piece of paper on July 4, 1776.
“Now, the deeper, less flattering question is: Let’s say it happened. So what? What did it accomplish? Let’s assume we found the original (document) tomorrow—what would that change?” Syfert says, rapid-fire. “Because if their goal was to incite a national revolution ahead of time, it failed.”
We’re in a tavern (OK, a brewery), a time-honored launchpad for revolution. Syfert’s wife, Gail, approaches the table and holds up a pint glass with the event logo. “Do you see they actually have glasses?”
“Oh, yeah,” Syfert responds. “It’s a whole thing.”
Here’s the heart of it. On May 19, 1775, a group of local militia met at the log courthouse at what’s now Trade and Tryon to discuss the growing tensions between American colonists and their British overlords. A man on horseback arrived to tell them about the battles of Lexington and Concord exactly a month before. The strongly anti-British militia members drew up a document overnight and, from the courthouse steps at noon the next day, read it aloud: “(W)e the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown …”
The original declaration was lost in a fire in 1800. Nineteen years later, the second president of the United States, John Adams, read the reconstructed text in a newspaper and wrote to the third, Thomas Jefferson: “The genuine sense of America at that moment was never expressed so well before, nor since.” Jefferson was skeptical. In a return letter, he noted the absence of “positive and solemn proof of its authenticity.”
Thus began the debate, undiminished to this day but restricted mainly to Mecklenburg County and historians of the American Revolution: Is the “MecDec” genuine? And if it is, to what extent, if any, does it matter? Or, to recapitulate Syfert’s phrase: So what?
Whatever the answer, we’re approaching the MecDec’s 250th anniversary (its semiquincentennial, in case you’re wondering; if you’re a MecDec enthusiast, you absolutely are), which has touched off a fresh round of interest in the subject. The event the Syferts attended on Saturday, May 20, was a kind of celebration of its 248th: a book launch for Who’s Your Founding Father? One Man’s Epic Quest to Uncover the First, True Declaration of Independence, by ESPN Senior Writer and Davidson resident David Fleming. Lost Worlds Brewing in Cornelius, which celebrates history in its beers and labels, hosted the event. Lost Worlds even brewed a new beer, MecDec Honey Ale—author’s condition: no IPAs—to commemorate it.
Fleming’s book is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully written examination of the undeveloped, backwoods burg that was 18th-century Charlotte; its feisty Scots-Irish inhabitants; the MecDec’s tendency to pop up throughout Charlotte’s history; and the MecDec-related sites scattered around town. Also woven into the scholarly narrative are thick threads of dorky dad humor. (The book’s opening scene is set at the original Dunkin’ Donuts, in Adams’ hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Chapter title: “Dunkin’ on Thomas Jefferson.”)
Talking with Fleming, 56, at an outdoor picnic table just before a Q&A session, I suggest it’s an appropriate mix given the subject—both a historical document of great significance and a touchstone for local AARP-age goofballs who don their tricorns every May 20. Fleming laughs and confirms the approach is intentional, a sweetener of sorts for readers who might not care about Revolutionary War history in general or the MecDec in particular.
“You’re having so much fun reading it and going on this journey, you don’t realize how much information you’re picking up,” he says. “It’s so much easier to convince somebody when it’s a pleasant, fun conversation and they don’t feel like you’re preaching to them or judging or lecturing them.”
The book isn’t meant as an amicus brief for The May 20th Society, the educational nonprofit that Syfert co-founded in 2003 to promote and celebrate the MecDec. But Fleming buys its fundamental argument.
“I truly believe that it makes Charlotte the cradle of American independence, and the fact that those men were 14 months ahead of the rest of the country, I think really does matter,” he says. Compared to John Hancock, Ben Franklin, William Hooper, and the rest of the Continental Congress, “People in Charlotte did it when it was a big, big risk and a bold statement. So that, to me, is why it really matters.”
The MecDec’s high point came on its bicentennial, May 20, 1975, when then-President Gerald Ford attended a rally that drew 105,000 to Freedom Park. The president, eight months after his pardon of President Nixon over Watergate and less than a month after the fall of Saigon, wanted to shore up Southern support in advance of the 1976 presidential election. (In vain, it turned out, as he lost to a Southern governor, Jimmy Carter.)
But Ford didn’t mention the MecDec in his remarks—chastened, Fleming writes, by an aide and UNC Chapel Hill graduate who’d been warned by a UNC history professor that the MecDec was bogus. The Rev. Billy Graham, on hand to accept an award, exercised no such caution. In his own speech, Graham praised the MecDec as “a high-water mark in American history” and cited the Davidson College historian and professor Chalmers Davidson, who had called the declaration “the earliest overt act of independence in the thirteen colonies by a legally constituted body.”
Davidson was in the park that day. He’d accompanied three of his students down from the college, including Gus Succop, then a senior, now the retired pastor at Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church and president of the local chapter of Sons of the Revolution. Succop was among about 40 people who showed up at Lost Worlds for the book launch, and he related a story: In the car, southbound on U.S. Highway 21, Davidson remarked that, one day, someone would discover an original copy of the MecDec.
“Chalmers is the guardian angel of this project,” Succop told Fleming and Syfert during their presentation. “You will not fail.”
Who knows? Maybe an original copy will turn up one day, pulled delicately out of a valise in a credenza drawer or a cranny in an old stone fireplace. Or maybe such a discovery wouldn’t change what the MecDec means to its local adherents and doesn’t mean to just about everyone else. Chances are slim that the U.S. government will ever replace the Fourth of July with the Twentieth of May. The declaration’s meaning, now as then, depends on what it inspires—or fails to—in the hearts of those who hear and read it. “You be the judge,” Syfert concludes in the preface to his own book, The First American Declaration of Independence?, published in 2014. Appropriately enough, each of us is free to choose.
So scoff if you will. When they encounter inheritors of Jefferson’s skepticism, MecDec advocates typically respond with more bemusement than outrage, Fleming tells me at the picnic table: “It’s funny how quickly people will come around when, instead of whining and complaining, it’s more like: ‘We’re proud of this. We acknowledge it. You guys want to celebrate the wrong Independence Day? That’s on you.’”
Greg Lacour is the editor.