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Verifying the Facts

Book 1, Chapter 4
Hornets' Nest
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THE PAMPHLET published by the legislature of North Carolina in 1831 sought to answer all questions then being asked about the Mecklenburg declaration. It introduced documentary evidence to support the Mecklenburg claim. "By the publication of these papers," the committee appointed by the General Assembly to undertake that task officially finds, "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. . . . The first claim of Independence evinces such high sentiments of valor and patriotism, that we cannot, and ought not, lightly to esteem the honor of having made it. The fact of the declaration should be announced, its language should be published and perpetuated, and the names of the gallant representatives of Mecklenburg, with whom it originated, should be preserved from oblivion, which, should it involve them, would as much dishonor us, as injure them. . . . The committee are aware that this assertion has elsewhere been received with doubt, and at times met with denial; and it is therefore believed to be more strongly incumbent upon the House to usher to the world the Mecklenburg Declaration, accompanied with such testimonials of its genuineness, as shall silence incredulity, and with such care for its general diffusion, as shall forever secure it from being forgotten. . . ."

This pamphlet of 1831 contains a copy of the declaration and the names of its signers, the article from the Raleigh Register of April 30, 1819, the reprint of which in the Essex Register was forwarded by Adams to Jefferson to initiate the controversy, and a number of certificates. This Raleigh Register article begins with the statement:

It is not probably known to many of our readers, that the citizens of Mecklenburg County, in this State, made a Declaration of Independence more than a year before Congress made theirs. The following document on the subject has lately come to the hands of the Editor from an unquestionable authority and is published that it may go down to posterity.        

Then follows a story of the May 19-20 convention, the adoption of the declaration, and a copy of that document, and a recital of subsequent proceedings in Charlottetown, the sending of Captain Jack to Philadelphia with the Mecklenburg papers. The article continues:

On the return of Captain Jack, the delegation learned that their proceedings were individually approved by Members of Congress, but that it was deemed premature to lay them before the House. A joint letter from said three Members of Congress (Richard Caswell, William Hooper and Joseph Hewes) was also received, complimentary of the zeal in the common cause, and recommending perseverance, order and energy . . .

At the end of this article is a certificate:

The foregoing is a true copy of the papers on the above subject, left in my hands by John McKnitt Alexander, dec'd. I find it mentioned on file that the original book was burned April, 1800. That a copy of the proceedings was sent to Hugh Williamson, in New York, then writing a History of North Carolina, and that copy was sent to Gen. W. R. Davie.

J. McKnitt  

The signature was Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander's customary way of signing his name. An accompanying certificate, referring to the Davie copy, reveals:

State of North Carolina,

Mecklenburg County.

I, Samuel Henderson, do certify, that the paper annexed was obtained by me from Maj. William Davie in its present situation, soon after the death of his father, Gen. William R. Davie, and given to Dr. Joseph McKnitt by me. In searching for some particular paper, I came across this, and knowing the handwriting of John McKnitt Alexander, took it up, and examined it. Maj. Davie said to me (when asked how it became torn) his sisters had torn it, not knowing what it was. Given under my hand this 25th Nov., 1830.

Sam. Henderson   

Many other certificates attesting to the authenticity of the Mecklenburg declaration from participants in the May 1775 convention follow. Among them are those made by Captain James Jack, then living in Georgia, and General Joseph Graham, who as a youth had been present at the Mecklenburg convention. The Reverend Humphrey Hunter's manuscript memoirs provide an extract giving the declaration text and detailed particulars of the action on May 19-20. A certificate signed by four men who as youths were present at the convention attests to the authenticity of the declaration then promulgated; another, by Isaac Alexander, gives similar testimony; so does one by Samuel Wilson. And one of the strongest is that of John Davidson, himself a signer, dated "Beaver Dam, October 5, 1830," in which the venerable leader in the fight for independence declares unequivocally: 

. . . 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. Dr. Ephraim Brevard was then appointed to give us a sketch of the Declaration of Independence, which he did. James Jack was appointed to take it on to the American Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia, with particular instructions to deliver it to the North Carolina Delegation in Congress (Hooper and Caswell). When Jack returned, he stated that the Declaration was presented to Congress, and the reply was, that they highly esteemed the patriotism of the citizens of Mecklenburg; but they thought the measure too premature.

I am confident that the Declaration of Independence by the people of Mecklenburg was made public at least twelve months before that of the Congress of the United States.

I do certify that the foregoing statement, relative to the Mecklenburg Independence is correct, and which I am willing to be qualified to, should it be required.

This certificate, in the form of a letter, is addressed to "Doct. J. M. Alexander."

Publication of the General Assembly's pamphlet was considered to have clinched the case for the May 20 declaration, which seems to have been challenged up to that time only by Jefferson and his friends who felt that the Mecklenburg paper was itself a challenge to his July 4 national declaration. But with the finding by Peter Force in an old issue of the Massachusetts Spy, dated July 12, 1775, and his publication of the finding in 1838 of the preamble and the first four resolutions of the May 31 Resolves, and the later finding by Dr. Joseph Johnson, in 1847, of the complete text of the Resolves in the June 13, 1775, copy of the South Carolina Gazette, the modern phase of the attack on the declaration was started.

This contention, the one still being advanced by those who say there was no May 20 declaration, insisted that the May 31 Resolves constituted the "only true declaration" and argued that the Mecklenburg delegates to the convention and others present on those memorable May days had in their senility confused the alleged declaration and the actual May 31 resolutions. Though these resolutions were not an actual declaration, the critics agreed, they were, in fact, a "contingent declaration" and they maintained with insistence that they were the only paper Mecklenburgers enacted. 

And then, six years later, the declaration newly challenged fell under the sharp pen of the Reverend Charles Phillips, a minister and professor of mathematics in the University of North Carolina. He was the man upon whose study of the Mecklenburg controversy those who doubt its authenticity have built virtually their whole case. Dr. Phillips' contention is based upon the Davis copy of the declaration, to which the certificate given by Samuel Henderson refers.

In his certificate given to the General Assembly's committee, Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander in sending to that group material left by his father had further certified:

As to the full sheet being in unknown handwrite, it matters not who may have thus copyed the original record; by comparing the copy deposited with Genl. Davie they two will be found so perfectly the same, so far as his is preserved, that no imposition is possible - the one from the same original as the other is conclusive.

Dr. Phillips and all others who have denied the authenticity of the May 20 document agree, as far as they have been recorded, that the Davie copy was the work of John McKnitt Alexander's own hand. In fact, they point to that fact in support of their theory. Were it in the handwriting of someone else, their argument would have little validity. For more than a century they have used the old secretary to prove their contention that he was a confused, senile reminiscer when in 1800 at the age of sixty-seven he made the Davie copy.

And for more than a hundred years these critics have been victims of an error made by Dr. Phillips. The Chapel Hill professor-minister, in fact, through all those years has been the principal architect of the edifice in which critics have taken shelter. The story of this unfortunate mistake and its discovery eighty-six years after it was made is in itself interesting and unparalleled.

In 1853 Dr. Phillips borrowed from Governer Swain, who was then president of the University of North Carolina, material in the University library relating to the May 1775 convention in Mecklenburg. Included was the Davie copy of the declaration with the attached certificate of John McKnitt Alexander in which the convention secretary had reviewed some of the events of those early days in Mecklenburg. Then in the May 1853 issue of the North Carolina University Magazine Dr. Phillips wrote an article entitled May, 1775. In this article, which included the Alexander certificate, he contended that Mr. Alexander in providing a copy of the alleged declaration had reconstructed the document from memory and in doing so had confused what he thought was a declaration with what actually had been the May 31 Resolves.

Thinking to prove his contention, he quoted Mr. Alexander's statement in the certificate attached to the partial copy of the declaration to the effect that:

It may be worthy of notice here, to observe that the foregoing statement tho' fundamentally correct; yet may not litterally correspond with the original records of the transactions of said delegation & Court of Inquiry; as all these records and papers were burnt with the house, on April 6, 1800; but previous to that time of 1800; a full copy of said records, at the request of Doctor Hugh Williamson, then of New York but formerly a representative in Congress from his state - was forwarded to him by Colo. Wm. Polk in order that those early transactions might fill their proper place in a history of this State then writing by the sd. Doctor Williamson in New York.

So, said Dr. Phillips, and so have said many historians in the years following the publication of his article, Mr. Alexander had written, by his own testimony, the Davie copy from memory. He was a good and patriotic man, but he had confused the so-called declaration of independence with the twenty resolutions of May 31. Thus, according to Phillips, the same confusion was true of John Davidson, James Jack, General Joseph Graham and all the others who had testified specifically to the authenticity of the May 20 document.

And that article, published more than a century ago, is the basis of the burden of all argument opponents of the declaration's factualness have offered. There the controversy stood for many years.

Then, in 1904, some fifty years after Dr. Phillips published his article, O. J. Lehman of the Bethania community discovered in the archives of the Moravian Church a sketch of events of the period from 1775 through 1779. A paragraph in the record devoted to 1775, translated into English, declares:

I cannot leave unmentioned at the end of the 1775th year that already in the summer of this year, that is in 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 these proceedings premature.

This record was made in 1783 by Traugott Bagge, described by Miss Adelaide L. Fries, able historian of the Moravians in America, as "the most able man of affairs in Wachovia during the War." Miss Fries in her study, The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence as Mentioned in the Records of Wachovia, published in 1907, emphasizes the importance of the Bagge entry in confirming the Mecklenburg claim. Particularly significant is the fact that Bagge's notes support the statement of John McKnitt Alexander in his notes and elsewhere, even to the use of the word premature. Bagge evidently alludes also to two papers rather than one; one paper declares Mecklenburg "frey u. independent von England" and the other makes "such arrangements for the administration of the laws among themselves, as later the Continental Congress made for all."

Where did Traugott Bagge get his information?

Another entry in this Salem Diary records:

July 7, 1775. This afternoon a man of Mecklenburg, who had been sent as an express from there to Congress in Philadelphia, upon his returning journey delivered here a circular addressed to Mr. Traugott Bagge; the same was signed by Hooper, Hewh, and Casewill; it actually contains an ENCOURAGEMENT to take up arms, etc. . . .

Who was this "man of Mecklenburg" but Captain Jack returning through the Moravian settlements to Charlottetown from his mission to Philadelphia?

Meanwhile, for more than half a century the Davie copy, admittedly a document in the handwriting of John McKnitt Alexander with his fatally damaging admission that "the foregoing statement tho' fundamentally correct; yet may not litterally correspond with the original records . . ." etc., had been lost. What had become of it since Dr. Phillips used it in writing his article for the May, 1853, issue of the University Magazine?

William Henry Hoyt had wondered. He wrote Dr. Kemp Plummer Battle, who in 1875 had become president of the University, to inquire about it. Dr. Battle replied that the copy had disappeared in the dispersal of important papers after the death of Governor Swain in 1868. So, in preparing his book-length assault upon the authenticity of the declaration, Mr. Hoyt did not see the Davie copy As to the basis for his discussion of the Davie copy, he used Dr. Phillips' copy of that copy.

And there the mystery of what had happened to the Davie copy remained until, ten years after the Hoyt book was published, Dr. J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton, history professor in the University, in 1917 announced that he had discovered the long lost Davie paper. He had found it among the papers of Dr. Battle, a nephew by marriage of Dr. Phillips. It had been put away with some papers unrelated to Mecklenburg. So the Davie document, vastly important in the declaration controversy, was recovered. But the tremendous significance of this bit of paper was not to be revealed for another two decades. Dr. Hamilton, himself a challenger of the declaration and a supporter of Dr. Phillips in his belief that the alleged document was a myth, failed to discover the startling story plainly revealed in the paper he had uncovered. He perhaps did not carefully examine the old paper; at any rate he failed to notice a notation and a deletion on the face of the paper, plainly in John McKnitt Alexander's handwriting, that would be the most significant and sensational discovery in the entire period of the controversy.

It remained for Dr. Archibald Henderson of Chapel Hill, internationally famous mathematician, historian and biographer, to announce this find. Dr. Henderson for years has been interested in the Mecklenburg declaration question and his researches had led him more and more to a confirmed belief in that document's authenticity. The year before Dr. Hamilton's discovery of the long lost Davie copy Dr. Henderson had published what he termed "a scientific demonstration" that the news of the battle at Lexington actually did reach Charlotte on May 19 rather than on May 30 or 31. Were some incontrovertible evidence to be found that this news did not come to Charlottetown until the last day or two in May, Dr. Henderson pointed out, the argument for the May 20 declaration would immediately be insupportable. But if it could be shown that the messenger arrived in the little Mecklenburg village on the afternoon of May 19, as many witnesses were to declare in later years, the date of declaration would be set positively as the twentieth.

Thereupon Dr. Henderson set out to show that a messenger coming south with the alarming news of the British assault upon the citizens of Massachusetts would very likely arrive very nearly on May 19. He showed that an express rider bearing the news reached Philadelphia on April 24, that on April 30 the story had come southward to Petersburg, Virginia, and on May 6 was in New Bern, North Carolina, and on May 29 away across the mountains in Boonesborough, Kentucky. If he could only find a record showing news of the battle arriving in Salisbury by May 18 or Salem by May 17, he reasoned, he could virtually establish the probability that the express reached Charlotte on May 19. And after long research he found it! In the Salem Diary, for the year 1775, he read:

May 17, 1775: This afternoon Brother Richter brought from Bethabara a packet of letters and Church periodicals and papers from Bethlehem and Lititz which Christel Conrad, who got back today from Pennsylvania, brought with him; the letters were of dates April 25 and May 1, among other things they announced the unpleasant news that about April 19 there occurred a skirmish near Boston between the Royal troops and the Provincial Militia.

From Salem to Charlottetown was but an easy two day's ride. Surely, he reasoned, such desperately alarming news would not have been thirteen days reaching Mecklenburg from the Moravian settlements.

But his discovery in examining the Davie copy of the declaration found by Dr. Hamilton was far more valuable. In the North Carolina newspapers of April 9 and May 7, 1939, Dr. Henderson revealed that after an intensive study of the Davie copy he had found that Dr. Phillips in his consideration of that original source instrument had made a series of mistakes that completely nullified the conclusions of his article in the May, 1853, University Magazine. Mr. Alexander, Dr. Henderson had discovered, contrary to the assertion of Dr. Phillips and to the utter confounding of his position in the 1853 article, had not said he had written the copy of the Mecklenburg declaration from memory; on the contrary, Dr. Henderson had discovered Alexander's assertion, plain to see in the Davie original, that the section denoted to the declaration itself had not been written from memory, but from "the journals and records of sd. Committee."

Following the section in which he gives the text of the Mecklenburg declaration of May 20 and tells of the expressing of the "sd. proceedings" to Philadelphia by Captain Jack and of the captain's return with the announcement that Congress had deemed the Mecklenburg action premature, etc., appears the highly significant notation in Alexander's handwriting: "Thus far from the Journals & Records of sd. Committee." (Underlining is Alexander's.)

Just below the convention secretary's notation and written in another hand is the statement, also underlined, "here the copy of the record ends."

Most significant of all, perhaps, or equally as important, is the deletion from Alexander's writing of two words, "delegation &." The line through the "delegation &.," heavily scratched, is in the same ink and evidently was done at the same time the writing was. The secretary at that point (and on this statement Dr. Phillips based his assumption, now shown clearly to have been wrong, that Alexander was writing everything in the Davie paper from memory) had written: "It may be worthy of notice here, to observe that the foregoing statement tho' fundamentally correct; yet may not litterally correspond with the original records of the transactions of said delegation & Court of Inquiry . . ."

If this statement had stood - and this is the way Dr. Phillips quoted it in his University Magazine article and the way Hoyt and other critics of the declaration claim thought that Alexander had written it - then Alexander would have certified that everything said in his foregoing statement "though fundamentally correct; yet may not litterally correspond with the original records . . ." But Mr. Alexander, evidently in scanning what he had written or perhaps at the very moment of writing had realized that he had written something in error, and so he heavily scratched out the "delegation &" with the result that the statement then said "may not litterally correspond with the original records of the transactions of the Court of Inquiry . . ." But as to the other facts, namely, the original records of the delegation - the convention delegates who wrote and ratified the declaration - the Davie paper was not a writing from memory.

Why did Dr. Phillips restore two words? These were the most significant ones - plainly scratched out by the person who wrote them. And when restored, they completely reversed the meaning of the sentence, so that instead of validating the text of the declaration, as Alexander in eliminating them clearly had meant to do, they actually invalidated it by making him say he had written that text from memory! Dr. Phillips must have seen other changes made by Alexander, one of them being the scratching out of a word for which a substitution was made, changes made with the same pen and ink that scratched out the "delegation &." which Phillips restored.

Dr. Phillips' action in thus changing this key statement to make it say exactly opposite to what Alexander did say must remain a mystery of North Carolina history. Certainly it is indefensible if he did it in order to further his contention; if innocently he overlooked the fact that the words had been eliminated by their author, he demonstrated himself to have been in that research careless and unreliable. But in any event and whatever the explanation, his gross error had done more to rally the myth-contenders than any one other contribution.

Since Dr. Henderson made public his discovery - that the convention secretary was transcribing from the records of the convention - no one has gone on record with any theory attempting to refute Dr. Henderson's conclusion. But there are some who still insist on being shown contemporaneous documentary evidence.

Five years after Dr. Phillips made his inexcusable error, President Swain of the University, in his "special verdict" given at the request of Mr. Bancroft, declared his belief that a May 20 declaration was made. And James H. Moore in his very able and convincing Defence of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, subtitled An Exhaustive Review of and Answer to All Attacks on the Declaration, published in 1908, declares in his preface that "Mr. Hoyt has done the friends of the Declaration more service by the presentation of many facts and documents hitherto unknown or neglected than he has damaged their cause by his argument." This statement is all the more justified following the invaluable discovery by Dr. Henderson of the Phillips error.

Dr. Henderson, having given much mature study to the declaration controversy in the years before and since he made the discovery, agrees that the verdict of Governor Swain was correct. Says Dr. Henderson:

"With all Swain's conclusions I concur. I have faith in the honor and veracity of the participants and eye-witnesses, about a dozen of whom were ruling elders and ministers (one) in the Presbyterian Church. I am inclined to accept the versions of those who were there and took part in the events described, in preference to people living 179 years later who regard the whole historical episode as an almost miraculous mass-myth. I rely upon the scientific support of the documentry evidence and the rewarding wisdom of common sense."

This verdict of Dr. Henderson, delivered in May, 1955, is the conclusion of the great majority of those who with objectivity have explored that intriguing and inspiring May 1775 in Mecklenburg. They require no further documentation in support of the declaration. Many great and significant happenings in the world's long story have had far less contemporary documentation than Mecklenburg's declaration of independence.


Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.