May 20, 1775: What was the Mecklenburg Declaration?

NC Flag Source: Jacob Emmons, Carolina Journal

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  • May 20, 1775 is the first date on North Carolina's state flag. Here's why:

Have you ever wondered why the date May 20, 1775, is on our state flag?

It’s there to commemorate the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of 1775. According to legend (and to past historians), the declaration was made on May 20, 1775, at a meeting of county representatives in Mecklenburg, North Carolina. It was made as war with Great Britain drew near.

Short but powerful, it was a formal statement of independence. It sounds a little like the Declaration of Independence announced in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. To wit:

That we, the citizens of Mecklenburg county do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us with the mother county, and absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British crown, abjuring all political connection with a nation that has wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of Americans at Lexington.

The problem is that the Mecklenburg Declaration isn’t what it appears to be! It was probably written many years later (perhaps influenced by the actual Declaration of Independence). It was “discovered” in 1819, and has been a subject of controversy ever since. Thomas Jefferson called it a hoax but initially many historians thought it was for real.

The controversy over the May 20, 1775, declaration has overshadowed the document the county did approve 11 days later, on May 31, 1775. We know this document, the Mecklenburg Resolves (i.e., resolutions), is genuine.

The Mecklenburg Resolves don’t resonate with words like independence, rights, and liberties, but they were an important practical step taken by North Carolina to prepare for breaking away from Great Britain.

The May 31 resolves start by saying that in a recent address by parliament, the king noted, “the American Colonies are declared to be in an actual State of rebellion.” Therefore, the resolves continue, the laws of the British government are “annulled and vacated and the formal Civil Constitution of these Colonies for the present wholly suspended.”

The statement called on all the American colonies to start their own governments. And it laid out just how North Carolina would be run in the absence of the British.

It identified the county itself as the legislative and executive branch. It set up a military organization and identified a plan to appoint judges and constables (two each for the county). It directed that all taxes go to the committee authorizing the resolves for safekeeping and usage.

Yes, North Carolina leaders were getting ready for independence. However, they did not write off all hope of reconciliation — for the most part. They thought that this outline would be the new government of the colonies unless “the legislative Body of Great-Britain resign its unjust and arbitrary Pretentions with respect to America.”

The Mecklenburg Resolves, unlike the Mecklenburg Declaration, was a practical document and a true plan for the difficult days that lay ahead.

Editor’s note: This version is updated to specify that the Resolves and Declaration are associated with county not provincial officials.