Written by Amanda Smith. Edited by Sam Ellis.
Amongst skyscrapers and hordes of people scrambling about the city centre (known to locals as ‘uptown’) on a typical weekday, it is difficult to picture a place once described by English general Charles Cornwallis as ‘an agreeable village but in a damned rebellious country and [with] people…more hostile to England than any in America’. And yet, both of those descriptions fit the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. As a Charlottean with a great interest in 18th century British history, I am fascinated by the rather extraordinary relationship between the two.
To most modern-day visitors, Charlotte’s scarcity of pre-twentieth century landmarks suggests that the city is relatively new. However, it was founded before the American Revolution and took its name from the German consort of George III; in fact, the county in which the city now lies is even called Mecklenburg after the Queen’s birthplace, the Holy Roman duchy Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Though it’s widely referred to as the ‘Queen City’, residents of colonial Charlotte were anything but loyal to the Crown, as Cornwallis’s portrayal confirms. (Cornwallis is best known today for his eventual surrender at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, an action which led to the English government’s formal recognition of American independence two years later.) Legend dictates that Mecklenburgers (of the North Carolinian form) drew up their own declaration of independence from England in 1775, one year before the remainder of the colonies followed suit. However, this assertion has endured nearly two centuries of controversy due to the efforts of an unlikely sceptic: ex-President Thomas Jefferson.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (otherwise known as ‘Meck Dec’) remained an obscure piece of colonial legislation to everyone outside of North Carolina, until the document’s initial publication throughout additional parts of the United States in 1819. This caught the eye of several people familiar with the document’s national equivalent, the United States Declaration of Independence, primarily written by none other than Jefferson himself. A subsequent correspondence that developed between the retired legislator and fellow ex-President John Adams remained private until their deaths (which both occurred, rather coincidentally, on the 4th of July 1826). It seems that Adams noticed similarities between Jefferson’s linguistic structure and the language used in the Meck Dec, and he asked the 3rd president whether he had ever read the Carolinian document. Jefferson denied ever having read the document before, and the publication of his highly cynical letters in 1829 prompted a strong backlash from North Carolinians keen on preserving their local history narrative. It is rather curious that the original document was supposedly accidentally burned in 1800, leaving posterity with a lack of direct evidence of its age or actual existence. However, regardless of whether the document was actually written in 1775 or even actually existed, its legacy in Charlotte’s history cannot be denied.
Despite an almost total lack of pre-revolutionary structures still intact, Charlotteans still celebrate the legacy of their pre-1776 roots. School children (such as myself at one point) are taken on field trips to the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, a history museum dedicated to a second-generation colonial American and his family; interestingly enough, the home’s preservation during the twentieth century was sponsored by the Daughters of the Revolution, an organization entirely composed of revolutionary descendants. Perhaps the most active source of local history in the area, the Mecklenburg Historical Association, was founded in 1954 with an aim of what its website describes as ‘a [dedication] to preserving and publicizing the history of Mecklenburg County through regular meetings, publications, special research groups and work with various historic sites’. The members of the MHA help to organise a celebration of the Meck Dec’s supposed signing on the 20th of May. Since 1825, there are records of at least 50 of these festivities, including the entirety of the years between 1995 and the present day.
Of course, today’s Meck Dec celebrations hold none of the vitriolic fervour of the city’s18th century revolutionary resistance; the festivities tend to focus on Charlotte’s storied post-1775 history rather than its zealous separation from Britain. Despite its current status as the United States’ seventeenth largest city, Cornwallis’s Charlotte was hardly more than a village in the midst of the Carolina piedmont. I suspect that in an era of war and revolution, most people in England never gave a second thought to the settlement, so it could prove fruitful to examine why Charlotteans held such contempt for king and/or country.