CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Did you know before our Founding Fathers declared independence from Great Britain, Mecklenburg County did it first?
Well — that’s the story.
What You Need To Know
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is said to have been adopted on May 20, 1775
This date is on the North Carolina state flag and First in Freedom license plates
While some historians argue the document never existed, Mec Dec Day is celerbated every May 20
And it’s a story historian Robert Ryals brings to life.
You may see him giving a tour in Uptown along the Charlotte Liberty Walk, a route of Revolutionary War sites in the city.
He’s hard to miss, as he gets dressed up in clothes from the 1700s to really immerse people in the story.
He’s given this tour for the last five years, but he’s been telling history in this way for much longer.
“History in this way has been a passion of mine for over 20,” he said.
According to a legend, a document called the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence existed, but many historians doubt it’s even real.
In April 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord started the American Revolution.
Ryals, who is on the board of the Mecklenburg Historical Association, explains that about a month later, this news reached the people in Mecklenburg County.
As a result, militia leaders created the Mec Dec, as this document has come to be known, to declare themselves free of British rule.
Ryals says on May 20, 1775, one of Charlotte’s founders, Col. Thomas Polk, read the document aloud from the courthouse that used to be where Trade and Tryon are now located in Uptown Charlotte.
If true, this is more than a year before the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
Ryals says 11 days after the Mec Dec was adopted by citizens, they created another document called the Mecklenburg Resolves.
“Which was a series of 20 resolutions, which provided the blueprint of how the county planned to govern itself,” Ryals said.
He explains that a man named Captain James Jack was tasked with delivering both documents to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
"And so Jack delivered the documents to Philadelphia, gave them to three delegates,” Ryals said. "Jack hangs around Philly for a day and they gave him a message. It’s simply too early to declare independence at that time.”
Then on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence that we know today was adopted.
It’s said in 1800, the Mec Dec burned in a house fire.
“As a consequence, no original finalized document of the Mecklenburg Declaration exists,” Ryals said. "But there was evidence that handwritten notes survived this house fire.”
Then, in 1819, the Raleigh Register published a copy of this document.
And this is where the controversy begins.
John Adams is said to have seen this newspaper article and believed this document was real.
“He fires off a letter to Thomas Jefferson basically stating had I known that this document existed at the time we were discussing, I would have clamored for independence much earlier than I did,” Ryals said.
Jefferson thought it was a hoax.
Regardless, as a result of this copy, the state of North Carolina launched a commission in the early 1820s to collect witness testimony and confirm if this document really did exist.
"However, this is several years after the fact and the problem with that is memories can get distorted over time,” Ryals said.
So as a result, historians say its one tall tale.
Instead, they say the witnesses got it wrong and confused the Mec Dec with the Mecklenburg Resolves.
“The existence of the resolves has been confirmed, so historians say the resolves are confused with the declaration,” Ryals said.
The Mec Dec drama drew Ryals in after reading a book called The First Declaration of Independence? by a local author, Scott Syfert.
“This book is what really became the hook for me getting interested and involved in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the Charlotte Liberty Walk, which I had no idea existed for several years,” Ryals said.
Syfert grew up in Charlotte and is a lawyer today. But after being introduced to the Mec Dec story 10 years ago, he wanted to learn more.
He ended up writing the book, looking at the skepticism and the evidence.
While he does believe it existed, he says he wrote his book in a way to let people decide for themselves.
He helped co-found the May 20th Society to reintroduce people to a story he says was lost over time.
"Even people that live here or grew up here like I did had no knowledge of this story,” Syfert said. "It became an old boring story that no one cared about anymore and it’s controversial. The papers are lost. You can either prove or disprove its story. Now as all things are cyclical, it comes back and becomes more interesting.”
May 20 has become known as Mec Dec day and is celebrated every year in Charlotte.