The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775 by Scott Syfert (review)
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The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775. By Scott Syfert. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2013. Pp. x, 247. $35.00 paper; $14.74 ebook)

In this work, Scott Syfert, a corporate attorney from Charlotte, North Carolina, defends the authenticity of a controversial document, “The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775,” which its supporters claim to have declared the residents of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, independent over a year before the Continental Congress did. Syfert does so while, in his words, making every effort “to remain objective and faithful to the facts” (p. 1). This task, though, is complicated by the author’s position as cofounder of the “May 20th Society,” a group dedicated to memorializing the document and challenging the view of most professional historians who find claims of the document’s authenticity “simply incredible,” in the words of the late Pauline Maier in her 1998 book, American Scripture (p. 213). Nonetheless, in a volume of 220 pages and twenty-two brief chapters, Syfert goes some way toward making the claim less unbelievable.

The work is divided into five parts and a prologue in which Syfert does much to weaken his claim of neutrality and objectivity with his assertion that the existence of the Mecklenburg Declaration would change “everything we know or think we know about the founding of America” (p. 10). Still, in part one, Syfert does a nice job of capturing certain aspects of the local history of the Scots-Irish in the Upper South, including the commitment that some had to a demanding form of Presbyterianism that continued to uphold the Scottish 1643 “Solemn League and Covenant,” the opposition of many in the region to “quit rents,” and even the refusal to pay the legal owners for the land upon which they were squatting. His goal is to make credible that such a people could have declared independence well in advance of others in the colonies. It is somewhat plausible, but the story is told without attention to the intricacies of both continental and imperial [End Page 486] law and politics, as was still more evident in the next section.

In part two, Syfert begins by discussing the Regulator Movement of 1767–1771. His account demonstrates the important fact that those most closely associated with Mecklenburg politics, a relatively sophisticated and affluent group, supported the colonial government in its suppression of a rebellious “army” of more disaffected Scots-Irish at Alamance Creek which, by comparison, was far poorer and more likely to engage in radical politics. This weakens the case that the Mecklenburg folks involved in issuing their putative declaration were the ones who were the most likely to rebel.

Also in part two, Syfert discusses the actual writing and issuing of the purported Mecklenburg Declaration on May 19 and 20, 1775. Here, as the author notes, there is little that can be known with certainty as all the contemporaneous records, including the document itself, were likely destroyed in a fire. Still, there are a number of eyewitness accounts that have been collected and which Syfert highlights. Among the most interesting is that of Joseph Graham, a student at the time, who reported that one of the most important arguments for declaring independence in May 1775 was “that the King or Ministry had, by proclamation or some edict, declared the Colonies out of the protection of the British Crown; they ought, therefore, to declare themselves out of his protection, and resolve on independence” (pp. 71–72). This claim helps in dating the discussion to which Graham referred, although the help is unrecognized by Syfert. That is, Graham’s logic only makes sense after the Prohibitory Act was passed by Parliament in December 1775 to remove the colonists from the King’s protection. It was received in the colonies on February 26, 1776. Even if one ignores the date of this final declaration, the line of argument described by Graham that led to this denouement began with the king’s August 1775 “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” which, too, was not received in the port cities of...


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