The Day the Presidents Came
Presidents have been making campaign stops and other appearances in Charlotte more often in recent years, but once upon a time not so long ago, they came to celebrate a single day in North Carolina and Charlotte history, the date on the North Carolina flag, May 20, 1775.
President William Howard Taft came to Charlotte May 20, 1909.
President Woodrow Wilson visited May 20, 1916.
President Dwight Eisenhower ate southern fried chicken and country ham here, May 19, 1954.
President Gerald Ford visited May 20, 1975.
"For 100 years, May 20 was the biggest day in Mecklenburg's life," Dr. Chalmers Davidson wrote in his essay, "The Declaration Celebrations."
If you're willing to risk your life, you can read a bronze plaque commemorating the event the Presidents came to celebrate: you'll find it smack in the middle of the intersection of Trade and Tryon Uptown. The inscription marks the spot, known as Independence Square, as the site where the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was reportedly signed, May 20, 1775, a full year before the Continental Congress did the same July 4, 1776.
''The Mecklenburg Declaration celebrations from 1825 to 1925," said Davidson, ''brought governors, senators, generals, a vice president and two presidents to Charlotte."
Charlotte's first major spring celebrations, they sported all the hoopla of such affairs-bands, picnics, impassioned oratory, page one newspaper reports before and after.
The pre-Civil War antebellum celebrations sound like something straight out of Gone with the Wind.
''They featured military parades, bands, three o' clock dinners, the drinking of toasts, the firing of guns, balls ... " Davidson notes.
So, how come we aren't still making a big deal out of this?
The authenticity of the "Mec Dec," as it is sometimes fondly called locally, is questioned by many historians (Allan Nevins used it as an example of spurious documents in his Gateway to History) but other book-length works argue both sides of the question.
The original document reportedly burned in a fire in April, 1800.
No one now doubts that a Mecklenburg "Safety Committee" did indeed draw up a set of firebrand Resolves conditionally withdrawing from the British Empire and temporarily adopting a replacement government on May 31, 1775.
"The Mecklenburg Resolves are authentic and were the first to declare independence from the Crown, and that's the point," says Dr. James Sasser of CPCC. TV channel flippers can catch him on CPCC broadcasts teaching NC or Civil War history.
The Mec Dec itself not only brought four U.S. Presidents to Charlotte, but the first three, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, have direct connections to its web-like history, which reads like a good unsolved mystery.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library's bibliography of books and articles on the subject runs to 14 full pages. Both amateur and professional historians with a taste for scholarly detective work scurried hither and yon in attempts to prove or disprove that a meeting was held May 19-20, 1775.
LeGette Blythe and Charles Brockman, in their one-volume history of Mecklenburg County, note: "Millions of words, often impassioned and frequently more resonant than reasoned, have been spoken and tens of thousands written in letters, books, historical journals, magazines and newspapers on the subject of the Meck Dec."
The Mec Dec story
The story goes like this: May 19, 1775, Charlotte founder Thomas Polk, received news of American Patriots fired upon and killed at Lexington, Massachusetts, following a succession of what colonists referred to as "the Intolerable Acts" by Britain, and called for two members from each of Mecklenburg's militia companies to gather in front of the stilted courthouse where Trade and Tryon met.
The men gathered represented about half the population at the time and cheered wildly as the treasonous resolution dissolving their bonds to the British Empire was read.
A recreation of the original Meckenburg County Courthouse where the Declaration was passed.
"Resolved," Polk read, " ... we the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bonds which have connected us with the mother country, and absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown ... "
[Read the texts of the Mec Dec and the Mec Resolves here...]
Even recent arrivals in Charlotte will recognize the family names of many signers: Polk, Graham, Alexander, Harris, Davidson, Brevard. Their names mark streets, courts, and boulevards.
Place names commemorating the event itself include: Independence Square (Uptown), Independence Blvd. and Independence Park, Freedom Blvd., and Freedom Park.
''These men were Ulster Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had already fled the Crown," Dr. Sasser points out.
Many of them, although living in the backwoods, were professionals, doctors and surveyors educated at what is now Princeton. The ideas of Locke and Hume, the desire to control their own destiny, and the hunger to claim as much of this great land they saw before them as they could, drove them.
The Crown forbid buying land from the Indians without a Royal Grant, and crushed a 1771 rebellion of western North Carolinians who purchased Kentucky and Tennessee from the Indians for $10,000 pounds. The "Regulators" as they were called, had ties to the Mecklenburg area, and LeGette Blythe wrote a historical novel about it called Alexandriana named for the Alexander home north of Charlotte which plays so prominent a role in the Mec Dec story.
According to the tale pieced together from torn and recalled documents and the shaky testimony of participants more than 30 years after the event, once the men of Mecklenburg proclaimed their independence from the Crown, they sent Captain James Jack, son of a local tavern owner (the city's founding fathers supported two taverns despite its minuscule population and notable lack of other shops at the time), to take the document on to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.
Jack returned to say the NC delegation commended the Mecklenburg spirit but thought the resolves premature.
A re-enactor duplicated Capt. Jack's historic ride to Philadelphia.
At the time, Congress in general, but in particular the NC delegation of William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and Richard Caswell, according to North Carolinians in the Continental Congress, "went to Philadelphia to prevent a revolution, not to start one."
Thus rebuked, the Mecklenburg Committee of Safety passed a series of milder Resolves, which, though doubted as well for years, were discovered printed in several newspapers of the era, unlike the Mec Dec, which would not be referred to publicly again until 1819-20.
At the time, though, one gets the feeling the Mecklenburg men got their wrists slapped for being premature.
The "Regulators," who bought Tennessee from the Indians without obtaining a Royal Grant, ended in defeat with the hanging of half a dozen citizens by the Royal Governor's forces.
Historic photos on this page are courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room – Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Read more about the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas...
Read about another day the the Presidents came to Charlotte - for the dedication of the Billy Graham Library.