This is the first blog post in a new series called "Delegate Discussions", highlighting correspondence between delegates to the Continental Congress on issues related to the Declaration of Independence.
In 1819, a document was widely published for the first time. It caused cries of plagiarism to ring out through the country. It caused John Adams to call Thomas Paine's Common Sense a "crapulous mass". It caused Thomas Jefferson to profess unbelief in such an "apocryphal gospel".
The document was the Mecklenburg Declaration, issued on May 20, 1775 and strikingly similar to the United States Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, but from a full year earlier. The legitimacy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is still contested today. In this blog, we leave aside the question of its authenticity to focus on Jefferson and Adams' reactions to the revelation of this document. Enjoy a thoroughly entertaining conversation between two Founding Fathers in their twilight years (76 and 84, respectively), confounded and disgruntled by a document from North Carolina.
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 22, 1819
my dear Sir, May I inclose you one of the greatest curiositys and one of the deepest Mysterys that ever occoured to me⎯It is in the Essex Register of June the 5th. 1819. ⎯it is entitled from the Raleigh Register1 Declaration of Independence⎯How is it possible that this paper should have been concealed from me to this day⎯had it been communicated to me in the time of it⎯I know, if you do not know that it would have been printed in every Whig News-paper upon this Continent⎯you know if I had possessed it I would have made the Hall of Congress Echo⎯and re-echo, with it fifteen Mongths before your Declaration of Independence⎯.
What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous2 Mass, is Tom Pains Common Sense; in Comparision with this paper⎯had I known it I would have Commented upon it⎯from the day you entered Congress till the fourth of July 1776. ⎯The Genuine sense of America at that moment was never so well expressed before nor since. ⎯Richard Caswell, William Hooper, and Joseph Hugh's3 the then Representatives of North Carolina in Congress you knew as well as I do⎯and you know that the Unanimity of the States finally depended on the Vote of Joseph Hughes⎯and was finally determined by him⎯and yet History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Pain⎯Sat verbum sapient4⎯
I am my dear Sir your invariable friend⎯ John Adams
1. The Raleigh Register printed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on April 30, 1819.
2. Crapulous may sound crass to modern readers, but it is actually a very old word derived from the Latin crapula. Merriam-Webster defines crapulous as "marked by intemperance especially in eating or drinking; sick from excessive indulgence in liquor."
3. Joseph Hewes, signer of the Declaration of Independence from North Carolina. His name is misspelled by both Jefferson and Adams.
4. In Latin, "a word to the wise is enough"
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 9, 1819
Dear Sir, I am in debt to you for your letters of May 21. 27. & June 22. ... but what has attracted my peculiar notice is the paper from Mecklenburg county of N. Carolina, published in the Essex Register which you were so kind as to inclose in your last of June 22. and you seem to think it genuine. I believe it spurious. I deem it to be a very unjustifiable quiz, like that of the Volcano5, so minutely related to us as having broken out in N. Carolina, some half dozen years ago, in that part of the country, and perhaps in that very county of Mecklenburg, for I do not remember it's precise locality. if this paper be really taken from the Raleigh Register, as quoted, I wonder it should have escaped Ritchie6, who culls what is good from every paper, as the bee from every flower; and the National Intelligencer too, which is edited by a N. Carolinian. and that the fire should blaze out all at once in Essex, 1000. miles from where the spark is said to have fallen. but if really taken from the Raleigh Register, who is the Narrator, and is the name subscribed real, or is it as fictitious as the paper itself? it appeals too to an original book, which is burnt, to mr Alexander7 who is dead, to a joint letter from Caswell, Hughes and Hooper, all dead, to a copy sent to the dead Caswell, and another sent to Doctr. Williamson8, whose memory, now probably dead, did not recollect, in the history he has written of N. Carolina, this Gigantic step of it's county of Mecklenburg. Horry too is silent in his history of Marion, whose scene of action was the county bordering on Mecklenburg. Ramsay, Marshal, Jones, Girardin, Wirt, historians of the adjacent states, all silent. when mr Henry's resolutions, far short of independance, flew like lightning thro' every paper, and kindled both sides of the Atlantic, this flaming declaration, of the same date, of the independance of Mecklenburg county of N. Carolina, absolving it from British allegiance, and abjuring all political connection with that nation, altho' sent to Congress too, is never head of. it is not known even a twelve month after when a similar proposition is first made in that body. armed with this bold example, would not you have addressed our timid brethren in peals of thunder, on their tardy fears? would not every advocate of independance have rung the glories of Meclenburg county in N. Carolina in the ears of the doubting Dickinson and others, who hung so heavily on us? yet the example of independant Mecklenburg county in N. Carolina, was never once quoted, the paper speaks too of the continued exertions of their delegation, (Caswell, Hooper, Hughes) "in the cause of liberty and independance." now you remember as well as I do, that we had not a greater tory in Congress than Hooper; that Hughes was very wavering, sometimes firm, sometimes feeble, according as the day was clear or cloudy; that Caswell indeed was a good whig, and kept these gentlemen to the notch, while he was present; but that he left us soon, and their line of conduct became then uncertain until Penn came, who fixed Hughes and the vote of the state. I must not be understood as suggesting any doubtfulness in the state of N. Carolina. no state was more fixed or forward. nor do I affirm positively that this paper is a fabrication: because the proof of a negative can only be presumptive. but I shall believe it such until positive and solemn proof of it's authenticity shall be produced, and if the name of M'Knitt be real, and not a part of the fabrication, it needs a vindication by the production of such proof. for the present I must be an unbeliever in this apocryphal gospel.
I set out within 3. or 4. days for my other home... there, here and every where, I am and shall always be affectionately & respectfully your's. Th: Jefferson
5. A volcano in North Carolina? Sort of. In 1811-1812, a series of seismic events in the New Madrid Fault Line affected the North Carolina area, and launched rumors in newspapers of a volcanic eruption, which were later retracted.
6. Thomas Ritchie (1778-1854), a journalist and publisher in Virginia.
7. The article published in the Raleigh Register was written by Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander, whose father, John McKnitt Alexander, was the clerk at the meeting where the Mecklenburg Declaration was written. The elder Alexander recalled that while officials were meeting in Mecklenburg County on May 19, 1775 they received word of the battle at Lexington, a month earlier. This apparently prompted them to write the Declaration, which Alexander says they completed at 2:00 am on May 20.
8. Hugh Williamson, delegate from North Carolina to the Constitutional Convention, had actually died on May 22, 1819.
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 21, 1819
Dear Sir. I am greatly obliged to you for our Letter of the 9th. It has entirely convinced me that the Mecklenburg Resolutions are a fiction, when I first read them in the Essex Register, I was struct with astonishment⎯It appeared to me utterly incredible that they should be genuine; but there were so many circumstances calculated to impose on the public; that I thought it my duty to take measures for the detection of the imposture⎯for this purpose I instantly inclosed the Essex Register to you; knowing that if you had either seen, or heard of these resolutions you have informed me of it. ⎯as they are unknown to you, they must have been unknown to all Mankind⎯I have sent a Copy of your letter to Salem, not to be printed⎯but to be used as decisive Authority for the Editor to correct his error, in the Essex Register. ⎯
But who can be the Demon to invent such a machine after five and forty years, and what could be his motive⎯was it to bring a Charge of Plagiarism against the Congress in 76, or against you; the undoubted acknowledged draughtsmen of the Declaration of Independence⎯or could it be the mere vanity of producing a jeu d'esprit, to set the world a gasp and afford the topic of Conversation in this piping time of Peace⎯
Had such Resolutions appeared in June 75. they would have flown through the Universe like wild fire; they would have Elevated the heads of the inhabitants of Boston⎯and of all New-England above the Stars⎯and they would have rung a peal in Congress⎯to the utter Confusion of Toryism and timidity, for a full year before they were discomforted⎯
I wish you a pleasant tour to your Second home⎯and remain your friend and Humble Servant⎯John Adams
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 28, 1819
I inclose you a National Register, to convince you that the Essex Register is not to blame for printing the Mecklingburg County Resolutions, on the Contrary I think it to be Commended⎯for if those Resolutions were genuine they ought to be published in every Gazette in the World⎯If they are one of those tricks which our fashionable Men in England call hoax'es and boares⎯they ought to be printed in all American Journals; exposed to public resentment and the Auther of them hunted to his dark Cavern⎯for altho you and I should as easily believe that a flaming Brand might be thrust into a Magazine of Powder without producing an Explosion⎯as that those Resolutions could have passed in 1775⎯had not been known to any Member of Congress in 1776. ⎯and if they were not known to you, as I am very sure they were not, It is impossible they could have been known to any-other Member⎯
I am Sir, whether at your first, or Second home⎯ always affecly. and Respectful'y your Friend John Adams
John Adams also engaged in a great debate with William Bentley (1759-1819) in these same months of 1819 over the Mecklenburg Declaration. In a letter written August 21, 1819, he concluded that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and the United States Declaration of Independence were so similar, "Either these Resolutions are a plagiarism from Mr Jeffersons Declaration of Independence, or Mr Jeffersons Declaration of Independence is a Plagiarism from those Resolutions. I could as Soon believe that the dozen flowers of the Hydrangia now before my Eyes were the Work of Chance, as that the Mecklenburg Resulions and Mr Jefferson Declaration were not derived, the one from the other." As stated, the Mecklenburg Declaration is still controversial and debatable, but for those interested, here is the text. Exact phrases also used in the Jefferson's Rough Draft and/or the approved United States Declaration of Independence are highlighted.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, May 20, 1775
1. Resolved, That whoever directly or indirectly abetted, or in any way, form or manner, countenanced the unchartered and dangerous invasion of our rights, as claimed by Great Britain, is an enemy to this country⎯to America⎯and to the inherent and inalienable rights of man.
2. Resolved, That we the citizens of Mecklenburg county, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and abjure all political connection, contract, or association, with that nation, who have wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties⎯and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of American patriots of Lexington.
3. Resolved, That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people, are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing Association, under the control of no power other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress; to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other, our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.
4. Resolved, That as we now acknowledge the existence and control of no law or legal officer, civil or military, within this country, we do hereby ordain and adopt, as a rule of life, all, each and every of our former laws, wherein, nevertheless, the Crown of Great Britain never can be considered as holding rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein.
5. Resolved, That it is also further decreed, that all, each and every military officer in this county, is hereby reinstated to his former command and authority, he acting conformably to these regulations. And that every member present of this delegation shall henceforth be a civil officer, viz. a Justice of the Peace, in the character of a "Committee-man," to issue process, hear and determine all matters of controversy, according to said adopted laws, and to preserve peace, and union, and harmony, in said county, ⎯and to use every exertion to spread the love of country and fire of freedom throughout America until a more general and organized government be established in this province.
Whether the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is disgraceful or a symbol of deep-rooted sentiments of the colonists prior to the United States Declaration of Independence is still to be determined. But this conversation provides a glimpse into the friendship of Jefferson and Adams⎯one the pragmatist, checking through all of his books to make sure he didn't miss anything; the other the sentimentalist, relying on his friendships with patriots and statesmen who surely would have informed him if such a document existed. The same letter from Adams to Bentley mentioned above also includes the following powerful sentiment, one that Jefferson surely would have echoed: "The Declaration of Independence, made by Congress on the 4th. of July 1776 is a Document, an Instrument a Record that ought not to be disgraced or trifled with."
By Emily Sneff