MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- The impatient patriots here had splendidly short fuses in 1775. Those who tilled the startlingly red clay or who lived in the town named for George III's wife Charlotte might have been bemused had they foreseen the annual hoopla that commemorates July 4, 1776.
What occurred that day in Philadelphia might have been a Declaration of Independence, but the first such was enacted here on May 20, 1775. Presbyterians, meaning most Mecklenburgers, were incensed by Anglican meddling from London, such as the Vestry and Marriage Acts of 1769, which imposed fines on Presbyterian ministers who conducted marriage ceremonies. Marriage as a political issue is not just a recent phenomenon.
On May 19, 1775, the day before the Mecklenburg convention met to act on such grievances, a rider arrived with news from Massachusetts about the April bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. The next day, Mecklenburg's convention declared:
"We the citizens of Mecklenburg County do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the mother country. ... We do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people ... to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor."
Thus did a settlement on the fringe of the British Empire declare war on that empire. It used language -- note, especially, the last nine words -- that is echoed in the 1776 declaration, for reasons explained in a new book, "The 4th of July and the Founding of America," by Peter de Bolla of King's College, Cambridge. He is fascinated by Americans' fascination with the fact, such as it is, that their country had, as few nations can claim, an "originative moment." But what, and when, was it?
The Declaration of Independence was not signed that day by the 56 persons whose signatures would eventually adorn it. Perhaps no one signed it that day; the evidence is murky. Still, uncountable millions believe otherwise because they have seen John Trumbull's painting, in the U.S. Capitol's rotunda, depicting Thomas Jefferson, at the center of six colleagues, holding "his" Declaration on July 4, as though for signing.
What Congress actually did that day was agree to print and publish the Declaration authorized two days earlier. So, was July 2 what de Bolla calls the "punctual moment"? John Adams thought that day "will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America."