On Wednesday, 20 May 2020, I presented you a piece on the first Declaration of Independence, a year before Thomas Jefferson’s document. Today, permit me to introduce you to the hero of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, Captain James Jack.
Born in 1731, Jack was was the oldest of nine children of Patrick and Lillis McAdoo Jack. Rumors say his grandfather was Reverend William Jack of Laggan Presbyterian in Northern Ireland. Reverend Jack was removed from his post by King Charles II for issues of nonconformity to the dictates of the Church of England. The Jacks lived southwest of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, but they left the area during The French and Indian War, moving to North Carolina.
Around 1760, the Jacks located in Thyatira, one of the first Presbyterian communities to be established west of the Yadkin River. The current Thyatira Presbyterian Church is located ten miles west of Salisbury, North Carolina, and is thought to been founded around 1753. It was known over the years as Lower Meeting House and as Cathey’s Meeting House. The community surrounding it were of Scotch-Irish and German descent. [As a side note, several of my relatives were part of this community.] Thyatira took more of an “old school” approach to the church services, ignoring the exuberance of the Great Awakening. One of the church’s most well-known ministers was Samuel McCorkle, who took over the reins in August 1777. McCorkle was a great proponent of religion and of education. He established what is thought to be the first normal school in America, Zion-Parnassus Academy. In 1798, when the fledgling University of North Carolina held its first commencement, six of the seven graduates were from Zion-Parnassus.
In 1766, James Jack married Margaret Houston, and the couple soon moved to Charlotte, where the elder Mr. Jack had purchased lots on the south side of West Trade Street. The family built a house on one of the lots and operated a tavern out of it. James Jack earn a fortune from real estate speculation. He was later appointed as a tax collector, as well as an overseer of the poor in Mecklenburg County.
Tensions grew across the colonies over the pronouncements by the British Parliament and King George III, and North Carolinians struggled with their loyalty to the King and their desire to govern themselves. According to MeckNC.gov, “On May 19, 1775, a rider raced into Charlottetowne with news of the massacre of colonists by the British at the Battle of Concord and Lexington. Angered at this news and already burdened by the oppressive, unjust laws of King George III, tradition says a band of local patriots met through the night and into May 20th to draft the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (or MecDec). On May 31, they met again to draft a set of Resolves that outlined how they would self govern. These treasonous documents declared the actions of the Crown were intolerable and Charlottetowne and Mecklenburg County were no longer under British rule.
“…Captain James Jack volunteered to take these powerful documents on the arduous journey to the Continental Congress. Knowing full well that if caught he would be immediately hung; he risked his livelihood, property, family and very life to transport these important documents. Slipping past British regulars and spying Tories, Jack arrived in Philadelphia, demanding Mecklenburg County’s declaration of freedom be read into record. Just as Paul Revere’s famous ride alerted patriots to the British landing in Boston, James Jack’s ride helped kindle the embers of revolution in the Continental Congress.”
The MecDec and the Resolves declared British authority of those in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, to be null and void. James Jack and his father were strong supporters of the call for independence. Reportedly, many of the Committee of Safety meetings were conducted at the Jacks’ tavern. NCpedia tells us, ” Jack recalled that ‘for some time previous to, and at the time of those resolutions [of May 1775] were agreed to, I . . . was priviledged to a number of meetings of some of the . . . leading characters of that county on the subject before the final adoption of the resolutions.'”
James Jack set out on his famous ride in June 1775, stopping briefly in Salisbury, North Carolina, to have the document read publicly in the district court session. After a journey of nearly 600 miles through the Appalachian mountains and flatland, he reached Philadelphia, where Jack presented the North Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress with the Mecklenburg County document. Although the delegates agreed with the document’s sentiment, the Continental Congress at the time still hoped for a reconciliation with England. They chose not to inform the other delegations to the Congress of the Mecklenburg action.
Captain James Jack returned to his home in Charlottetowne on July 7 of the same year. He rode an average of 30 miles each day—hard riding for the time and the geographic challenges—completing his journey of some 1100 miles in 38 days.
James Jack was a popular captain in the Mecklenburg militia during the Revolutionary War. As a warning, Lord Cornwallis had Jack’s s father removed from the man’s sick bed and kept in a damp cell for questioning. The elder Mr. Jacks died shortly afterwards (September 1780). The Jack home was burned to the ground. The tavern was rebuilt, but the financial loss, in addition to Jack’s personal money spent for wartime expenditures (some £7,646), which was never reimbursed, left him in ruin. Ironically, Jack’s claim was was paid to a friend, who died before delivering the money to Jack.
With the war’s end, Jack moved his family to the western part of North Carolina, which at the time stretched all the way to present time Nashville. He signed the petition to the North Carolina Assembly to make North Carolina a separate state. Later, he moved to what is now Wilkes County, Georgia, where he was not so successful as a farmer. Finally, he and his wife Margaret moved again to neighboring Elbert County, to live with their son William and live out their days. James Jack died in December 1822. His obituary lists his age at death as being 84, but in December 1819, he wrote of being 88 years of age. Therefore, he was like 91 years old at his death.
The following is the obituary for Captain James Jack from the Raleigh Registe of January 17, 1823. “Died.- In Elbert County, Georgia, on the 18th instant (ultimo), Captain James Jack, in the 84th year of his age. He was born in the State of Pennsylvania, from whence he removed to North Carolina and settled in the town of Charlotte, where he remained till the end of the Revolutionary War, in which he took a decided and active part from the commencement to the close, after which he removed to Georgia with his family, whom he supported by the sweat of his brow. He spent the prime of his life and his little all in the glorious struggle for independence, and enjoyed it with a heart warmed with gratitude to the God of battles. In the spring of ’75 he was the bearer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to Congress. His claims on the State of North Carolina for Revolutionary services and expenditures were audited by Colonel Mathew Locke, and amounted to 7,646 pounds in currency. Those papers being of little value at that time, he left them in the hands of a friend, who dying some years after, the claim to him was lost. It fell, possibly, into the hands of some speculator, who may by now faring sumptuously on the fruits of his toil. But wealth had no charm for him; he looked for a ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, whose builder and maker is God.’ He has left a widow, two sons (his eldest, Colonel Patrick Jack, of the U. S. Army in her late contest with Britain, having died about two years past), a daughter besides a numerous offspring of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Some few of his old comrades who bore the burden and the heat of the day are still living. Should this notice catch the eye of any one of them, it may draw forth a sigh or elicit a tear to the memory of their friend, more to be valued than a marble monument.”