Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758-1802)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Born in New Bern, North Carolina in 1758, Richard Dobbs Spaight served as a delegate at the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and at the Hillsborough Convention of 1788. Spaight was a prominent North Carolinian advocate of ratification of the Federal Constitution. 

Spaight was born to an Irishman and the sister of a colonial governor of North Carolina. After the deaths of his parents, his guardian sent him to Ireland to study. Following completion of secondary school in Ireland, Spaight studied at, and graduated from, the University of Glasgow.

He returned to North Carolina in 1778 and immediately joined the state’s militia. After serving briefly in the militia as an aide to General Richard Caswell, Spaight entered politics, and was elected New Bern’s representative to the North Carolina House of Commons. In 1784, he was nominated by Governor Alexander Martin to fill William Blount‘s seat in the First Continental Congress. 

Spaight’s possession of this seat led to his role in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Besides merely being present at the entire Convention, Spaight forcefully supported the election of senators by states. The delegates from larger states such as Virginia disagreed with Spaight on this point, but Spaight’s position won the day. 

In 1788, Spaight became one of the most prominent delegates to the Hillsborough Convention. Though he supported the losing federalist side in the Hillsborough Convention, he afterward eschewed the Federalist party, and became a Democratic-Republican. In the aftermath of the Convention, he took a four-year hiatus from political life in order to travel and regain his health. 

Spaight rejoined the North Carolina House of Commons in 1792, and his colleagues in the General Assembly elected him governor. He again left political life in 1795 due to ill health. After another few years of convalescence, Spaight joined the U.S. House of Representatives in 1798.

In 1801, John Stanly – a New Bern Federalist – took Spaight’s House seat, while Spaight joined the North Carolina Senate. As senator, Spaight missed many votes and usually blamed his poor health for his absences. Stanly repeatedly accused Spaight of malingering. After months of antagonism between the two men, they agreed to a duel, which was held on September 5, 1802. On the fourth fire, Stanly hit Spaight, who died the following day.

Gallery