Richard Dobbs Spaight, Sr. (1758 – 1802)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

A New Bern native and father of North Carolina governor Richard Dobbs Spaight, Jr., Richard Spaight was a leading Federalist delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was also governor of North Carolina from 1792 to 1795. Although he was a Federalist, he later allied with Jeffersonian Republicanism (the Anti-Federalists) after disagreeing with Federalist support for the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).

Born in New Bern in 1758, Spaight  was orphaned at nine. He received his primary education in Ireland and graduated from the University of Glasgow.  

Spaight had a long and distinguished political career. After serving as a military aide during the Revolution, Spaight served in the House of Commons (1779–1783, 1785, 1787, and 1792). During his 1785 term, he served as Speaker. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1783 and 1785. He also represented North Carolina during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. And then he served three terms as governor of the Old North State.

Spaight is considered one of North Carolina’s Founding Fathers. He represented North Carolina at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and signed the U.S. Constitution after its final revision and before it was submitted to the states for ratification. Then he argued in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for the Constitution’s ratification. Of the five North Carolina delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Spaight was one of two who attended every session. (The other was Hugh Williamson.)

While Spaight was governor of North Carolina (1792–1795), the state settled various longstanding disputes. It also prepared for possible war with France. An American treaty with Great Britain (the Jay Treaty of 179 ) led to hostility from the French, who had just undergone their own revolution. Worried about escalating tensions between the young United States and France, Spaight supported neutrality and tried to avoid war. However, he also strengthened the state’s coastal defenses. During his three years as chief executive of the state, North Carolina settled its financial disputes with the national government, its border dispute with South Carolina, and dealt with threats from the Cherokee tribe in the west.  

In 1798 Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the government power to expel foreigners and made it a crime to write maliciously about the government. Opposed to these restrictions on freedom, Spaight started publicly endorsing Jefferson Republicanism. Since the Constitution’s ratification, Spaight had questioned the Federalists’ broad interpretations and application of constitutional law. So, while serving as a representative to the U. S. Congress from 1798 to 1801, Spaight changed political parties.  

Although in ill health for much of his life, Spaight died from a duel with John Stanly in 1802. It was this duel that prompted North Carolina to outlaw the practice.