Davie was born on June 22, 1756 in Egremont Parish, County Cumberland, England, the son of Scottish Presbyterians, Archibald and Mary Richardson. In 1764, the somewhat affluent Richardsons moved to the Waxhaws region near Lancaster, South Carolina, where Mary’s brother, William Richardson, was a prominent Presbyterian minister. Davie had been named for his uncle, and many historians have falsely deduced that William Richardson adopted Davie after the boy came to America. Although that’s not true, the two were close. When Richardson died, Davie inherited 150 acres and a large library. As an adolescent, Davie studied at Queen’s Museum, later Liberty Hall, in Charlotte. In 1776, Davie graduated with honors from Princeton University, then the College of New Jersey.
Too young to take a leading role in the American opposition to British imperial polices, Davie enlisted in the Patriot cause once the Revolutionary War began and fought with considerable courage during the entire conflict. From 1777 to 1778, Davie served under General Allen Jones. (In 1782, Davie married Jones’s daughter Sarah—an unusual match to be sure, for Willie Jones, Sarah’s uncle, was the dean of North Carolina’s Radicals, and later, its Anti-Federalists.) Badly wounded in June 1779 in the Battle of Stono Ferry near Charleston, Davie spent the next several months convalescing and reading law with Judge Spruce Macay in Salisbury. As the fighting in the South intensified, Davie organized a troop of cavalry and returned to active duty. By September 1780, Davie had risen to the rank of colonel, and his subordinates included the future president Andrew Jackson. In December 1780, General Nathanael Greene, commander of Continental forces in the South, appointed Davie his commissary general–a critical yet thankless post.
After the war, Davie settled in Halifax and started a successful legal career. James Iredell, the distinguished North Carolina jurist, ranked Davie alongside Alfred Moore, a future justice of the United States Supreme Court, as one of the two best lawyers in the state. Davie’s most controversial case may have been his defense of three Tory officers charged with treason. Defeated in court, Davie secured pardons for the men from the governor. Elected to the House of Commons in 1784, Davie generally allied himself with the legislature’s conservative faction. Accordingly, he supported sound money and compliance with the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, called for the payment of pre-war debts owed to British creditors, and encouraged the return of confiscated Loyalist property.
Davie’s effective performance in the House of Commons led to his selection as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention that assembled in Philadelphia in May 1787. Davie said little during the debates, seeming to defer to the experienced Hugh Williamson, the de facto leader of the North Carolina delegation. Yet Davie arguably cast the single most important vote of the convention. Serving on the Grand Committee appointed to consider the issue of representation in Congress, Davie voted for the Great Compromise providing for representation based on population in the House of Representatives and for state equality in the Senate. Davie’s vote made North Carolina the only large state to support the compromise, and it helped break the deadlock between the large and small states. Called away on legal business before the end of the convention, Davie did not sign the Constitution.
In North Carolina, however, Davie adamantly supported the ratification of the document. He served in the Hillsborough (1788) and Fayetteville (1789) conventions called to consider ratification of the Constitution. Even though Davie and Iredell led the outnumbered Federalist forces at the Hillsborough convention, delegates voted 184 to 84 against ratification. After the Constitution had taken effect, a second convention in Fayetteville finally approved it.
While remaining in the House of Commons until 1798, Davie was a staunch proponent of public education. In 1786, Davie helped establish the Warrenton Academy, and in 1789, he sponsored legislation to charter the University of North Carolina, the first public university in the United States. He served as the institution’s virtual president in its early years. For example, Davie helped select the Chapel Hill location, recruit faculty, and promote the adoption of an updated curriculum. Suspecting Federalist proclivities at the school, the General Assembly soon cut the school’s funding, but Davie later won a lawsuit that overturned the legislation.
Davie was a natural aristocrat with a polite yet slightly aloof demeanor. Archibald Murphey, the nineteenth-century North Carolina reformer, described Davie as “a tall, elegant man in his person, graceful and commanding in his manners.” He said little publicly regarding his religious beliefs, however. Although Davie never denounced his affiliation with the Presbyterian denomination, he was rumored to be a Deist, and from 1792 to 1798, he served as Grand Master of the North Carolina Masons.
Davie’s diplomatic skill played a vital role in early North Carolina and American history. Although the state legislature elected Davie governor in 1798, he did not complete his term, for in the following year, President John Adams appointed Davie to the American delegation to settle the Quasi-War with France. After an arduous voyage to Europe, Davie spent several months in Paris negotiating the Convention of 1800, which ended hostilities and reestablished normal commercial relations between the United States and France. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Davie to negotiate a treaty with North Carolina’s remaining Tuscarora Indians. The agreement obligated the federal government to collect rent on Tuscarora land on behalf of the tribe until July 12, 1916, at which time the Tuscarora would relinquish their title to the state.
Running for public office once again in 1803, Davie soon grew disenchanted with politics and popular opinion. In particular, Davie made an unsuccessful effort to oust Democratic-Republican Congressman Willis Alston. His defeat, and the state’s grudging support for UNC, left Davie embittered. The “friends of science in other states,” he concluded, “regard the people of North Carolina as a sort of Semi-Barbarians, among whom neither learning, virtue, nor men of Science posses any Estimation.” At fifty, Davie retired from politics and moved to his Trivoli plantation near Lancaster, South Carolina.
After his wife, Sarah, died in April 1802, Davie never remarried and seemed to age prematurely. He complained that rheumatism and other aliments plagued him. He even turned down military and political appointments, such as when President James Madison, during the War of 1812, offered him a commission as a major general. Davie died in South Carolina in 1820 and was buried in the family plot at the Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church.
Davie may well have been the most impressive North Carolinian of the Revolutionary Era, but by 1800 he was wholly out of step with his times. As a natural aristocrat, he believed that social progress occurred only when the masses were under the tutelage of an educated elite. He unsurprisingly opposed the democratic tendencies that dominated North Carolina politics, especially after Jefferson’s election as president. His contributions were not completely forgotten; in 1811, he received the first honorary doctorate to be awarded by the University of North Carolina.
Samuel A. Ashe, “William Richardson Davie,” in Ashe, ed., Biographical Dictionary of North Carolina (Greensboro, 1917); Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina 2 Vols. (Raleigh, 1907); William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill, 1979-91), Blackwell P. Robinson, William R. Davie (Chapel Hill, 1957); Ruth Rosenberg, “Davie, William Richardson,” in John C. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (New York, 1999); Louise Irby Trenholme, The Ratification of the Federal Constitution in North Carolina (New York, 1932).