Monday, November 26, 2007

William Richardson Davie (1756-1820)

William Richardson 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 [as a 13-year-old courier]. 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.

(Source: North Carolina History Project, John Locke Foundation, ©2007,