William Richardson Davie was one of North Carolina’s most influential citizens. He fought bravely during the American Revolution, helped start the first state university, was elected governor and rose to national prominence as a statesman who helped the United States avoid war with France. Although he was highly esteemed amongst his contemporaries, today his recognition is incommensurate to his many accomplishments.
On 22 June 1756 William R. Davie was born in Egremont, Cumberland, England to Archibald and Mary Richardson. In 1764, the Davie’s moved to America in the Waxhaw region of South Carolina. Young William grew very close to his maternal uncle, Reverend William Richardson, minister of Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church and Providence Presbyterian Church. After graduating from the College of New Jersey in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1776 Davie returned to North Carolina and studied law under Spruce Macay. In 1779, when the British Army invaded Georgia and South Carolina, Davie joined the North Carolina militia as a cavalry captain. His unit was ordered to Charlestown where it was attached to Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski’s Legion.
Davie was quickly promoted to major and on 20 June 1779, he fought in the battle at Stono River Ferry where he was badly wounded in the thigh. In early 1780, he used a part of his inheritance to equip a cavalry unit of partisans. His unit was active throughout that summer including the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill, and daring raids at Flat Rock, Hanging Rock, and the Battle of Hanging Rock. There he was an inspiration to 13-year-old Andrew Jackson. In early September, he was promoted to colonel of North Carolina cavalry militia and led another raid at Wahab Plantation.
On 26 September, he led approximately 150 American militiamen in the Battle of Charlotte against Lieutenant General Charles Lord Cornwallis’s army of about 2500 professional soldiers. On 27 September, Davie’s unit was supplemented to a strength of 300, a formidable cavalry force. Although Davie was sick for a few days, his unit ran patrols around Charlotte to prevent British foraging and express riders. During 12–21 October, Davie’s unit followed Cornwallis’s retreat from Charlotte.
In December 1780, Major General Nathanael Greene appointed Davie the Commissary General of the Continental Army Southern Department. He remained on the general’s staff until at least May 1781. In 1782, Davie married Sarah Jones, daughter of Allen Jones. After the war, Davie entered law practice and defended several loyalists from retribution including Colonel Samuel Bryan, his previous adversary at the battle of Hanging Rock. In 1787, Davie helped defend Elizabeth Cornell Bayard’s constitutional right to a trial by jury in her efforts to recover her father’s property. Bayard v. Singleton was the first case in the United States of a court asserting and using its power to declare a law unconstitutional.
Davie was very active in North Carolina politics. In 1786, he was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly where he introduced legislation that established the University of North Carolina. Davie served as a member of its original Board of Trustees and visited the Chapel Hill site and according to tradition tied his horse to the Davie Poplar Tree.
During the summer of 1787, Davie was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a Federalist, he supported ratification of the United States Constitution and attended both ratification conventions in Hillsborough and Fayetteville. In 1792, he became Grand Master of the North Carolina Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, and in that capacity in 1793, officiated the laying of the Old East Building cornerstone.
William was elected governor in 1798 but was unable to complete his term because in 1799, President John Adams appointed Davie one of three special envoys to France to negotiate an end to the XYZ Affair with Napoleon Bonaparte. Davie helped negotiate terms that avoided war with France, but the successful news did not reach America in time to help reelect Adams who lost to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election.
Davie retired to his Tivoli estate on the west side of Land’s Ford on the Catawba River in Chester County, South Carolina. He died on 29 November 1820 and was buried in the Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church cemetery.
In 1927, Davie’s remains were moved to an enclosed gravesite. A newspaper article entitled “Remains of Davie Family Taken Up” reported, “There was found a lone silver button, the badge of an officer in the Revolutionary War, and three pieces of board, containing the initials “W.R.D.” made with copper head tacks. These were found in the grave of General Davie.” Noted Charlotte architect Martin Evans Boyer Jr. designed the present-day enclosed gravesite and described the design in an architectural journal.
Over William Richardson Davie’s grave is the elegant epitaph written by his contemporary Judge William Gaston:
In this grave are deposited the remains of
WILLIAM R. DAVIE,
The Soldier, Jurist, Statesman, and Patriot
In the Glorious War for
He fought among the foremost of the Brave.
As an advocate of the Bar,
He was diligent, sagacious, zealous,
Incorruptibly Honest, of Commanding Eloquence.
In the Legislative Hall,
He had no superior in enlarged vision
And Profound plans of Policy,
Single in his ends, varied in his means, indefatigable
In his exertions.
Representing his Nation in an important Embassy,
He evinced his characteristic devotion to her interests
And manifested a peculiar fitness for Diplomacy.
Polished in manners, firm in action,
Candid without imprudence, Wise above Deceit,
A true lover of his Country,
Always preferring the People’s good to the People’s favour.
Though he disdained to fawn for office,
He filled most of the stations to which ambition
And declining no Public Trust,
Ennobled whatever he accepted
By true Dignity and Talent
Which he brought into the discharge of its functions.
— A Great Man in an age of Great Men. —
In life he was admired and beloved by the virtuous
and the Wise.
In death, he has silenced calumny and caused envy to
Anderson, William Lee. “Cornwallis’s Retreat from Charlotte.”
Blackwell P. Robinson, William R. Davie (Chapel Hill, 1957).
Boyer, Martin Evans. “William R. Davie Memorial At (Old) Waxhaw, S.C.” The American Architect, May 5, 1929: 603-605.
Boyer, Mary Manning, Correspondence.
Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrent Applicaton Files, 1800–1900, Microfilm publication M804. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.nara.gov/publications/microfilm/military/, 1997.
Robinson, Blackwell P., Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976).
“Where Did Cornwallis’s Army Invade North Carolina?” http://elehistory.com/amrev/CornwallisNCInvasion.pdf.