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William R. Davie: UNC's Founding Father

Documenting the American South celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of William R. Davie, who would become known as the father of the University of North Carolina and one of the Carolinas' most distinguished citizens. Davie was born on June 22, 1756, in England to Scottish parents. When Davie was eight years old, the family relocated to South Carolina. Educated in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), Davie practiced law briefly before leaving his practice to join the Revolutionary cause. After the war, Davie served in the North Carolina General Assembly and as a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

In his History of the University of University of North Carolina, Kemp Plummer Battle writes of Davie: "He was no common man. He had been a gallant cavalry officer in the Revolution. He had been a strong staff on which Greene had leaned. He had been conspicuous in civil pursuits; an able lawyer, an orator of wide influence. With Washington and Madison, and other great men, he had assisted in evolving the grandest government of all ages, the American Union, out of an ill-governed and disintegrated confederacy. He was beyond his times in the advocacy of a broad, generous education" (p. 5). Battle goes on to write in detail of Davie's role in almost every aspect of the new University of North Carolina, from site selection to curriculum.

In The History of Escheats (1955), Blackwell P. Robinson, who would later write a full-length biography of Davie, also outlines Davie's role in establishing the University of North Carolina. Robinson explains that though there had been previous attempts to create a public school system in the state, "It was not until December, 1789, twenty days after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, that a successful bill, introduced by William Richardson Davie, was guided through the legislature" (p. 6). Robinson also explains that the original University Act had no provisions for funding the new institution, but on December 15, four days after this first bill passed, someone¬óprobably Davie¬óproposed a second bill that would provide for a Building Fund. Robinson goes on to highlight Davie's efforts, apparently amid much resistance, to fund the University through gifts and subscriptions that guaranteed free educations to the children of donors.

Davie served on the University's Board of Trustees from 1789 to 1807 and in 1811 was awarded an honorary LLD degree, the University's first. Even while serving as governor of North Carolina (1798-99) and after leaving the country to become Minister to France (1799-1800), Davie continued to advise the university administration. He died in 1820 at his South Carolina plantation, Tivoli.

Readers interested in learning more about Davie's role in the early days of the University of North Carolina as well as about university history in general should browse the scholarly and primary material available in "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina". This DocSouth collection presents 121 edited and transcribed primary documents from 1795 to 1868. Most of these documents were written by students and tell the story of the University of North Carolina from their perspective.

In addition, "The First Century of the First State University" collection presents hundreds of primary documents about the creation and development of the University of North Carolina, from 1776 to 1875. Scholarly essays and annotations about people and places provide rich historical and contextual information.

Jennifer L. Larson