Exhibition in Wilson Library Honors UNC Founder Davie

An exhibition honoring the “father” of the University is on display at Wilson Library through June 30.

Nearly 50 artifacts, images, books and documents relating to William Richardson Davie can be seen in the library’s North Carolina Collection Gallery.

“William Richardson Davie: Soldier, Statesman and Founder of the University of North Carolina” coincides with the 250th anniversary of Davie’s birth on June 22, 1756.

Davie, a Revolutionary War hero and later a state legislator, introduced the bill in the N.C. General Assembly in 1789 that chartered the University. With the laying of the cornerstone of Old East in 1793, the new institution became a physical reality. When UNC opened to students in January 1795, it became the first operating state university in the nation.

As a trustee, Davie continued to guide the University’s operations over the next decade. He helped select professors, supervise the construction of additional buildings and monitor the curricula and students.

Davie was an influential statesman during America’s early years of independence, serving as governor of North Carolina from 1798 to 1799. At the request of then-President John Adams, he traveled to Paris to help negotiate a commercial treaty that brought an end to the naval conflict between the United States and France in 1800.

He retired from public service in 1805, left his home in Halifax and returned to the Waxhaw region of South Carolina, where he had spent his boyhood. He died there in 1820.

Samples of the artifacts include:

Original correspondence from Davie to American Gen. Nathanael Greene reporting on the search for military supplies in the Carolinas in 1781.

  • The bridal fan carried by Davie’s wife, Sarah, in 1782. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fans often were carried in weddings in place of flowers.
  • The original bronze plate from the laying of the cornerstone of the building then known as East Building.
  • An original 1793 letter of sale for a slave written by Davie. Like many other University trustees and high-ranking state officials prior to 1865, Davie was a slave owner.
  • A gold pocket watch made by the Abraham-Louis Breguet firm that also made watches for Napoleon Bonaparte, the czar of Russia and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Davie bought the watch in Paris in 1800.
  • A posthumous portrait of Davie, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1826.
  • The exhibition marks the first of several University events to commemorate Davie’s birthday. Others will include the annual Gladys Coates University History Lecture, which will feature remarks by Harry Watson, a UNC history professor and director of the Center for the Study of the American South. The lecture on April 18 will be free and open to the public. UNC archaeologists in the Research Laboratories of Archaeology also have located the remains of Tivoli, Davie’s home in South Carolina, and will excavate the site this summer as part of annual field studies for students.

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