You remember James Davis, right? We’ve talked about him for two weeks and, yes, you’re going to have to put up with him for one week more.
To remind you, Davis (1721-1785) was North Carolina’s first printer, hired out of Williamsburg, to print money and ledgers of law and, since that kind of work would kill anybody from shear boredom, to put out a newspaper or two.
He operated from a shop on East Front Street in New Bern, we are told, and eventually set up shop on Broad Street. He wasn’t always the luckiest of guys: a hurricane took out his shop in 1769 and his “flowers” and types were washed away. He reported that he and the local children spent some days combing the streets and shoreline to find them.
Mr. Davis was apparently short-tempered, litigious, and no fan of the French – an unfortunate thing for him, since they were our only hope to win the Revolution.
In his Weekly Gazette of Feb. 13, 1778, he offered $20 for his runaway slave named Smart — “very black, about 5 feet 8 inches high, well made… but very artful and insinuating.” His advertisement carried a threat as well, however: fearing someone was helping his escaped slave avoid capture, he added, “As the penalty in such cases is very great and the courts of law now open, any person that shall be detected in such a piece of injustice to his neighbor, may perhaps repent his Temerity.”
Davis’s sarcastic wit was on display in his newspaper when he ran editorials describing what he saw as New Bern’s advantages as the center of the colony over its prime competition at that time – Wilmington, the approach to which, he said, was “gloomy and dismal, through hot parching Sands, enliven’d now and then with a few Wire-Grass Ridges, and Ponds of Stagnant Water…”
When Governor William Tryon chose our town over our more southern sister as the place for his capital, Davis was happy to rub salt in the wounds. “Mourn, mourn ye Wilmingtonians,” he wrote, “and put on Sack cloth and Ashes, for the Measure of thy Good Things is full, and the evil-Day is coming upon thee!”
He was quick to file lawsuits. Two of his more notable were against two of New Bern’s outstanding patriots and leaders, Richard Cogdell and Dr. Alexander Gaston. Neither suit was successful and, though I can’t seem to find the details at my fingertips, I know the Gaston case had something to do with a cow.
He seemed to have it in for Gaston, in particular. Perhaps it was the doctor’s background in the British navy; perhaps it was the fact that Gaston had married a charming woman of deep French background as his wife.
For our James Davis did not like the French. In 1778 he actually started a riot in the city over a French officer who had convinced the assembly to let him recruit a regiment for the war by approaching the French settlers around New Bern.
Among his recruits was a young man who was an apprentice of James Davis’s son, the ship captain John Davis.
Neither James nor Boy John were happy. Davis demanded the militia turn out – its officers refused, so the father and son brought a gang of John’s crew to the recruitment headquarters where they demanded their fellow’s release.
The officer refused. Davis “abused the French officer,” according to one of his biographers, Robert N. Elliott, and “threatened to drive every Frenchman out of town along with any who sympathized with them.” That last part was particularly aimed at the militia officer.
Cogdell – an earlier victim of his wrath – was so upset at this display that he wrote Gov. Richard Caswell, saying, “the arbitrary and scandalous behavior of (Davis) in many instances before has given the town a name… as every inhabitant except himself and minions would blush at.”
All of our heroes have their problems, if we examine them too closely, and perhaps James Davis stands out the better for his faults. After all, would King David have been such a fascinating character in the Bible if he had only done good and never done that murdering of one of his best soldiers to cover the fact he’d impregnated his wife Bathsheeba?
It’s salt that gives a dish flavor, and Davis was a dish who above all had a strong sense of honor and duty, who worked long hours, often without pay, in building up North Carolina and her cause.
He was no saint, but he was certainly not the worst of sinners. Perhaps we can agree with historian Robert Elliott Jr.: “There is no question that he used his position and his talents to their fullest extent. From his printing office flowed the necessary journals and laws, well executed and free from error, vital to effective government. In his service in New Bern’s government, and as legislator, he acted in the best tradition of the colonial printer.”
Contact Bill Hand at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.