The printing press, with its potential for increasing the speed of transmission of the written word, was somewhat slow in reaching the province of North Carolina. The establishment of a press in the state capital of New Bern was due in large part to the actions of governor Gabriel Johnston and printer James Davis. The first printing press enabled North Carolina to publish uniform law codes and allowed citizens to distribute information at a speed that was otherwise impossible.
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Although printers had been active in some colonies for over 100 years, North Carolina became the ninth colony to acquire a public printer in 1747. It was not until the grievances of governor Gabriel Johnston in 1736 that North Carolina’s General Assembly voted to begin the process of hiring a printer and press.
North Carolina had been slow to acquire such technology for several reasons. The provincial government, having grown accustomed to North Carolina’s slow communication lines, was afraid of the challenges to their authority which the printed word presented. In addition, since North Carolina’s economy was based on agriculture, the rural colony did not possess the dense populations that other cities relied on to finance an investment such as a printing press. Lastly, as there had been facilities at Virginia and Charleston since 1737, those in North Carolina found it easy to send print requests out outside the colony.
In 1734 Gabriel Johnston complained to the General Assembly that he was unable to find a complete copy of the 1715 public laws anywhere in the state, and that most counties had erroneous copies if any at all. This prompted the Assembly to approve a public printer for North Carolina, and in 1747, Johnston appointed James Davis (1721–1785), a printer trained by William Parks of Williamsburg, Virginia. Although Davis’ first task was likely the printing of currency, in 1749 he printed the first official publication, the Journal of the House of Burgesses of the Province of North Carolina.
Davis went on to serve as public printer until 1782, with the exception of a five-year hiatus. James Davis also created and sustained the colony’s first newspaper, the North-Carolina Gazette, from 1751 until his death in 1785. At the start of the American Revolution, Davis allowed anti-British sentiment free reign over the opinion columns of the Gazette. Although he was appointed to various political positions during his life, James Davis is best remembered for publishing the first newspaper and imprint in North Carolina.
George Washington Paschal, A History of Printing in North Carolina (1946)
Mary L. Thornton, “Public Printing in North Carolina, 1749-1815,” North Carolina Historical Review (July 1944): 181-202
Robert N. Elliot Jr., “James Davis and the Beginning of the Newspaper in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (Winter 1965): 1-20
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina—sketch by Timothy D. Pyatt and Chester P. Middlesworth
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 34-35—sketch by Robert N. Elliot, Jr.