Richard Dobbs Spaight (1758-1802), a signer of the United States Constitution and the first native-born governor, was the father of Richard Dobbs Spaight Jr., who served as governor, 1835-1836. Of Irish extraction, the elder Spaight was born in New Bern on March 25, 1758, to Richard and Elizabeth Wilson Spaight, and was distantly related to Governor Arthur Dobbs. Orphaned as a boy of nine, Spaight received his preparatory education in Ireland and is thought to have graduated from the University of Glasgow. His wife was the former Mary Jones of New Bern, whom he married in 1788.
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Returning to North Carolina during the early stages of the Revolution, Spaight served as a military aide to Governor Richard Caswell. Early on, however, his energies and ambitions were directed primarily toward politics rather than warfare. From 1779 through 1783 and the winning of independence, Spaight represented New Bern in the state House of Commons. Following two years as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1783 to 1785), he returned to the House of Commons from 1785 to 1787 and in 1792. In 1785 he served as speaker of the House. Following his governorship, he served in the state Senate in 1801 and 1802.
As a prominent Federalist leader, Spaight was one of five delegates from North Carolina to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Following an active role in the Convention, he signed the Constitution; and in 1788 he argued forcefully but unsuccessfully for its ratification at the state Constitutional Convention in Hillsborough. Never a robust man, Spaight was plagued by poor health which forced him from public life from 1788 to 1792, when he was returned to the state House for a final term. On December 11 of that year he was elected governor by his fellow assemblymen after four days of balloting. Twice reelected, he served the maximum three consecutive terms.
Spaight was the first governor to convene the General Assembly in Raleigh. Much of his role as Chief Executive was played against the backdrop of war between England and France. Although he supported President George Washington’s proclamation of neutrality, strong Republican support for France existed in the state’s seaports, especially in Wilmington. In 1794 Spaight’s appeal to the General Assembly resulted in the mobilization of the state’s militia forces and the strengthening of coastal fortifications. Other issues during Spaight’s administration included the ongoing settlement of financial accounts with the federal government, the negotiation of lingering border disputes with South Carolina, and the threat of Cherokee uprisings in the mountain region. In 1795 he presided over the official opening of the University of North Carolina.
Post-term, Spaight returned to New Bern and the life of a wealthy planter, but in 1798 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. There he remained until 1801 and his election to the state Senate. For several years following ratification of the federal Constitution, Spaight had found himself increasingly inclined toward Jeffersonian Republicanism. His final conversion to that political philosophy stemmed largely from his opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1802 he became embroiled in a bitter personal rivalry with the ardent Federalist and fellow New Bernian, John Stanly. On September 5th of that year the two men fought a duel in which Spaight was seriously wounded. He died on the following day, in the forty-fifth year of his age, and was buried in the family cemetery at Cleremont plantation.
Richard Dobbs Spaight Jr. (1796-1850) was the son of Richard Dobbs Spaight, governor from 1792 to 1795, and was the last governor to be elected by the General Assembly. His mother was the former Mary Jones Leech of New Bern. The younger Spaight was educated at New Bern Academy and the University of North Carolina, graduating with high honors from the latter institution. In 1818 he was admitted to the bar and the following year represented Craven County in the House of Commons. Spaight then served in the state senate from 1820 to 1822, U. S. Congress from 1823 to 1825, and again in the state senate from the time he returned from Washington until he became governor in 1835. He never married.
At the state constitutional convention of 1835, while still a state senator from Craven County, Spaight served as chairman of the Rules Committee. Although the convention altered the way in which the governor would be elected in the future, the General Assembly was to elect the Chief Executive one last time. They elected Spaight. The following year, in 1836, as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in the first popular election under the new constitution, Spaight was defeated by Edward Dudley. Typical of many candidates of that era who attempted to portray their interest in public office as a reluctant willingness to serve, Spaight declined invitations to banquets and rallies. The result was an unenthusiastic campaign that was not well received by the voting public.
After his gubernatorial loss, Spaight retired from politics and returned to his law practice in New Bern. He never held another public office. Income from his farms and other real estate holdings furnished him with the means necessary to practice law, primarily for charitable purposes. It was said that he continued his law practice not for professional success but because he enjoyed intellectual discussions of legal matters with colleagues. Spaight was an active Mason from 1822 through his governorship and beyond. He remained devoutly active in the state’s Grand Lodge when his local St. John’s Lodge fell into periods of inactivity. Spaight served the Freemasons as Grand Lecturer from 1833 through 1838 and as Grand Master in 1830 and 1831. He held various other offices and served on committees in St. John’s and the Grand Lodge, being as well versed in Masonic law as with the laws of the state. Spaight was also a member and vestryman of Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern.
Richard Dobbs Spaight Jr. died on November 17, 1850, and was buried in the family plot at Clermont Plantation, across the Trent River from New Bern. When the General Assembly meeting in Raleigh learned of Spaight’s death, they respectfully adjourned in his memory.
Alexander B. Andrews, “Richard Dobbs Spaight,” North Carolina Historical Review (April 1924): 95-120
Delbert H. Gilpatrick, Jeffersonian Democracy in North Carolina, 1789-1816 (1931)
Gretrude Carraway,Years of Light: History of St. John's Lodge (1944)
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 17 (1935)
Robert Sobel and John Raimo, eds., Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, vol. 3 (1978)
Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, IV (1906)
William S. Hoffman, “The Election of 1836 in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (January 1955): 31-51
Alan D. Watson, Richard Dobbs Spaight (1986)
Gov. Richard Dobbs Spaight