John A. G. Davis

John A. G. Davis (1802–1840)

John A. G. Davis was a law professor at the University of Virginia who was murdered there by a student. Born in Middlesex County, Davis attended the College of William and Mary and then, after marrying a grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, the recently founded University of Virginia. He established a law practice in Albemarle County, helped found a newspaper, and then, in 1830, joined the University of Virginia's faculty as a professor of law. In his publications, Davis defended states' rights and limited government, supporting nullification in 1832. A popular but strict professor, he used his role as faculty chairman in 1836 to help expel about seventy student-militia members, leading to a riot. Four years later, on the anniversary of that riot, two students in masks shot off their weapons outside Davis's residence, Pavilion X. When Davis confronted them, one of the students, Joseph G. Semmes, shot the professor dead. Semmes fled the state and later committed suicide. Davis died two days later, and his murder helped finally to calm years of misbehavior among the university's students. MORE...

 

Early Years

John Anthony Gardner Davis was born on March 5, 1802, in Middlesex County and was the son of Staige Davis, a merchant and farmer, and Elizabeth Macon Gardner Davis. He attended the College of William and Mary during the 1819–1820 term and married Mary Jane Terrell, a grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, in Williamsburg on June 14, 1821. They had five sons (one of whom died in infancy) and three daughters. After being admitted to the bar in 1822, Davis briefly returned to Middlesex County, but by 1824 he had moved his young family to Albemarle County. There he attended the University of Virginia in 1825, established a legal practice, and purchased 148 3/4 acres just east of Charlottesville, on which he constructed a Georgian mansion. He cofounded a newspaper, the Virginia Advocate, in 1827 and helped to publish the first edition of Jefferson's writings two years later.

At the University of Virginia

The University of Virginia's board of visitors appointed Davis secretary to the board in July 1829 and professor of law on July 20, 1830, with an annual salary of $1,000. He was chair of the faculty from 1835 to 1837 and from 1839 to 1840. Davis published a number of works, including A Lecture on the Constitutionality of Protecting Duties (1832) and A Treatise on Criminal Law, with an Exposition of the Office and Authority of Justices of the Peace in Virginia (1838). He believed in strict construction of the Constitution, a limited national government, and the doctrine of states' rights. He supported South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis in 1832, and he opposed protective tariffs, the supremacy of the federal judiciary, and the Bank of the United States. Although long hostile to organized religion, Davis joined Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville about 1835 and was elected a vestryman.

Polite, affable, kindhearted, and fair-minded, Davis was both liked and respected at the university. One of his pupils wrote that he was "generally considered the best professor here." Davis was also a zealous enforcer of the university's regulations, many of which the students heartily disliked. In the autumn of 1836 the student militia began drilling on campus without permission and refused to desist, submit to conditions, or disband. On November 11, the university expelled about seventy students, an action that resulted in a riot the following evening. Davis, as chair of the faculty, favored conciliation and allowed students to return to class so long as they affirmed that they had not taken part in the disturbance or were sorry they had done so.

Death

Groups of students commemorated the event in 1837 and 1838 and would have done so again in 1839 except for inclement weather. On the evening of November 12, 1840, two students, William A. Kincaid and Joseph Green Semmes, wearing disguises, discharged their pistols in front of the faculty residences. Warned by other students that Davis was waiting for them outside Pavilion X, his campus home, they continued down the lawn. Semmes reloaded his weapon and swore that he would shoot Davis if he interfered with them. When Davis stepped forward to apprehend the perpetrators, Semmes shot him in the abdomen. After the incident, Davis forgave Semmes and stated that he hoped that no harm would come to him. Davis died two days later, on November 14, 1840, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.

Semmes was arrested but skipped bail and left the state before the trial. Whether out of remorse or for some other reason, in July 1847 he committed suicide at his brother's home in Georgia. Kincaid was allowed to return to the university to continue his studies. The killing of Davis led to an increased interest in religion and studiousness at the university, encouraged a loosening of the rules governing student behavior, and, within several years, prompted the creation of the university's honor system.

Major Works

  • A Lecture on the Constitutionality of Protecting Duties (1832)
  • A Treatise on Criminal Law, with an Exposition of the Office and Authority of Justices of the Peace in Virginia (1838)

Time Line

  • March 5, 1802 - John A. G. Davis is born in Middlesex County.
  • 1819–1820 - John A. G. Davis attends the College of William and Mary.
  • June 14, 1821 - John A. G. Davis and Mary Jane Terrell, a grandniece of Thomas Jefferson, marry in Williamsburg.
  • 1822 - John A. G. Davis is admitted to the Virginia bar.
  • 1824 - By this year John A. G. Davis and his family have moved from Middlesex County to Albemarle County.
  • 1825 - John A. G. Davis attends the University of Virginia.
  • 1827 - John A. G. Davis cofounds the Virginia Advocate newspaper.
  • 1829 - John A. G. Davis helps to publish the first edition of Thomas Jefferson's writings.
  • July 1829 - The University of Virginia board of visitors appoints John A. G. Davis secretary to the board.
  • July 20, 1830 - John A. G. Davis joins the University of Virginia faculty as a professor of law.
  • 1835–1837 - John A. G. Davis serves as faculty chairman at the University of Virginia.
  • 1835 - John A. G. Davis joins the Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville.
  • November 11, 1836 - The University of Virginia expels about seventy student-militia members for drilling without permission and other infractions. A riot ensues.
  • 1839–1840 - John A. G. Davis serves as faculty chairman at the University of Virginia.
  • November 12, 1840 - John A. G. Davis, a law professor and chairman of the faculty at the University of Virginia, is fatally shot by a student.
  • November 14, 1840 - John A. G. Davis, a law professor at the University of Virginia, dies from a gunshot wound. He is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
  • July 1847 - Joseph G. Semmes, the student believed to have murdered Professor John A. G. Davis at the University of Virginia in 1840, kills himself at his brother's home in Georgia.

References

Further Reading
Seiken Jeff and Liz Marshall. "Tragedy on the Lawn: The Murder of Professor John A. G. Davis." Virginia Cavalcade 34 (1984): 40–47.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Haggard, R. F., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John A. G. Davis (1802–1840). (2016, August 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_John_A_G_1802-1840.

  • MLA Citation:

    Haggard, Robert F. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John A. G. Davis (1802–1840)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 24, 2016 | Last modified: August 22, 2016


Contributed by Robert F. Haggard and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography