Acts Passed at the First Session of the Fifth Congress of the United States

Augustine Davis (c. 1752 or 1753–1825)

Augustine Davis was a prominent printer in Virginia during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the Early Republic period. The Yorktown native entered the publishing trade at one of two versions of the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, becoming co-owner in 1779. He eventually followed the state government's relocation to Richmond and in 1786 established the Virginia Independent Chronicle, later named the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser. A supporter of a strong federal government, he reprinted essays from The Federalist and supported ratification of what became the U.S. Constitution. Davis became prosperous in the 1790s, investing well and receiving government printing contracts. Despite Virginia's growing population his printing volume remained unchanged, leading to complaints about the scarcity of documents in the western region of the state. The General Assembly removed him as public printer in 1798. Davis supported the Federalist Party in 1800 and advocated the prosecution of James Thomson Callendar and other Jeffersonian editors under the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Eleven months after Thomas Jefferson became president, Davis lost his position as Richmond's postmaster. Although declining in political influence, he continued to publish his newspaper under various titles until 1821 before retiring comfortably. He died in 1825. MORE...

 

Early Years

Davis was born in Yorktown sometime around 1752 or 1753. The names of his parents and much else about his early life and education are not known. He learned the printing trade in the Williamsburg office of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, printers of one of the city's two versions of the Virginia Gazette. Davis probably continued working for Purdie after the partnership dissolved at the end of 1774, when Purdie began publishing his own Virginia Gazette. Following Purdie's death in April 1779, Davis then became a partner with Purdie's nephew, John Clarkson. On February 28, 1778, Davis executed a marriage bond in York County and on that date or soon thereafter married Martha Davenport, who likely was Purdie's niece. All of their four sons, Augustine, Edmund, George, and John Davis, entered the printing business, and one of their three daughters, Maria Davis, married the Richmond printer Samuel Shepherd.

On June 5, 1779, Clarkson and Davis secured most of the lucrative state government printing work that had provided colonial printers with financial security. They were unable, however, to finance the move to Richmond after the capital was relocated there from Williamsburg in 1780 and unsuccessfully petitioned the General Assembly for permission to retain the public printing contract. Without the revenue of the public work and without the advertising that the contract afforded their Virginia Gazette, their business rapidly waned. They ceased publishing the newspaper at the end of 1780 and dissolved the partnership, with Davis maintaining their old office as a small job–printing operation. In 1782 he purchased property in Williamsburg. In part with revenue earned printing for the French army after the British surrender at Yorktown (1781), Davis was able to move his printing office to Richmond by the mid-1780s.

In Richmond

Richmond already had three other printing offices when Davis arrived, and he could not regain the public printing contract. He slowly rebuilt his customer base, however, and in 1786 he established another newspaper, the Virginia Independent Chronicle. He changed the name in May 1789 to the Virginia Independent Chronicle, and General Advertiser and in August 1790 to the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser. During the winter of 1787–1788, and apparently with assistance from George Washington, Davis began publishing essays from The Federalist in his newspaper. When the state convention met in Richmond in June 1788 to consider ratification of the proposed constitution, Davis became the convention's official printer and issued its forty-two-page journal (but not the record of debates) later that year. In 1789 the state government engaged him to publish the laws that the new Congress adopted.

By 1788 Davis had become postmaster of Richmond. On May 14, 1791, the governor appointed him to succeed the recently deceased public printer, and early in October of that year Davis won $10,000 in the New Haven Wharf Lottery. A believer in banks (he had signed a petition earlier that year asking the federal government to establish in Richmond a branch of the Bank of the United States), he invested his winnings in the new Bank of Virginia. Davis acquired property in Richmond and Henrico County between 1792 and 1813 and sold his Williamsburg holdings in 1804. The former journeyman tradesman had become a major figure in both the public and business life of the capital.

Prominence came at a price. As Virginia grew in the 1790s, so too did the volume of work for the public printer and the scale of Davis's compensation, but the situation created a perception that his increasing wealth came at public expense. Even as the state's population increased and the number of counties grew, Davis continued to print the same number of sets of legislative journals and session laws each year. Western members of the General Assembly regularly complained about the scarcity of public documents in their districts. In 1798 the majority in the assembly replaced Davis as the public printer with Meriwether Jones, a supporter of Thomas Jefferson and a member of the Council of State.

Davis supported Federalist candidates in 1800. He regularly reprinted defamatory stories from other Federalist papers and supported the prosecution of Jeffersonian editors under the Alien and Sedition Acts, particularly the prosecution of James Thomson Callendar in Richmond. In February 1802, eleven months after Thomas Jefferson became president, Davis lost his position as Richmond's postmaster. Davis's complaints about Jefferson and his new national party multiplied in the pages of the Gazette after his dismissal but seem to have had little effect. Late in 1802 he engaged John Wood, the former Republican polemicist, to energize his paper as its editor. In 1805 Davis replaced Wood with Charles Prentiss, a fiery Federalist writer from Boston, but after less than a year in Richmond, Prentiss returned north, disappointed by Virginia's response. In December 1809 Davis converted the Gazette into the Virginia Patriot with Samuel Livermore as editor, but Livermore had abandoned the job by April 1810. In May 1816 Prentiss returned for another disappointing year. They began publishing daily and changed the newspaper's name to the Virginia Patriot, and Richmond Daily Mercantile Advertiser. In June 1817 Prentiss departed, leaving Davis with his son George Davis as his business partner and his nephew Thomas Willis White as their principal journeyman. They continued to publish the newspaper, but found that it exerted little political influence.

Later Years

As Davis's public prominence and authority waned, his wealth increased and allowed him to settle into a comfortable retirement. Early in 1821 he sold his printing office and newspaper. Davis by then owned several valuable commercial properties in Richmond and a country home at Westham, in Henrico County. His former apprentices, especially Thomas Willis White, later editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and his son-in-law Samuel Shepherd, who became the state's public printer, carried on the legacy of Davis, who died, probably at Westham, on November 2, 1825. His widow died nine days later, and both were buried in Shockoe Cemetery, in Richmond.

Time Line

  • 1752 or 1753 - Augustine Davis is born in Yorktown.
  • February 28, 1778 - Augustine Davis executes a marriage bond in York County and on this date or soon after marries Martha Davenport. They will have four sons and three daughters.
  • April 1779 - After the death of the printer John Purdie, Augustine Davis partners with Purdie's nephew, John Clarkson, publishing the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg.
  • June 5, 1779 - John Clarkson and Augustine Davis secure most of the government's lucrative printing work.
  • 1780 - When the Virginia capital is moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, the printers John Clarkson and Augustine Davis are not able to finance a move. They lose government contracts and cease publishing the Virginia Gazette.
  • 1782 - Augustine Davis purchases property in Williamsburg.
  • Mid-1780s - Augustine Davis moves his printing office from Williamsburg to Richmond.
  • 1786 - Augustine Davis establishes the Virginia Independent Chronicle newspaper in Richmond.
  • Winter 1787–1788 - Augustine Davis publishes essays from The Federalist in his Richmond newspaper, the Virginia Independent Chronicle.
  • 1788 - By this year Augustine Davis has become postmaster of Richmond.
  • May 1789 - Augustine Davis changes his Richmond newspaper's name to the Virginia Independent Chronicle and General Advertiser.
  • August 1790 - Augustine Davis changes his Richmond newspaper's name to the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser.
  • May 14, 1791 - The governor appoints Augustine Davis to succeed the recently deceased public printer.
  • October 1791 - Augustine Davis wins $10,000 in the New Haven Wharf Lottery. He invests his winnings in the new Bank of Virginia.
  • 1792–1813 - Augustine Davis acquires property in Richmond and Henrico County.
  • 1798 - The General Assembly replaces Augustine Davis with Meriwether Jones as public printer. Davis is a Federalist, Jones a supporter of Thomas Jefferson.
  • February 1802 - Augustine Davis loses his position as Richmond's postmaster.
  • Late 1802 - Augustine Davis engages John Wood as editor of the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser.
  • 1804 - Augustine Davis sells his property in Williamsburg.
  • 1805 - Augustine Davis replaces John Wood with Charles Prentiss as editor of the Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser. Prentiss will leave after less than a year.
  • December 1809 - Augustine Davis renames his newspaper the Virginia Patriot, with Samuel Livermore as editor.
  • April 1810 - By this date Samuel Livermore has left his post as editor of the Virginia Patriot.
  • May 1816 - For a second time, Charles Prentiss becomes editor of the Augustine Davis–owned Richmond newspaper, this time called the Virginia Patriot, and Richmond Daily Mercantile Advertiser.
  • June 1817 - Charles Prentiss leaves his position as editor of the Virginia Patriot, and Richmond Daily Mercantile Advertiser.
  • Early 1821 - Augustine Davis sells his Richmond printing office and newspaper.
  • November 2, 1825 - Augustine Davis dies, probably at Westham, his home in Henrico County. He is buried in Shockoe Cemetery, in Richmond.
  • November 11, 1825 - Martha Davenport Davis, widow of Augustine Davis, dies. She is buried with her husband in Shockoe Cemetery, in Richmond.

References

Further Reading
Beeman, Richard R. The Old Dominion and the New Nation, 1788–1801. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972.
Risjord, Norman K. Chesapeake Politics, 1781–1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
Tyler-McGraw, Marie. At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Rawson, D., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Augustine Davis (c. 1752 or 1753–1825). (2014, August 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_Augustine_c_1752_or_1753-1825.

  • MLA Citation:

    Rawson, David and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Augustine Davis (c. 1752 or 1753–1825)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 29, 2014 | Last modified: August 21, 2014


Contributed by David Rawson and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. David Rawson is an adjunct professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.