WILLIAM FRANCIS DANCY
William Francis Dancy, the oldest son of Francis Little Dancy (q.v.) and Charlotte (Sessums), his wife, was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, October 11, 1818. His father gave him the best educational advantages obtainable in the State in his day. He was prepared for the University of North Carolina at the classical school, in Louisburg, of Mr. John B. Bobbitt, a graduate of the same institution. He was matriculated in 1837 and obtained his degree in 1841. He shared the first honor with Robert R. Bridgers, afterward member of the Confederate Congress and an eminent president of the Atlantic Coast Line; Charles Phillips, D.D., LL.D., a very able preacher and Professor of Mathematics; Samuel F. Phillips, LL.D., solicitor-general of the United States, and James H. Viser, of Alabama. The honorary orations were awarded by lot, and to him was assigned the Latin Salutatory – that is, an address of welcome to the audience couched in the Latin language. It was announced by President Swain that, in addition to his first distinction in scholarship, he was one of eight who, during their University course had been perfectly punctual, involving attendance on prayers, church services and recitations, in the aggregate about five thousand exercises. This punctuality was all the more creditable because the daily morning prayers were held before sunrise in the Winter, and the Sunday services were in an unheated chapel. He was also one of six who were totally free from censure during their residence at the University, the term “censure,” including such peccadilloes as laughing, talking and lounging in recitation, being out of one’s room during study hours, and the like. He received the honor of being selected by the faculty as one of the best speakers in the lower classes, and was given the post of Declaimer at Commencement.
Dancy won his first honor over strong men. Besides those mentioned as sharing it with him, there were Robert Strange, unexcelled as a lawyer, whose talents have descended to his son, the bishop of the same name; Governor and Judge John W. Ellis; Montford McGehee, the scholarly Commissioner of Agriculture; the devoted clergyman Samuel B. McPheeters; the gallant colonel Thomas Ruffin, who, after serving in the United States Congress, fell at the head of his regiment of cavalry; the upright Judge Jesse G. Shepherd; the wise State senators Archibald H. Caldwell and Samuel H. Walkup, and other strong men of his class. With him at the University, although not graduating, were John H. Dillard, of the Supreme Court of North Carolina; Samuel Hall, of the Supreme Court of Georgia; Isham W. Garrott, a sound lawyer and brigadier-general of the Confederate States; David A. Barnes, an excellent judge, and others like them. These names show the character of Dancy’s competitors.
After leaving the University, young Dancy devoted himself to his father’s profession, the law. He settled in Tarboro (originally spelled Tawboro’) and for two years was in attendance on the courts. Being well versed in legal principles, by temperament imperatively inclined to hard study and faithful devotion of all his energies to whatever business he undertook, having a pointed mind and forcible delivery, he undoubtedly, if he had continued in practice, would have climbed to the high table-land where toiled the great lawyers of our State.
It was at this period of his life that Dancy was elected to represent his county in the popular branch of the General Assembly, then called the House of Commons, now House of Representatives. His political principles accorded perfectly with those of the large majority of his constituents. He was a Democrat after the school of Jefferson and Macon, believing that the government should enforce law and order, prevent or punish crime, and exercise rigid economy in levying taxes and in the expenditure of money, but should leave it to the citizens to build railroads, dig canals, and make other improvements with their own capital. The socialistic tendencies of government had no charm for him.
Moved by these principles, we find him voting against the loan of the State credit to the extent of two million dollars, in order to construct the North Carolina railroad. He was, however, in favor of the State taking care of the indigent insane, and co-operated with James C. Dobbin in providing for the Insane Asylum at Raleigh, the first erected within our limits. He resisted, however, all efforts to have the public funds used for public schools, as he considered it true democratic doctrine that parents should provide education for their children, believing that to allow them to depend on the State would lead to the impairment of individual independence. In his opinion, however, it was the duty of the State to provide for the afflicted, and hence, in addition to his action in behalf of the insane, he voted to make provision for the blind and for the deaf mutes.
In common with other Democrats, he was placed in a dilemma by the action of the Whig majority in 1846. A resolution was offered to appropriate $10,000 for the benefit of the North Carolina volunteers in the Mexican War, with the very objectionable preamble that the war was brought on by the action of President Polk. After vainly endeavoring to have the preamble stricken out or altered, he felt bound to aid the volunteers, although he was forced to affirm what he believed to be false. He then endeavored to have spread on the minutes a protest defining his position, but the majority ruled that a protest against a measure could not be made by a member who voted for its passage. Some of the members voted against the whole, and then made their protest against the preamble.
Mr. Dancy was so strongly of opinion that the State should have no business relations with corporations that he did not favor granting extension of time to the Raleigh and Gaston and Wilmington and Raleigh (afterward Wilmington and Weldon) railroads when their obligations to the State matured, and he voted to sell the former road outright under the mortgage.
He adhered to the principles of the Democratic Party as they were held in his day, on the subject of a sound currency equal to coin. Hence his vote was recorded against granting charters to banks authorized to issue bills to pass as money. That his position was wise is proved by the fact that the currency was soon enormously inflated. Some of these institutions issued notes fifteen or twenty times greater than the specie held for their redemption.
On the resolution relating to the right of the slave-holding States to carry their slaves and hold them to servitude in the Territories, especially those acquired from Mexico, he was firm and consistent in upholding the doctrine that Congress had no power, under the Constitution, to exclude from the common territory and property recognized by the laws of any of the States. He was a strict constructionist of the old school, and strongly opposed to latitudinarian assumption of power by Congress, especially when directed against the institutions of the South.
Mr. Dancy now found that his private affairs suffered by attendance on the courts and on the General Assembly. Moreover, public life was not congenial to his tastes. He, therefore, after the expiration of his service as a commoner, devoted himself to his planting and other interests in this State and in Tennessee.
He married, in 1850, Caroline Moye, daughter of a prominent citizen of Pitt County, Mr. Wyatt Moye. She died after giving birth to two children, a son, William Wyatt, now deceased, and a daughter, Caroline Moye, wife of Honorable William T. P. Turpin, of Centreville, Maryland. On January 14, 1858, he married Mary Eliza, daughter of one of the foremost citizens and planters of Edgecombe County, James S. Battle, Esq. Of this marriage were born two sons, Francis Little, who lived only about a year, and Frank Battle, now one of the leading citizens of Atlanta, in Georgia.
In the latter part of 1859 Mr. Dancy’s health began to fail and later became seriously impaired. By advice of his local physician he went to Philadelphia and placed himself under the charge of a practitioner of national reputation. Notwithstanding that all the curative agencies of medical science were employed, he passed away May 9, 1860, at the early age of forty-one and a half years. His body was interred in the beautiful churchyard of Calvary Church, in Tarboro. His surviving wife has recently followed him and lies by his side.
William Francis Dancy was a man of uncommon gifts. He had a commanding person, intellect of a high order, quick perception, a retentive memory, unblemished integrity, manners attractive to those with whom he cared to associate. If his tastes had inclined him to mingle with the people generally, and to court their favor with a view to advancement in political or forensic distinctions, he would have been among our great men, known of all. An unambitious life, occupied in promoting large agricultural and other interests, and caring for the happiness of one’s family, has elements of usefulness not excelled by one spent in rivalries for public honors.
Kemp P. Battle.
Transcription from the book, Biographical History of North Carolina, volume VI, edited by Samuel A. Ashe, Stephen B. Weeks, and Charles L. Van Noppen, published in 1907, pages 171-175, found on the website, Hathitrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org), accessed 9 February 2021.