On December 11, 1789, state legislators in North Carolina passed an act establishing the University of North Carolina. The bill was introduced by William Richardson Davie, a former military officer in the American Revolution, who hoped to fulfill the promise of a state-sponsored university outlined in Article Forty-one of the state's 1776 constitution. Davie, with the support of others, shepherded the bill through the meeting and is commonly referred to as the father of the university. The resulting act reflected the contemporary belief that the survival of democracies depended upon the education of future leaders. [I]n all well-regulated governments, the act read, it is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education. Legislators also agreed that permanent and sustainable funding for the university would ensure that it best meet its goals.
University trustees moved forward with plans to develop the university and in 1792 selected Chapel Hill as the site of the new campus. Chapel Hill was particularly appealing to the trustees because the location was near the capital city, Raleigh, and far removed from the powerful political circles of eastern North Carolina. Writing of the site in 1793, Davie remarked: This town being the only seat of learning immediately under the patronage of the public, possessing the advantages of a central situation, on some of the most public roads in the state, in a plentiful country and excelled by few places in the world either for beauty of situation or salubrity of air, promises with all moral certainty to be a place of growing and permanent importance. Davie officiated at the cornerstone ceremony of the campus's first building, now known as Old East, on October 12, 1793. Eight buildings, constructed between 1793 and 1860, still stand on the university's campus and are listed as national historic landmarks.
The university steadily grew and by 1858 boasted a student body of 456. However, enrollment plummeted to ninety-one students by September 1861 and the university was forced to close in February 1871. Kemp P. Battle, a lawyer and future president of UNC, played an integral role in securing funds to reopen the university. Classes resumed in September 1875 and by 1887 the university had developed a teacher training program and law school. Sallie Walker Stockard became the first female graduate of the university in 1890, earning a master's degree in history. The liberal arts defined the university curricula by the early twentieth century and the university achieved unprecedented growth. Today UNC-Chapel Hill is widely known as one of the nation's leading public research institutions.