Born on January 12, 1814, in Fayetteville, James C. Dobbin entered the University of North Carolina at the early age of fourteen and graduated with honors in 1832. He returned to Fayetteville where he “read law” (how a lawyer was trained before there were law schools) with Judge Robert Strange. Dobbin was admitted to the bar in 1835 and launched his law practice.
Soon he began to participate in local politics and after declined to be a candidate himself, Dobbin unwittingly was nominated for Congress by the Democrats. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1845 and served the term but refused to run for reelection. Instead he turned his attention to the North Carolina House of Commons, to which he was immediately elected.
In 1948 he made a passionate speech in favor of establishing a hospital for the insane that resulted in a favorable action being taken by the General Assembly. Using money donated by Dorthea Dix a hospital for the mentally ill was established in Raleigh and named for its benefactor.
Dobbin was reelected and appointed Speaker of the House for 1850-1852. At the 1852 Democratic National Convention, Dobbin nominated relatively unknown Franklin Pierce for president.
Dobbin’s speech at the convention and his later support for Pierce during the campaign earned him the appointment as Secretary of the Navy. He worked to reform and expand the Navy, making it a more efficient and effective military branch.
Dobbin was a firm believer in a strong Navy as insurance for peace (like Reagan’s “peace through strength”, and during his brief tenure as Secretary of the Navy put eighteen ships, including six steam-powered frigates, into service. He also maintained support for exploratory voyages, such as Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan which resulted in a treaty with that country, signed in 1854.
The four years that Dobbin spent as Secretary of the Navy took a heavy toll on his fragile health and just five months after leaving office, August 4, 1857, James Dobbin died in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He is buried at Cross Creek Cemetery.