John W. Davis

Infobox Officeholder
honorific-prefix =
name = John W. Davis
honorific-suffix =

imagesize = 200 px

caption =
order = 14th United States Solicitor General
term_start = August 1913
term_end = November 1918
president = Woodrow Wilson
predecessor = William Marshall Bullit
successor = Alexander C. King
order2 = 6th
ambassador_from2 = United States
country2 = the United Kingdom
term_start2 = 1918
term_end2 = 1921
predecessor2 = Walter Hines Page
successor2 = George Brinton McClellan Harvey
president2 = Woodrow Wilson
state3 = West Virginia
district3 = 1st
term_start3 = March 4 1911
term_end3 = August 29 1913
preceded3 = William P. Hubbard
succeeded3 = Matthew M. Neely
birth_date = birth date|1873|04|13
birth_place = Clarksburg, West Virginia
death_date = death date and age|1955|03|24|1873|04|13
death_place = Charleston, South Carolina
restingplace =
restingplacecoordinates =
birthname = John William Davis
nationality = American
party = Democratic
otherparty =
spouse = Julia T. McDonald (1899-1900), Ellen G. Bassel (1912-1943)
partner =
relations = John James Davis (father), Anna Kennedy Davis (mother), Cyrus Vance (nephew)
children = Julia McDonald Davis
residence =
alma_mater = Washington and Lee University
occupation =
profession = Lawyer
net worth =
cabinet =
committees =
portfolio =
religion =

website =
footnotes =

John William Davis (April 13 1873–March 24 1955) was an American politician, diplomat and lawyer. He served as an United States Representative from West Virginia (1911-1913), then as Solicitor General of the United States and U.S. Ambassador to the UK under President Woodrow Wilson. Over a 60-year legal career, he argued 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Davis is best known as the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States during the 1924 presidential election, losing to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.

Family and early life

Family background

His great-grandfather, Caleb Davis, was a clockmaker in the Shenandoah Valley. ["Lawyer's Lawyer: The Life of John W. Davis", William H. Harbaugh, Oxford University Press, New York 1973, p 3.] In 1816, his grandfather, John Davis, moved to Clarksburg in what would later become West Virginia, which had a population of six or seven hundred at the time, and ran a saddle and harness business. [Id.] His father, John James Davis attended Lexington Law School, which later became the Washington and Lee School of Law, and by the age of twenty, had established a law practice in Clarksburg. [Id. at 5-6.] John J. Davis was a delegate in the Virginia General Assembly, and after the northwestern portion of Virginia broke away from the rest of Virginia in 1863 and formed West Virginia, he was elected to their House of Delegates and later as their representative to the United States House of Representatives. [Id. at 7-9.]

His mother Anna Kennedy (1841-1917) was from Baltimore, Maryland. His maternal grandparents were "William" Wilson Kennedy and his wife Catherine Esdale Martin. Kennedy was a lumber merchant. Catherine was the daughter of Tobias Martin, dairy farmer and amateur poet, and his wife, a member of the Esdale family. The Esdales were members of the Religious Society of Friends, settled near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They had reportedly helped provide for the Continental Army under George Washington which had camped there in the winter of 1777-1778. [ [ Theodore A. Huntley, "The life of John W. Davis] ]

Early years

Davis' Sunday School Teacher recalled "John W. Davis had a noble face even when small." [Lawyer's Lawyer at 13.] His biographer went on to say that cquote| [h] e used better English, kept himself cleaner, and was more dignified than most youngsters. He was also extraordinarily well-mannered." [Id.]


Davis' education began at home, as his mother taught him to read before he had even memorized the alphabet. [Id. at 14.] She then had him reading poetry and other literature throughout the home library. [Id.] After he turned ten, he was put in a class with older students to prepare him for the state teachers examination. A few years later he was enrolled in a previously all-female seminary that doubled as a private boarding and day school. [Id. at 15.] There he received nothing less than a 94 for grades. [Id.]

Davis started college at the age of sixteen, and graduated from Washington & Lee's Literary Department in 1892 with a major in Latin. [Id. at 16] He joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, participated in intramural sports, and "took calico" by attending mixed parties. [Id. at 17]

He would have started law school directly after graduation, but he lacked funds. [Id.] Instead, he became a school teacher for Major Edward H McDonald of Charles Town, West Virginia. [Id. at 18] Davis taught McDonald's nine children and his six nieces and nephews, one of whom, Julia, nineteen at the time, would become Davis's wife. [Id.] Davis fulfilled a nine-month contract with McDonald, but then returned home to Clarksburg and apprenticed at his father's law practice, where for fourteen months he copied documents by hand, read cases, and did much of what other aspiring lawyers did at the time. [Id. at 19]

He graduated with a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1895, and was elected Law Class Orator. [Id. at 24] His speech gave a glimpse of his advocacy skills:

cquote| [The] lawyer has been always the sentinel of the watchtower of liberty. In all times and all countries has he stood forth in defense of his nation, her laws and liberties, not, it may be, under a shower of leaden death, but often with the frown of a revengeful and angry tyrant bent upon him.Fellow classmates of 1895, shall we... prove unworthy? [Id. at 13]

Washington & Lee Legacy

Washington & Lee Law School has shown great pride in Davis. In 1947 W&L University began awarding the John W. Davis Prize to the graduating law student with the highest GPA. [ [ W&L Valedictorians ] ] The law school has also named their intramural Moot Court Competition after Davis. [ [ 2007-2008 W&L Moot Court Executive Board :: Moot Court :: W&L Law School ] ]

Early legal career

After graduating law school, Davis obtained the three signatures necessary to receive a law license, and joined his father in practice in Clarksburg, in what was called Davis and Davis, Attorneys at Law. [Lawyer's Lawyer, p 25] Davis lost his first three cases before his fortunes began to turn. [Id. at 25-27] Before Davis had completed his first year of private practice, he was asked to come back to Washington & Lee Law School as an assistant professor, starting in the fall of 1896. [Id. at 29-30] At the time, the law school had a faculty of two, and Davis became the third. At the end of the year, Davis was asked to return but demurred. He decided that he needed the "rough & tumble" of private practice. [Id. at 30]

Family connections

He married Julia T. McDonald June 20, 1899, but she died on August 17, 1900. They had a daughter, Julia McDonald Davis, who married Charles P. Healy and then William M. Adams. On January 2, 1912, Davis married Ellen G. Bassel, who died in 1943.

Davis was the uncle and adoptive father of Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. His daughter Julia was one of the first two female journalists hired by the Associated Press in 1926. Julia married William McMillan Adams, president of Sprague International. He was the son of Arthur Henry Adams, president of the United States Rubber Company. Both father and son were aboard the luxury liner "RMS Lusitania" when it was sunk by a German submarine in 1915. Arthur died, his son survived. Julia and William had two sons, John Perry and Arthur Henry II. She died in 1993.

Political and diplomatic career

His father had been a delegate to the Wheeling Convention, which had created the state of West Virginia, but he had also supported slavery and opposed ratification of the 15th Amendment. Davis acquired much of his father's conservative politics, opposing women's suffrage, federal child-labor laws, anti-lynching legislation and Harry S Truman's civil rights program while privately defending the poll tax by questioning whether African-Americans should be allowed to vote. He also maintained his father's staunch allegiance to the Democratic Party, even as he later represented the interests of conservative business interests opposed to the New Deal. Davis ranked as one of the last Jeffersonians, as he supported states' rights and opposed a strong executive (he would be the lead attorney against Truman's nationalization of the steel industry).

He represented West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1911 to 1913, where he was one of the authors of the Clayton Act. Davis also served as one of the managers in the successful impeachment trial of Judge Robert W. Archbald. He served as U.S. Solicitor General from 1913 to 1918 and as ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1918 to 1921. As Solicitor General he successfully argued for the illegality of Oklahoma's "grandfather law", which effectively disenfranchised most black citizens of Oklahoma by exempting white residents descended from a voter who had been registered in 1866 from the literacy requirements of its electoral law, in Guinn v. United States. Davis's personal posture differed from his position as an advocate. Throughout his career, he could separate his personal views and professional advocacy.

Davis was a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in both 1920 and 1924. His friend and partner Frank Polk managed the 1924 Democratic presidential convention campaign.

He won the nomination in 1924 as a compromise candidate on the one hundred and third ballot. His denunciation of the Ku Klux Klan and his prior defense of black voting rights as Solicitor General under Wilson cost him votes in the South and among conservative Democrats elsewhere. He lost in a landslide to Calvin Coolidge, who did not leave the White House to campaign.

Davis was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Crusaders, an influential organization that promoted the repeal of prohibition. He was the founding President of the Council on Foreign Relations, formed in 1921, and a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1922 to 1939.

Legal career

Davis was one of the most prominent and successful lawyers of the first half of the twentieth century, arguing 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. His firm, variously titled Stetson Jennings Russell & Davis, then Davis Polk Wardwell Gardiner & Reed then Davis Polk Wardwell Sunderland & Kiendl (now Davis Polk & Wardwell), represented many of the largest companies in the United States in the 1920s and following decades.

The last twenty years of Davis's practice included representing large corporations before the United States Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality and application of New Deal legislation. Davis lost many of these battles.

Appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court

Davis argued 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court during his career. [Lawyer's Lawyer, p 531.] Some of these were as Solicitor General, but more were as a private lawyer. It is believed that he has argued more Supreme Court cases than any other 20th century lawyer. [Id. ] Daniel Webster and Walter Jones are believed to have argued more cases than Davis, [Lawyer's Lawyer, p 531] but they were lawyers of a much earlier era.

Youngstown Steel Case

One of Davis' most influential arguments before the Supreme Court was in the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer case in May of 1952. Arguing for the Steel industry, in protest of Truman's seizure of the nation's steel plants, Davis orated for eighty-seven minutes before the Court. He stated that Truman's acts were an "'usurpation' of power, that were "without parallel in American history." [Lawyer's Lawyer, p 462] The justices of the court allowed him to proceed uninterrupted for nearly an hour and a half, with only one question arising from Justice Frankfurter, who may have had a personal feeling against Davis relating to his 1924 presidential campaign. [Sydnor Thompson, John W. Davis And His Role In The Public School Segregation Cases -- A Personal Memoir, 52 WLLR 1679, at FN 19 (1995), which states 'Frankfurter faulted Davis and Wall Street lawyers in general for their "crass materialism": "Davis's career is... subtly mischievous in its influence on the standards of the next generation."'] It had been predicted that the President's actions would be upheld, and the injunction would be lifted, but the court decided the case 6-3, upholding the injunction stopping the seizure of the steel mills.

While Davis wasn't brought into the Youngstown case until March of 1952, he was already familiar with the concept of a presidential seizure of a steel mill. [Id. at 464] In 1949, the Republic Steel Company, fearful of advice given to President Truman by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, retained Davis' service for an opinion letter on whether the president could seize private industry amidst a "National Emergency." [Id.] Davis' opinion was that the president could not do so, unless such power already were vested in the president. [Id. at 464-5] He further went on to opine on the Selective Service Act of 1948's intent, and that seizures were only authorized if a company did not sufficiently prioritize government production in a time of crisis. [Id.] Washington Post writer Chalmers Roberts subsequently wrote that rarely "has a courtroom sat in such silent admiration for a lawyer at the bar" in reference to Davis' oral argument. [Id. at 476] Unfortunately, Davis did not allow the oral argument to be printed because the stenographic transcript was so garbled he feared it would not be close to what was said at the Court. [Id. at 482]

Of particular note in the case is that Tom Clark, former attorney general who had advised Truman about the seizure of Republic Steel in 1949, had been nominated and confirmed to the US Supreme Court shortly after giving such advice. Yet in 1952, Justice Clark cast his vote with the majority, even though he did not concur in the opinion. [Id. at 479] In this, he voted against the President's power to seize steel factories, seemingly in direct opposition to his previously given advice.

Brown vs. Board of Education

Davis' legal career is most remembered for his final appearance before the Supreme Court, in which he unsuccessfully defended the "separate but equal" doctrine in "Briggs v. Elliott", a companion case to "Brown v. Board of Education". Davis, as an advocate to the defense of racial segregation, uncharacteristically displayed his emotions in arguing that South Carolina had shown good faith in attempting to eliminate any inequality between black and white schools and should be allowed to continue to do so without judicial intervention. He expected to win, most likely through a divided Supreme Court, even after the matter was reargued after the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. He declined the fee that South Carolina offered him after the Court ruled against it unanimously. fact|date=November 2007

Electoral history

West Virginia's 1st congressional district, 1910 [ [ Our Campaigns - WV District 1 Race - Nov 08, 1910 ] ] :
* John W. Davis (D) - 20,370 (48.88%)
* Charles E. Carrigan (R) - 16,962 (40.71%)
* A. L. Bauer (Socialist) - 3,239 (7.77%)
* Ulysses A. Clayton (Prohibition) - 1,099 (2.64%)

West Virginia's 1st congressional district, 1912 [ [ Our Campaigns - WV District 1 Race - Nov 05, 1912 ] ] :
* John W. Davis (D) (inc.) - 24,777 (44.97%)
* George A. Laughlin (R) - 24,613 (44.67%)
* D. M. S. Scott (Socialist) - 4,230 (7.68%)
* L. E. Peters (Prohibition) - 1,482 (2.69%)

1924 Democratic presidential primaries
* William McAdoo - 562,601 (56.05%)
* Oscar W. Underwood - 77,583 (7.73%)
* James M. Cox - 74,183 (7.39%)
* Unpledged - 59,217 (5.90%)
* Henry Ford - 49,737 (4.96%)
* Thomas J. Walsch - 43,108 (4.30%)
* Woodbridge Nathan Ferris - 42,028 (4.19%)
* George Silzer - 35,601 (3.55%)
* Al Smith - 16,459 (1.64%)
* L. B. Musgrove - 12,110 (1.21%)
* William Dever - 1,574 (0.16%)
* James A. Reed - 84 (0.01%)
* John W. Davis - 21 (0.00%)

United States presidential election, 1924
* Calvin Coolidge/Charles G. Dawes (R) - 15,723,789 (54.0%) and 382 electoral votes (35 states carried)
* John W. Davis/Charles W. Bryan (D) - 8,386,242 (28.8%) and 136 electoral votes (12 states carried)
* Robert M. La Follette, Sr./Burton K. Wheeler (Progressive) - 4,831,706 (16.6%) and 13 electoral votes (1 state carried)

ee also

*Brown v. Board of Education
*Guinn v. United States
*Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer


External links

* [ International Home of the English-Speaking Union]
* [ CFR Website - Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996] The history of the Council by Peter Grose, a Council member.
* [ Website of Davis Polk & Wardwell, law firm of which Davis was a member and which bears his name today]

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