John W. Davis

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The Honorable
John Davis
File:John William Davis.jpg
United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom
In office
December 18, 1918 – March 9, 1921
President Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by Walter Page
Succeeded by George Harvey
14th United States Solicitor General
In office
August 29, 1913 – November 21, 1918
President Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by William Bullitt
Succeeded by Alexander King
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from West Virginia's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1911 – August 29, 1913
Preceded by William Hubbard
Succeeded by Matthew Neely
Personal details
Born John William Davis
(1873-04-13)April 13, 1873
Clarksburg, West Virginia, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Julia McDonald (1899–1900)
Ellen Bassel (1912–1943)
Children Julia (with McDonald)
Alma mater Washington and Lee University

John William Davis (April 13, 1873 – March 24, 1955) was an American politician, diplomat and lawyer. He served as a United States Representative from West Virginia from 1911 to 1913, then as Solicitor General of the United States and US Ambassador to the UK under President Woodrow Wilson. The culmination of his political career came when he ran for President in 1924 under the Democratic Party ticket, losing to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.

Over a 60-year legal career, Davis argued 140 cases before the US Supreme Court. He famously argued the winning side in Youngstown Steel. He also represented the losing side in Briggs v. Elliott, one of the companion cases to Brown v. Board of Education.

Family and early life

Family background

Davis's great-grandfather, Caleb Davis, was a clockmaker in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1816, his grandfather, John Davis, moved to Clarksburg in what would later become West Virginia, which had a population of 600–700 at the time, and ran a saddle and harness business. His father, John James Davis, attended Lexington Law School, which later became the Washington and Lee University School of Law, and by the age of twenty, had established a law practice in Clarksburg. 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 the new state's House of Delegates and later to the United States House of Representatives.[1]

John W. Davis's 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.[2]

Early years

Davis's Sunday School Teacher recalled "John W. Davis had a noble face even when small." His biographer went on to say that "[h]e used better English, kept himself cleaner, and was more dignified than most youngsters. He was also extraordinarily well-mannered."[3]


John W. Davis

Davis' education began at home, as his mother taught him to read before he had even memorized the alphabet. She then had him read poetry and other literature throughout the home library. 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. There he received nothing less than a 94 for grades.[4]

Davis entered Washington and Lee University at the age of sixteen. He graduated in 1892 with a major in Latin. He joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, participated in intramural sports, and attended mixed parties.[5]

He would have started law school directly after graduation, but he lacked funds. Instead, he became a school teacher for Major Edward H. McDonald of Charles Town, West Virginia. 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. 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.[6]

He graduated with a law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law in 1895 and was elected Law Class Orator.[7] His speech gave a glimpse of his advocacy skills:

[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?[3]

Washington & Lee legacy

Washington and Lee University School of Law has shown great pride in Davis. In 1947, W&L began awarding the John W. Davis Prize to the graduating law student with the highest GPA.[8] The law school has also named its intramural Moot Court Competition after Davis.[9]

Early legal career

After graduating from law school, Davis obtained the three signatures necessary to receive his law license (one from a local judge, and two from local attorneys, attesting to his proficiency in the law and upstanding moral character) and joined his father in practice in Clarksburg, in what was called Davis and Davis, Attorneys at Law. Davis lost his first three cases before his fortunes began to turn. 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. 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.[10]

Family connections

Ellen G. Bassel (Philip Alexius de Laszlo, 1920)

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 cousin[11] and adoptive father of Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. Davis' 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 were divorced, both remarried, she twice, and then they remarried in their old age. William had two sons, John Perry and Arthur Henry II. Julia died in 1993 with no natural children but claimed six "by theft and circumstance."

Political and diplomatic career

Davis (right) and Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1917

His father had been a delegate to the Wheeling Convention, which had created the state of West Virginia, but he had also opposed the abolitionists, Radical Republicans, and opposed ratification of the 15th Amendment. Davis acquired much of his father's conservative politics, opposing women's suffrage, Federal child-labor laws and anti-lynching legislation, Harry S. Truman's civil rights program, and defended the State's rights to establish the poll tax by questioning whether uneducated non-taxpayers should be allowed to vote. Additionally, as much as he was opposed to centralism in politics he was opposed to concentration of capitalism by supporting a number of early progressive laws regulating Interstate commerce and limiting the power and concentration of corporations. Consequently, he felt distinctly out of place in the big business controlled Republican Party and 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 US 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 US Solicitor General from 1913 to 1918 and as ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1918 to 1921. As Solicitor General, he successfully argued in Guinn v. United States for the illegality of Oklahoma's "grandfather law". That law exempted residents descended from a voter registered in 1866 (i.e. whites) from a literacy test which effectively disenfranchised blacks. 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 his campaign at the 1924 Democratic National Convention.

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' 28.8% was the smallest percentage ever won by the Democratic presidential nominee.

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, Chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1922 to 1939. Davis also served as a delegate from New York to the 1928 and 1932 Democratic National Conventions.

The Business Plot

Davis was implicated by retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler in the Business Plot, an alleged political conspiracy in 1933 to overthrow United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in testimony before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, whose deliberations began on November 20, 1934 and culminated in the Committee's report to the United States House of Representatives on February 15, 1935. Davis was not called before the committee because "The committee will not take cognizance of names brought into the testimony which constitute mere hearsay."

Legal career

John W. Davis

Davis was one of the most prominent and successful lawyers of the first half of the 20th century, arguing 140 cases before the US Supreme Court.[12] 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. From 1931 to 1933, Davis also served as president of the New York City Bar Association.

In 1933, Davis served as legal counsel for the financier J.P. Morgan, Jr. and his companies during the Senate investigation into private banking and the causes of the recent Great Depression.[13][14][15]

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 US Supreme Court

Davis argued 140 cases before the US Supreme Court during his career.[12] 73 were as Solicitor General, and 67 as a private lawyer. Lawrence Wallace, who retired from the Office of the Solicitor General in 2003, argued 157 cases during his career but many believe that few attorneys have argued more cases than Davis.[16] Daniel Webster and Walter Jones are believed to have argued more cases than Davis, but they were lawyers of a much earlier era.[12]

Youngstown Steel case

One of Davis' most influential arguments before the Supreme Court was in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer in May 1952, when the Court ruled on Truman's seizure of the nation's steel plants.

While Davis wasn't brought into the case until March 1952, he was already familiar with the concept of a presidential seizure of a steel mill. In 1949, the Republic Steel Company, fearful of advice given to President Truman by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, asked Davis for an opinion letter on whether the President could seize private industry in a "National Emergency." Davis wrote that the President could not do so, unless such power already was vested in the President by law. 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.

Arguing for the steel industry, Davis orated for eighty-seven minutes before the Court. He described Truman's acts as an "'usurpation' of power, that were 'without parallel in American history.'"[17] The Justices allowed him to proceed uninterrupted, with only one question from Justice Frankfurter, who may have had a personal feeling against Davis relating to his 1924 presidential campaign.[18] It had been predicted that the President's actions would be upheld, and the injunction would be lifted, but the Court decided 6–3, to uphold the injunction stopping the seizure of the steel mills.

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. 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.[19]

Of particular note in the case is that one of the Justices was Tom Clark, who as Attorney General in 1949 had advised Truman to proceed with the seizure of Republic Steel. Yet in 1952, Justice Clark voted with the majority, even though he did not concur in the opinion; in direct opposition to his previous advice.[20]

Brown v. 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 a defender of racial segregation and state control of education, 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 re-argued after the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. After the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against his client's position, he returned the $25,000 ($Error when using {{Inflation}}: |end_year=2,023 (parameter 4) is greater than the latest available year (2,019) in index "US". as of 2023),[21] that he had received from South Carolina, although he was not required to do so, but kept a silver tea service that had been presented to him.[22] It has also been reported that he never charged South Carolina in the first place.[23] He declined to participate further in the case, as he did not wish to be involved in the drafting of decrees to implement the Court's decision.[22]

Death and legacy

Davis had been a member of the American Bar Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, Freemasons, Phi Beta Kappa, and Phi Kappa Psi. He was a resident of Nassau County, New York and practiced law in New York City until his death in Charleston, South Carolina at the age of 81. He is interred at Locust Valley Cemetery in Locust Valley, New York.

The John W. Davis Federal building on West Pike street in Clarksburg, West Virginia is named after Davis.

The John W. Davis dormitory at Washington and Lee University is named for him, as is the Law School's appellate advocacy program, and award for the graduating student with the highest grade point average.

In the 1991 television film Separate but Equal, a dramatization of the Brown case, Davis was portrayed by the famed actor Burt Lancaster in his final film role.

Electoral history

West Virginia's 1st congressional district, 1910:[24]

  • 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:[25]

  • 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

United States presidential election, 1924

See also


  1. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 2–9. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Theodore A. Huntley, "The life of John W. Davis"
  3. 3.0 3.1 Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 17–19. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. W&L Valedictorians
  9. 2007–2008 W&L Moot Court Executive Board :: Moot Court :: W&L Law School
  10. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 25–30. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 389–390. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 531. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Stock Exchange Practices. Report of the Committee on Banking and Finances. 1934.
  14. Paul Mallon, 'National Whirligig: The news behind the news', The Palm Beach Post, April 4, 1933, page 1
  15. Associated Press, 'Morgan Shows Assets of $424,708,095.56; Witness At Hearing', The Evening Independent, St. Petersburg FL, May 23, 1933, page 1
  16. Deputy Solicitor General, Lawrence Wallace, to Retire from the Justice Department after 35 Years of Service
  17. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 462. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 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.'"
  19. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 464–465, 476, 482. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 479. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Kluger, Richard (1976). Simple Justice: the History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle For Equality. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-47289-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's Lawyer: the Life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. p. 507. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Our Campaigns – WV District 1 Race – Nov 8, 1910
  25. Our Campaigns – WV District 1 Race – Nov 5, 1912

Further reading

  • Harbaugh, William Henry (1973). Lawyer's lawyer: the life of John W. Davis. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501699-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William Hubbard
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from West Virginia's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Matthew Neely
Legal offices
Preceded by
William Bullitt
United States Solicitor General
Succeeded by
Alexander King
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Walter Page
United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
George Harvey
Party political offices
Preceded by
James Cox
Democratic presidential nominee
Succeeded by
Al Smith