Lawyer, diplomat, and presidential candidate John William Davis (April 13, 1873-March 24, 1955) was born in Clarksburg. He was educated at Washington and Lee, graduating from the university in 1892 and from the law school in 1895. He taught law at W & L from 1896 to 1897. Davis practiced law in Clarksburg, 1897–1913, and was president of the West Virginia Bar Association in 1906.
Davis began his political career in the state House of Delegates in 1899 and was elected to Congress in 1911. As a congressman, Davis concentrated on drafting legislation, most notably the provisions in the 1914 Clayton Anti-Trust Act that banned the use of injunctions against labor unions. In that, he noted that ‘‘the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.’’ He resigned during his second term to become solicitor general of the United States, a position he held from 1913 to 1918. Davis was ambassador to England, from 1918 to 1921, and a member of the American delegation to the 1918 Geneva conference on the treatment and exchange of prisoners of war. He began practice in New York (1921) and was president of the American Bar Association (1922). Most widely known as the 1924 Democratic candidate for president, Davis lost overwhelmingly to Republican Calvin Coolidge and failed to carry either West Virginia or his native Clarksburg.
After the election, Davis returned to New York to his law firm, Davis Polk Wardwell Gardiner & Reed, where he practiced until his death. A staunch supporter of economic, property, and states’ rights, Davis was fiercely anti-New Deal. In spite of his differences with President Roosevelt and many party leaders, he continued to support the Democratic Party. His first marriage to Julia McDonald produced a daughter, Julia Davis, author of The Shenandoah and other books. Widowed, he later married Ellen G. ‘‘Nell’’ Bassell.
One of the most accomplished lawyers of his time, Davis argued 141 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. His last case was one of the most controversial, when he argued in 1952 for the continuation of racial segregation in South Carolina. The case Briggs v. Elliot was one of four cases comprising the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. Davis’s name was often mentioned as a potential U.S. Supreme Court justice.
John W. Davis died in Charleston, South Carolina.
This Article was written by Gretchen Krantz-Evans
Last Revised on October 15, 2012
Harbaugh, William H. Lawyer's Lawyer: The Life of John W. Davis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, Reprint, University of Virginia Press, 1990.
Tucker, Garland S. III. The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election. Austin, Texas: Emerald Book Co., 2004.