Biography of John W. Davis

By Theodore A. Huntley

©1924 Duffield Company



THOMAS JEFFERSON is regarded by John W. Davis as the greatest political thinker the United States has produced, and one of its five greatest Presidents. There is a curious coincidence in their careers, tastes and characters, so far as these are disclosed. Without asserting for them a significance they do not possess, the similarities are still sufficiently striking to command attention. Both were born April 13-Jefferson in 1743 and Davis in 1873-of Anglo-Celtic Ancestry and frontier forbears. Jefferson came from a small mountain community on the east slope of the Blue Ridge, Davis from a similar settlement on the west slope, by air line less than 150 miles distant. Jefferson's mother, a Randolph, was a cultured and intellectual woman; his father, Peter Jefferson, a civil engineer and burgess, passed on to his son an intense democratic philosophy. Davis' mother, a Kennedy, possessed a fine mind and excellent education; his father, John J. Davis, a lawyer, legislator and ardent Jeffersonian, likewise bequeathed his beliefs to his offspring.

At the age of twenty Jefferson was graduated from William and Mary College; at nineteen, Davis was graduated from Washington and Lee University. Each subsequently studied law and achieved distinction in his profession.

Each began his public career as a member of the State Legislature, Jefferson at twenty-six and Davis at twenty-five. Jefferson entered the Continental Congress when thirty-three. Davis entered Congress when thirty-seven. In 1785 Jefferson was in Paris on a diplomatic mission when appointed minister to France. In 1918 Davis was in London on a diplomatic mission when appointed ambassador to Great Britain. After a period of public service each retired to private life-Jefferson upon resigning as secretary of state, Davis upon resigning as ambassador-only to be recalled three years later to renewed political activities.

In their personal characteristics other parallels appear. Jefferson is described by biographers as "an expert violinist, a good singer and dancer, proficient in outdoor sports and an excellent horseman." It is further recorded that he "never used tobacco, never played cards, never gambled and was never party to a personal quarrel." Herein differences develop. Davis, while a violinist, has closely guarded the degree of his proficiency, and possibly could not qualify as an "expert." Moreover he enjoys a philosophic pipe and now and then a cigar. Against the assurance that Jefferson was a "good singer," however, may be balanced the knowledge that Davis sang a mean bass in the Presbyterian choir at Lexington during college days, and was one of two students who carried the baritone in the glee club. At college he boxed and played tennis. In Clarksburg they say "John always could ride." He plays golf like the average American, sometimes in threes and fours, and again in nines and tens. While he appears to have done a reasonable amount of dancing in his youth, he apparently never acquired the bridge habit. If he mastered a course of draw poker in college, the fact is not revealed in his ratings. Avoiding personal quarrels on his own account, he nevertheless once publicly whipped one of his father's political adversaries; and again, during the trial of a case in court, punched one of the elder Davis' legal antagonists on the point of the jaw. In each instance the attack was in retaliation for a slighting reference to the parent.

Politically Davis classifies himself as a Jeffersonian:

"I am a genuine Jeffersonian Democrat. I think Jefferson was the greatest political thinker this country has produced, and I expect to die in that faith. If Jefferson's principles are true-and I think they are-then they remain true, even with changing times. Their application may change, but they do not."

Intellectual inclinations and a studious nature afford a further basis for comparison. For many years Jefferson was President of the American Philosophical Society. In 1922-23 Davis served as President of the American Bar Association, and while in London was made a Bencher of the Middle Temple. Jefferson's reading is said to have covered a remarkable range. In Davis' speeches may be found quotations from almost any author, ancient or modern, from Aristotle
and his predecessors to Mark Twain.

Concerning Jefferson's temperament one of his biographers says:

'' Beneath a quiet surface he was fairly aglow with intense convictions and a very emotional temperament. Yet he seems to have acted habitually, in great and little things, on system."

Those who know Davis best declare the description fits him perfectly. There, however, the similarities cease.


It is a common saying around Clarksburg that "John W. Davis has been kicked into every offce he ever held." In the same category is the classic assertion of Dr. J. "W". Johnston, the Davis family physician, that "John don't know a damn thing about politics and never did." Another of the same variety is that things have come "too easy" for him-the old story of Lady Luck. Like many such remarks, these are half-truths which permit inaccurate inferences. It so hap-
pens that in three specific instances chance or destiny-in the form of his friends-have yanked him by the scruff of the neck out of an active law practice and flung him headlong into the political arena. This occurred when he went to the Legislature in 1898, again when sent to Congress in 1910, and once more when nominated for President in 1924. To this extent fortune has smiled-if it is good fortune to be so maltreated. Against this, and representing an additional contribution to the truth, stands the fact that, having been "kicked in," his performance was such as to make luck an unnecessary adjunct of promotion.

His record as a lawyer would appear to preclude controversy. He was informally tendered appointment to the United States Supreme Court twice, first by Wilson and again under Harding. The late Chief Justice Edward Douglass White once called at the White House to express unofficially to President Wilson his own hope and that of associates on the bench that Davis might be appointed to an existing vacancy. On another occasion he remarked facetiously that "the court thinks so much of John Davis that when he appears for the Government the other side hardly gets 'due process of law.' " His election as President of the American Bar Association, supplementing the other developments, would seem to foreclose argument as to his standing in the legal profession.

As to his past life, it is related that a certain publisher sent one of his ablest investigators to Clarksburg to learn all that could be learned to his discredit. After devoting a week or two to the investigation, the reporter went in desperation to the opposition newspaper.

"Say," he demanded, "hasn't anybody got anything on Davis?"

"Damned if I know," the editor blandly replied. "We haven't."

There is, however, a blot on the record. As one of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of his youth, it was discovered that he had never attended the little red school house in Clarksburg-if it were red. This is true. Nor was he born in a log cabin. Investigation reveals that he was ushered into the world in an unromantic frame house on Mechanic Street, Clarksburg, and that his mother insisted on teaching him until he was ten years old.

A sense of humor may be traced to college days. An example which he has probably forgotten is contained in a letter addressed in 1915, while Solicitor General, to Samuel E. Bentley of Clarksburg. Bentley was trying to sell him additional life insurance, and had submitted a verbal proposal. The interview was interrupted before a final answer had been given. Accustomed to address each other as "John" and "Sam," Davis wrote Bentley as follows:

"I have all the life insurance that I want. In fact, I am now carrying more than I can afford. If I were going to take any more life insurance, I should choose some small, inconspicuous company with opportunities for growth, instead of one of the great bloated octopi which burden the business of the United States. These remarks are of course peculiarly applicable to your company, which I understand to be the largest and most odious of them all.
"With these preliminary remarks, if you will send me an application along the lines of your new proposal I think I can see my way clear to do something with it. Does your company dare show its goods in advance by way of specimen policies?
"I am, Sir, with sentiments of profound respect,
"Truly yours,

During the world war Davis delivered an extemporaneous speech in behalf of the Second Liberty Loan which so impressed Blackburn Esterline, an associate in the Solicitor General's office, that the latter had it printed for private distribution. A flood of flattering acknowledgments came from Cabinet officers, Federal officials, members of the judiciary, lawyers, financiers and captains of industry. One day Esterline bundled these up and sent them to Davis' desk for his perusal. They came back with the scribbled note:

"B. E.-When George Bernard Shaw was called out for a curtain speech upon the first presentation of a new play, a gallery god voiced his disapproval by yelling 'Boo.' Shaw looked up and said, 'I agree with you, my friend, but what are we among so many?'-J. W. D."

When the so-called Five Per Cent cases were before the United States Supreme Court, Davis appeared for the Government on a certain Tuesday. On the following Monday the Court issued an order for a rehearing. John J. Fitzgerald of New York, counsel for the defense and a noted wit, gathered several other lawyers about him and called Davis over.

"Has to argue the case again," Fitzgerald bantered. "Can't make the Court understand what he's talking about!"

"Nothing of the sort," Davis retorted. "I got an encore."

An old negro in Clarksburg who in former years worked for the Davis family could always extract a quarter or "fo' bits" by remarking, on meeting him on the street: "Yassuh, us kinfolks's got to stick together."

Books behind glass look to him "like prisoners behind bars." He twists an old adage to excuse a habit of reading into the morning hours: "Late to bed and early to rise make a man-well, it agrees with me." At a state political convention in 1900 he was asked, "What is the secret of an orator?" He replied: "To know when to speak, when not to speak, and when to conclude."


In the ancestry of John W. Davis a considerable intermixture appears. There are Welsh, English, Scotch, Scotch-Irish and Dutch strains-with the Scotch, however, distinctly predominant. Among his forbears were Covenanters, cavaliers and Quakers; carpenters, clockmakers, farmers, saddlers, printers, merchants, revolutionaries, and colonial land-holders. A sister of John W. Davis-Nancy, now Mrs. H. G. Richardson-has compressed the story into these lines:

"The Covenanters through my father claim me kin,
The cavaliers upon my mother's line;
With me a jolly, laughing Irish strain,
Smooths out the Covenanter's stern set brow;
The Quaker holds the cavalier in check;
I am a part of each-I know not how."

In the dim annals of antiquity the Davis line doubtless had its origin in the hills of Wales. Tradition says the family may be traced to the sturdy mountain Welsh who repelled the invasion of the Saxon king of Northumberland in the seventh century.

West Virginia is full of Davises, most of them of Maryland stock. A collateral branch traces direct descent from Thomas Davis of London, who came of an ancient Welsh family which had settled in Shropshire. He arrived in Maryland late in 1688 as a factor for several large mercantile establishments in London. Thereafter the names John, Bezin, and Caleb frequently appear in the Davis line. While family records fail to show a connection between Thomas Davis of Maryland and the family which produced John W. Davis, the evidence is overwhelming that such a connection exists. Early in the nineteenth century, a John Davis and Bezin Davis, the sons of Caleb Davis of "Woodstock, Virginia, joined the westward migration over the Northwest Pike and crossed the Blue Ridge to Clarksburg, then a settlement of some 300 souls. This John Davis, a saddler by trade, was the father of John J. and the grandfather of John "W. Davis. He became sheriff of Harrison County and lived to see his two sons, Eezin Caleb and John J. Davis, enter the profession of law and as young men attain prominence. The latter was born in Clarksburg May 5,1835, and died there in 1916 at the age of eighty-one.

Anna Kennedy Davis, the mother of John W. Davis, was born on Camden Street, Baltimore, November 14, 1841, the eldest of seven children, and came to Clarksburg at the time of her marriage. She died in 1917, at the age of seventy-six. "William "Wilson Kennedy, her father, was a lumber merchant. Her mother, Catherine Esdale Martin Kennedy, was a southerner, a daughter of Tobias Martin, who owned a dairy farm near Washington and wrote occasional verse. The Esdales, her mother's family, were Pennsylvania Quakers, living near Valley Forge, and helped provision "Washington's troops during their desperate winter there.

James O'Donnell Bennett, writing in the Chicago Tribune, says of James Steen, the great-grandfather of John "W. Davis on the paternal side, a carpenter, that he "was so strong that, by holding on by thumb and forefinger he could swing himself from rafter to rafter." In digging into the family archives, he produced this further bit of fascinating history:

"That great grandfather of the mighty thumb and forefinger was James Steen, an Ulster man who had emigrated from Scotland to Ireland. Coming into town one day he was about to be drafted into the English army. Vowing he would never take up arms against his adopted Ireland, he hurried back to his farm, sold all he had, and sailed at once for America. This was about 1793. He looked around in New York and Philadelphia and then took up the trade of carpentry in Washington. One of his jobs was to build the steps to the rotunda of the old Capitol-the one which General Boss burned in 1814. James finally went back to farming, settling in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he died in 1839 at the age of 70. Though he was a toiler he had a coat of arms, dating from before 1650, which was a Phoenix rising to the sun, the whole set off with the laudible motto, 'Ad diem tendo.'
"James Steen had married in Scotland the expert little talker, Jane Small, whom tradition connects with the Small brothers, Edinburg publishers, and with the family of the English diplomat, Sir Thomas Bodley, who founded the Bodleian library at Oxford in the sixteenth century. It is said, too, that Jane, specializing in talk by day, did all her reading after her family had gone to bed."

Another great-grandfather, James Kennedy, was foreman of the Globe Printing Office, in Washington. His son, William Wilson Kennedy, learned Spanish and Italian at the age of eighty. The Kennedys go back to the twelfth century in Scotland, where James Kennedy, a great-great-great-grandfather, an Inverness man, married Rachel Jennings, an Englishwoman.
He was a follower of "Bonnie Prince Charlie." Compelled to flee Scotland, he escaped to Ireland and thence emigrated to America, locating finally in Baltimore and founding an American line.

These were the forbears of John W. Davis, sturdy folk all. Men are the sum of their backgrounds.