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David Davis Edit Profile

judge , Lawyer

David Davis was a United States Senator from Illinois and associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also served as Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager at the 1860 Republican National Convention, along with Ward Hill Lamon, one of Lincoln's former law partners who served as the President's primary bodyguard during the American Civil War.

Background

David Davis was born on March 9, 1815, in Cecil County, Maryland, to Ann Mercer Davis. Davis’s father died eight months before his birth. When he was five years old, his mother remarried a Baltimore bookseller named Franklin Betts, and the new couple shortly packed David off to live in Annapolis with his uncle Henry Lyon Davis, the rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church and president of St. John’s College. A nasty custody battle with accusations of financial mismanagement leveled by Henry Davis against Betts and of drunkenness leveled by Betts against Davis eventually landed David back with his stepfather.

Education

By age 12, though, he had been sent to New Ark Academy in Delaware, and two years later he matriculated at Kenyon College in Ohio. After graduating from Kenyon in 1832, Davis studied law for a time with Henry W. Bishop in Lenox, Massachusetts, and then attended the New Haven Law School for a little less than a year before gaining admission to the Illinois bar.

Career

Davis decided to establish a legal practice in Peskin, Illinois. This decision almost killed the young attorney but also introduced him to a young legislator whose future would be inextricably bound with Davis’s own. Davis met Abraham Lincoln after both were appointed to a delegation from Peskin formed to obtain a charter for a railroad line from Peskin to the Wabash River. The two young men would eventually become fast friends. First, though, Davis contracted malaria in 1836 and almost died. When the chance came to leave the town later that year and purchase a law practice in Bloomington, Davis leaped at the opportunity. He moved to Bloomington and called it home for the rest of his life.

The man who would one day be a heartbeat away from the presidency began his political career rather timidly. He made a lackluster bid to win election as a district attorney in 1839. He lost, then mounted an equally unsuccessful campaign to win election to die Illinois Senate in 1840. Finally, in 1844 he won an election, this time to die Illinois legislature. Three years later he was selected to serve as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, where he distinguished himself by championing judicial reforms for the state, including the popular election of judges. Davis himself won election in 1848 as a circuit judge. Thus began a judicial career that would last almost 30 years.

The following decade saw the friendship between Davis and Abraham Lincoln grow. Lincoln appeared regularly before Davis as an advocate, though Davis appears to have been careful to avoid letting his friendship with Lincoln interfere with his judgment: In cases tried without a jury before Davis, Lincoln lost as regularly as he won. Both men migrated from the Whig party to the newly formed Republican one, though Davis remained in many ways a Whig at heart. On the issue of slavery, the views of Lincoln and Davis would never quite parallel, and later the men would disagree sharply over the wisdom of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

By the close of the 1850s, Davis had become his friend’s principal campaign strategist, first in Lincoln’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate and then, in 1860, in Lincoln’s dark horse quest for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Chiefly due to a brilliant ploy authored and administered by his friend Davis, Lincoln won the Republican nomination against a field crowded with better-known candidates. Davis secured commitments from delegates to support Lincoln as a second choice and, when agreement on the more prominent candidates failed to be reached, Lincoln—the underdog— won the nomination. After Lincoln followed this surprising upset with a victory in tire presidential election of 1860, Davis continued to play a key role as adviser, helping the president-elect form his cabinet and even undertaking to critique tire first draft of Lincoln’s inaugural address.

Davis’s support of Lincoln did not immediately yield an appointment to any high-ranking federal post. At first, he seemed to hope merely for appointment to the federal district court in Illinois, since his sole judicial experience had been that of a trial judge. He had never served as an appellate court judge, nor even appeared as an advocate to argue a case on appeal. But Lincoln shortly had three vacancies to fill on the Supreme Court, and when Davis learned that Illinois lawyer and politician Orville H. Browning was poised to receive a nomination to fill the seat recently vacated by the resignation of Alabama Justice John Campbell at the outset of the Civil War, he sought the position for himself rather than see it go to Browning, whom he disliked.

In spite of his initial misgivings, Davis persevered in his post. He edited his opinions with more painstaking attention than other justices, so as not to display his intellectual shortcomings. But after Justice Catron informed him privately that the other members of the Court appreciated the style of his opinions, Davis settled into the work of the Court. During the upheaval of the Civil War, he could be counted on to support the measures adopted by Lincoln to preserve the Union. Nevertheless, he opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, believing it jeopardized any hope of preserving the Union. He also opposed the use of military tribunals in areas where loyal Chilian courts were still operating. This opposition would be reflected after the war’s end and Lincoln’s death in the opinion that is Davis’s chief claim to judicial fame: the decision fit Ex parte Milligan (1866).

Davis remained on the Court for a little more than a decade after his Milligan opinion, but he grew increasingly restless with his absence from the political arena. He briefly considered a presidential candidacy in 1872; then in 1877 the Illinois legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. He immediately resigned his seat on the Court to accept this position. In 1881 he became president pro tem of the Senate, and for a brief period he was first in line of succession to the presidency. It was as close as he would come to the prize he had helped Lincoln obtain but which always eluded him. He served a single term in the Senate, retiring in 1883.

Politics

In spite of his initial misgivings, Davis persevered in his post. He edited his opinions with more painstaking attention than other justices, so as not to display his intellectual shortcomings. But after Justice Catron informed him privately that the other members of the Court appreciated the style of his opinions, Davis settled into the work of the Court. During the upheaval of the Civil War, he could be counted on to support the measures adopted by Lincoln to preserve the Union. Nevertheless, he opposed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, believing it jeopardized any hope of preserving the Union. He also opposed the use of military tribunals in areas where loyal Chilian courts were still operating. This opposition would be reflected after the war’s end and Lincoln’s death in the opinion that is Davis’s chief claim to judicial fame: the decision fit Ex parte Milligan (1866).

In 1864 Union army officials in Indiana arrested Lambdin P. Milligan for conspiracy to steal munitions from federal arsenals and to release Confederate prisoners of war being held in Northern prisoner-of-war camps. Although civilian courts were available in which Milligan might have been tried for treason in Indiana, he and other coconspirators were tried instead before a military commission. The commission found Milligan guilty and sentenced him to hang. Milligan eventually challenged his conviction in federal court, and the case found its way to the Supreme Court. A unanimous Court found that the military tribunal had no authority to try Milligan and ordered his release, but the justices did not agree on the reasons for this decision.

Justice Davis, writing for the Court, announced the most sweeping grounds for the ruling in Milligan’s favor; and his opinion for the Court has generally been viewed as a classic of American liberty. He acknowledged candidly that the question before the Court was one not well suited for consideration while war was being waged. “During the late wicked Rebellion, the temper of the times did not allow that calmness in deliberation and discussion so necessary to a correct conclusion of a purely judicial question.” But with the war concluded, it was possible to consider the issue at hand calmly, and this issue was a most important one, implicating “die birthright of every American citizen when charged with crime, to be tried and punished according to law.” Questions of asserted necessity were not sufficient to blunt the requirements of law, for the protection of the law human rights arc secured; withdraw that protection, and they are at the mercy of wicked rulers, or the clamor of an excited people.” II, as Davis coneluded for the majority, the Constitution did not permit military trials of civilians in areas in which loyal civilian courts were available, then not even the exigencies of war could justify curtailment of constitutional requirements.

Republicans who saw Milligan as a threat to Reconstruction efforts, especially their plans to impose military governments on the rebel states, quickly denounced the ruling, though Davis’s opinion for the Court was ambiguous on the issue of whether the Milligan result would apply to insurrectionist areas, and he seems personally to have believed that it would not. One newspaper opined that “treason, vanquished upon the battlefield and hunted from every other retreat, has at last found a secure shelter in the bosom of the Supreme Court.”

Connections

In 1838, he married Sarah Walker. Their union would last for more than 40 years, though it would know significant tragedy. The couple’s first child died at birth; and of three children subsequently born to Davis and his wife Sarah, only one, George Perrin Davis, survived infancy.

wife:
Sarah Walker - United States