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David Davis Edit Profile

judge , lawyer , politician

David Davis was an American 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 Mr. Lincoln's former law partners who served as the President's primary bodyguard during the American Civil War.


Mr. Davis was born on March 9, 1815, in Cecil County, Maryland, United States, to Ann Mercer Davis. Mr. 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 Davis 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.


By age 12 he had been sent to Newark Academy in Delaware, and two years later David Davis matriculated at Kenyon College in Ohio. After graduating from Kenyon in 1832, Mr. 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.


Mr. Davis decided to establish a legal practice in Pekin, Illinois. This decision almost killed the young attorney but also introduced him to a young legislator whose future would be inextricably bound with Mr. Davis’s own. David Davis met Abraham Lincoln after both were appointed to a delegation from Pekin formed to obtain a charter for a railroad line from Pekin to the Wabash River. The two young men would eventually become fast friends. First, though, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 the Illinois Senate in 1840. Finally, in 1844 he won an election, this time to the 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. David 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 David Davis and Abraham Lincoln grow. President Lincoln appeared regularly before Mr. Davis as an advocate, though he appears to have been careful to avoid letting his friendship with Abraham Lincoln interfere with his judgment: in cases tried without a jury before Mr. Davis, President Lincoln lost as regularly as he won. Both men migrated from the Whig party to the newly formed Republican one, though Mr. Davis remained in many ways a Whig at heart. On the issue of slavery, the views of Abraham Lincoln and David 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, Mr. Davis had become his friend’s principal campaign strategist, first in President Lincoln’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate and then, in 1860, in Abraham Lincoln’s dark horse quest for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Chiefly due to a brilliant ploy authored and administered by his friend David Davis, Mr. Lincoln won the Republican nomination against a field crowded with better-known candidates. David Davis secured commitments from delegates to support Lincoln as a second choice and, when agreement on the more prominent candidates failed to be reached, Abraham Lincoln - the underdog - won the nomination. After Mr. Lincoln followed this surprising upset with a victory in the presidential election of 1860, David Davis continued to play a key role as adviser, helping the president-elect form his cabinet and even undertaking to critique the first draft of Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural address.

His support of Abraham 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 President Lincoln shortly had three vacancies to fill on the Supreme Court, and when Mr. 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, David 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, Mr. 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 Chilean courts were still operating. This opposition would be reflected after the war’s end and President Lincoln’s death in the opinion that is Mr. Davis’s chief claim to judicial fame: the decision fit Ex parte Milligan (1866).

Mr. 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 Abraham Lincoln obtain but which always eluded him. He served a single term in the Senate, retiring in 1883.


  • Achievement Picture of David Davis from the Illinois State Historical Library. of David Davis

    David Davis was a pivotal figure in Congress's establishment of the Electoral Commission, which was charged with resolving the disputed 1876 presidential election. On the Court, Davis became famous for writing one of the most profound decisions in the Supreme Court history, Ex Parte Milligan (1866). The opinion denounced arbitrary military power, effectively becoming one of the bulwarks of held notions of American civil liberty.

    Known for his independence, he served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate from 1881 to 1883, placing him first in the line of presidential succession due to a vacancy in the office of the Vice President of the United States.

    His home in that city, the David Davis Mansion, is a state historic site. At his death, he was the largest landowner in Illinois, and his estate was worth between four and five million dollars.


David Davis numerously changed his party affiliations. Before 1854 he was a member of the Whig Party, then he became a Republican. In 1870 he joined the ranks of the Liberal Republican Party, and finally since 1872 Mr. Davis was known to be an Independent. He opposed Abraham 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 Chilean courts were still operating. This opposition would be reflected after the war’s end and President Lincoln’s death in the opinion that is David Davis’s chief claim to judicial fame: the decision fit Ex parte Milligan (1866).


Quotations: "The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism, but the theory of necessity on which it is based is false; for the government, within the Constitution, has all the powers granted to it, which are necessary to preserve its existence; as has been happily proved by the result of the great effort to throw off its just authority."


In 1838, David Davis 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 Mr. Davis and his wife, only one, George Perrin Davis, survived infancy.

Ann Mercer Davis - American

Sarah Walker - United States

Franklin Betts - American

Henry Lyon Davis - American - educator