John William Davis (April 13 1873–March 24 1955) was an American politician, diplomat and lawyer. He served as an United States Representative from West Virginia (1911-1913), then as Solicitor General of the United States and U.S. Ambassador to the UK under President Woodrow Wilson. Over a 60-year legal career, he argued 140 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
His 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.
[h]e used better English, kept himself cleaner, and was more dignified than most youngsters. He was also extraordinarily well-mannered.
Davis started college at the age of sixteen, and graduated from Washington & Lee's Literary Department in 1892 with a major in Latin. He joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, participated in intramural sports, and "took calico" by attending mixed parties.
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.
He graduated with a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1895, and was elected Law Class Orator. 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?
Davis was the uncle and adoptive father of Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. His 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 had two sons, John Perry and Arthur Henry II. She died in 1993.
His father had been a delegate to the Wheeling Convention, which had created the state of West Virginia, but he had also supported slavery and opposed ratification of the 15th Amendment. Davis acquired much of his father's conservative politics, opposing women's suffrage, federal child-labor laws, anti-lynching legislation and Harry S Truman's civil rights program while privately defending the poll tax by questioning whether African-Americans should be allowed to vote. He also 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Solicitor General from 1913 to 1918 and as ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1918 to 1921. As Solicitor General he successfully argued for the illegality of Oklahoma's "grandfather law", which effectively disenfranchised most black citizens of Oklahoma by exempting white residents descended from a voter who had been registered in 1866 from the literacy requirements of its electoral law, in Guinn v. United States. Davis's personal posture differed from his position as an advocate. Throughout his career, he could separate his personal views and professional advocacy.
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 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, and a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1922 to 1939.
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.
One of Davis' most influential arguments before the Supreme Court was in the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer case in May of 1952. Arguing for the Steel industry, in protest of Truman's seizure of the nation's steel plants, Davis orated for eighty-seven minutes before the Court. He stated that Truman's acts were an "'usurpation' of power, that were "without parallel in American history. The justices of the court allowed him to proceed uninterrupted for nearly an hour and a half, with only one question arising from Justice Frankfurter, who may have had a personal feeling against Davis relating to his 1924 presidential campaign. It had been predicted that the President's actions would be upheld, and the injunction would be lifted, but the court decided the case 6-3, upholding the injunction stopping the seizure of the steel mills.
While Davis wasn't brought into the Youngstown case until March of 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, retained Davis' service for an opinion letter on whether the president could seize private industry amidst a "National Emergency. Davis' opinion was that the president could not do so, unless such power already were vested in the president.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. 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.
Of particular note in the case is that Tom Clark, former attorney general who had advised Truman about the seizure of Republic Steel in 1949, had been nominated and confirmed to the US Supreme Court shortly after giving such advice. Yet in 1952, Justice Clark cast his vote with the majority, even though he did not concur in the opinion. In this, he voted against the President's power to seize steel factories, seemingly in direct opposition to his previously given advice.
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 an advocate to the defense of racial segregation, 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 reargued after the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. He declined the fee that South Carolina offered him after the Court ruled against it unanimously.
1924 Democratic presidential primaries