John W. Davis, a worthy opponent

John W. Davis, 1873 - 1955

It has been remarked that 1924 was the last time both major U.S. parties nominated a true and undisputed conservative for president. This may be true, and it very likely also was Davis’ undoing as a candidate.

Anathema to most progressive Democrats because of his work as a lawyer for J.P. Morgan, the former Congressman, Solicitor General of the U.S., and Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s had been nominated at the conclusion of a notably chaotic and divisive Democratic convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden. More than 100 ballots were needed at this longest-running convention in U.S. history, as the overwhelmingly “dry”, rural, Protestant and Southern and Midwestern supporters of Williams Gibbs McAdoo battled the mostly “wet”, ethnic and religious minority, urban Eastern supporters of New York Governor Al Smith. Only after the two contenders mutually withdrew was the convention able to settle on a compromise candidate. To give the ticket a little rural flavor, Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, younger brother of the legendary William Jennings Bryan, was nominated for Vice President.

The elder Bryan had previously articulated what many liberals in the Democratic party felt – “This convention must not nominate a Wall Street man!”, even more damningly adding later: “I have no personal objection of any kind to Mr. Davis. He is a man of high character. So is Mr. Coolidge. There is no difference between them.” Swallowing these disagreements, Bryan endorsed Davis after the nomination and campaigned extensively for him.

The choice of Davis also may have played a part in precipitating the Progressive Party candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who had bolted from the Republicans to form the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. Dismayed that the two major parties offered a choice of two conservatives, La Follette went ahead and accepted the Progressives’ nomination, with Montana Senator Burton Wheeler as running mate.

Davis never got any traction in the campaign. Commentator after commentator remarked on his lack of force, his vagueness, his failure to convey any sense of mission. Alone among the three candidates, he clearly repudiated the Ku Klux Klan, thereby infuriating many McAdoo supporters and further weakening his base. He also antagonized the important unions by statements that were no more than an echo of Republican positions. It almost didn’t matter that he was a fine and eloquent speaker (although both his diction and his literary allusions often went over the heads of his audiences), because whatever he did or did not say offended one or another of the party’s feuding factions.

And often his heart wasn’t in it – even as he dutifully denounced the Mellon Plan, he made it clear that reduction of the federal budget was a central concern: “It is healthy for every government…to be kept on a restricted if not a starvation diet.” He also was in agreement with Coolidge in opposition to the McNary-Haugen farm relief bill.

Davis’ persistent efforts to draw out the president were unsuccessful. “I did my best…to make Coolidge say something,” he recalled many years later. “I was running out of anything to talk about. What I wanted was for Coolidge to say something. I didn’t care what it was, just so I had somebody to debate with. He never opened his mouth.” Indeed, Coolidge was well advised to do so, as he himself stated, “I don’t recall any candidate for president that ever injured himself very much by not talking.”

Taking a cue from the president, most Republicans either ignored Davis or treated him with respect, training their guns instead on La Follette. Conservative Democrats, they argued, should ensure La Follette’s defeat by voting for Coolidge.

In the end, Davis won a scant 29% of the vote, to Coolidge’s 54% and La Follette’s 17%. All post-election analyses confirmed that the third-party ticket had cost Davis many more votes than it had Coolidge.

Davis never played any part or role in Democratic Party politics after his defeat, concentrating on his work as a Wall Street lawyer. As the Democrats moved left with FDR and the New Deal, Davis became a founding member of the anti-New Deal coalition, the American Liberty League. When asked if he were still a Democrat, Davis replied, “Yes, very still!” He fought numerous court fights against New Deal laws such as the Frazier-Lemke Act and the Public Utility Holding Company Act.

His legal career is most remembered for the last of his 140 appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which he unsuccessfully defended the “separate but equal” doctrine in a companion case to the famous “Brown v. Board of Education” case.

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