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.

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