Marcy J. Brant
David Davis was to become in his lifetime of seventy-one years, a lawyer, a slate legislator, a judge on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Abraham Lincoln's political manager, and a member of the United States Supreme Court. By the time of his death in 1886, he had amassed a fortune of approximately $2 million. This is the story of a successful American.
On March 9, 1815, David Davis, named after his father (who died eight months before his birth), was born in a little room looking out over the Bohemia River in his grandfather's plantation house, The Rounds. The Rounds, probably named for the legendary hunting lodge of King Henry VII, was located in Cecil County, Maryland, between the Bohemia and Sassafras rivers, where they flowed into Chesapeake Bay. Tradition in the Davis family claimed that it was built in 1740 of brick brought from England. It boasted several outbuildings, including an icehouse, a woodhouse, a smokehouse, a washhouse, a stable, a coachhouse, and slave quarters.
The young Davis did not have a very happy childhood. In 1820 his mother remarried. His stepfather, Franklin Betts, immediately became his legal guardian and received his estate of $5,000. David was sent to live with his uncle, the Reverend Henry Lyon Davis.
After a year in Annapolis, David returned to Baltimore where his mother and stepfather lived. He stayed with his family for six months, after which he went to the boarding school of Isaac Sams, near what is now Ellicot City. Sams charged $128 a year for tuition, which Franklin Betts must have regarded as too expensive; after eighteen months at the boarding school, David was sent back to his uncle in Annapolis.
In 1825 Reverend Henry Lyon Davis realized that David's stepfather was unfit to be his guardian. A bill that he wrote to the High Court of Chancery of Maryland stated that Betts was "unworthy and unfit" for the guardianship.
Betts protested. In October 1825, he wrote a long letter to the chancellor protesting the charges against him. "My wife," he stated, "is extremely . . . unhappy about her little Boy now with the Revd H. L. Davis. She had heard that Mr. Davis has taken to Drinking to excess." Betts won the argument over David's guardianship. In 1826 the eleven-year-old boy was sent to New Ark Academy in New Ark, Delaware. He stayed for only two years.
David was sent to Kenyon College, Ohio, in 1828. When he arrived, the main building was a log cabin twenty by twenty-four feet. Adjacent to that building was an even smaller house, occupied by the senior professor and ten students, who lived in the attic. The rest of the students lived in rough plank buildings. They slept in frame bunks, stacked three high, with three in a bunk. As each scholar arrived "home," he took a sack to the barn and filled it with straw to use as a mattress. Bedbugs abounded under those poor conditions. Rattlesnakes, bears, and wolves roamed the forests surrounding the college.
The college, however, was growing. By 1830 the new four-story main building was huge, with stone walls four feet thick at the base and a graceful spire towering to 114 feet. David was instrumental in building the new college. Since his guardian gave him no money to go to school, he worked in the fields of Kenyon College to pay his tuition.
The promising young man graduated in 1832. A few months after his graduation, he became a law student in the office of Henry Bishop in Lenox, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. He soon joined in the social life of the cultured little village of 1,400 people. His southern accent was the cause of much friendly kidding in the New England town. He seemed to fancy Sarah Walker, the daughter of a judge. Sarah, then seventeen, was a lovely girl who made life pleasant for her "Davie." However, they were not to be married until six years later.
In fall 1834 he entered the New Haven Law School. He stayed for less than a year, and the spring found him back in Lenox, where he wrote a letter to Sarah's father asking his consent for an engagement between the two young people. Judge Walker politely but firmly told him no:
May 4, 1835 My dear Sir By yr. letter we understand that an engagement had been made between you and our daughter Sarah to marry three or four years hence . . . We submit it to your good sense whether an engagement to be binding between parties in such cases for that length of time is in any case adviseable. Changes may take place which will render a marriage extremely improper.
David sadly left Lenox and began the long journey to what was then the Far West. He had originally intended to settle in St. Louis, but a relative told him that competition would be "too hot" in the growing metropolis. He advised David to open a law office in Pekin, Illinois. The young lawyer took the advice, and soon he had many clients.
The success of business could not make up for loneliness, though. It seemed as if he was counting
the hours until Sarah could be with him again. "I have not heard from Sarah for two weeks," he wrote her sister in a letter.
Am exceedingly anxious to hear from her — or I uniformly get the blues if I dont get a weekly account of your doings in Yankee Land. They sneer in this country at everything of a Yankee origin — but they dont know them as well as I do ... It seems to me sometimes, that I would give a fortune, had I one, to see a good Yankee girl.
Another time, he wrote:
I wish to heaven I had a house and about $50,000. I would bring 20 of you girls out here and it would be the greatest pride of my heart seeing the sensation you would create ... I get the blues sometimes. There is nothing pleasant in Pekin absolutely nothing to do but quarrel among one another and wrangle all the time.
In 1836 a friend offered to sell David his law office in Bloomington, Illinois. A year later, this notice appeared in the Bloomington newspaper:
On June 20, 1838, David wrote another letter to Judge Walker asking for Sarah's hand in marriage. In it, he first reminded Judge Walker of his previous request for an engagement. He stated that "amid the changes of the world, Sarah & I have kept faith to each other." He then told all the details of his financial condition to show that he could support Sarah. This time, her father consented. On October 30, 1838, they were married. They arrived in Bloomington in December after a long and unpleasant journey.
Between June and October, Davis was involved in what was probably the most heated election of his entire career. John T. Stuart ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Congress. Davis and Abraham Lincoln, who was well known to the former by now, dropped everything to back Stuart. Their efforts were rewarded. Stuart defeated Douglas by only thirty-six votes out of 36,000 cast.
In 1839 Illinois fell into a depression because the General Assembly was spending so much money on one project: the internal improvement system. That set of laws raised taxes to build a railroad. David was worried. He wrote to Sarah's father, "The lavishness with which money had been expended upon the Internal Improvement System, its officers, & scores of retainers, will astonish you." Farmers in the once-promising agricultural state grumbled because they could not find a market for their grain, and when they could, prices were so low that it was not worth selling. Throughout all of this, Sarah's naturally cheerful disposition prevailed. She even encouraged her brother-in-law to come west. "For just at this time," she wrote, "land is cheap and 'times is tight.' " However, she still felt "rich as a queen."
She probably felt even richer when her second child was born in June 1842. (The first baby had died only a day after birth.) David politely requested that Sarah's mother name the sturdy little boy. He was disappointed when she suggested the name David Davis. The proud new father insisted on calling his son George Perrin Davis, after Sarah's father and brother.
By 1844 the law firm of Wells Colton and David Davis was considered one of the most successful in the state. In that year, there were sixty-one cases in the spring term of the McLean County Circuit Court. They were attorneys for forty-five of them. Even though business in terms of the number of cases was better than ever, they still had a hard time collecting the fees for each and every case.
The Whig party, of which Davis was an active member, chose him to run for the state legislature in McLean County in the 1844 election. Immediately after he was elected to the position, he traveled to Springfield for a three-month session of the legislature. Sarah, with little George, came to the capital to be with David during that time. They stayed at the Globe Tavern where Lincoln and his new young wife, Mary Todd, lived. The family of three had two rooms on the second floor of the Globe. Its owner was very economical and did not have the best of cooks. As Sarah wrote:
I know of but one thing that the [owner's] family are extravagant in, and that is the use of Saleratus [baking soda] — the cakes being often quite yellow with that article. We live on buckwheat cakes, corn cakes & short biscuit — the two former often being sour . . . By way of relief we have an occasional invitation out which we are always happy to accept.
Sarah was astonished as well as delighted to find that the people of Springfield were very fashionable. "The wife of the member from McLean," she wrote, "cannot lead in beauty and does not desire to in fashion but may follow at a humble distance." She met many of the judges on the Illinois Supreme Court and their wives while she was in Springfield.
In March 1845, David Davis turned thirty. He had already accomplished what most men would be able to do in a lifetime. He had not let his bitter, unhappy childhood keep him from becoming a prosperous adult. He had gotten a college education by working for it. He had gone to law school and then set up an extremely successful practice. He had recently become a politician, and he was successful at that, also. As far as his personal life, he had always been quite social and well liked by his friends. He and Sarah were very happy together. David Davis was well on his way to further accomplishment.— [From Allen Johnson and Dumas Malon, ed., Dictionary of American Biography; and Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager, David Davis.]