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David Davis
The Man and Political Ally

Danielle Daniels
Waterloo High School, Waterloo

Little is said about the friends who helped a very significant person in the history of this nation. Little is said either about their accomplishments. One example of this is a friend of Abraham Lincoln's, David Davis. Lincoln and Davis first met in the Illinois State House at Vandalia in 1836. Davis turned out to be one of Lincoln's most potent political allies. He also accomplished various other important things in his lifetime.
David Davis
David Davis

Davis was educated at Kenyon College in Ohio and later at Yale Law School. He later became a judge in the Eighth Judicial Circuit where Lincoln sometimes presided when Davis's extensive business interests called him away. This huge man (he weighed about three hundred pounds) had a delightful capacity for humor, politics, earthy wit, and wisdom. One of the smartest things he did, purely by accident, was having to collect a claim of a New York client for $800. He failed to get the money, but accepted, instead, eighty acres of land on what was then the southern edge of Chicago. His client refused the offer and Davis paid the $800 taking the land for himself. He later sold the land for $1 million because of expansion of Chicago.

In earlier days, before Lincoln became president, Davis helped persuade people to vote for Lincoln at the Republican Convention of 1860. It was Davis who did the bargaining that won Lincoln the nomination. Davis, along with other friends of Lincoln, led the movement for Lincoln in the convention in Chicago. If not for the political influence of Davis and other friends of Lincoln, Lincoln might not have become president.

Davis accomplished much while on the bench. He was in the Eighth Judicial Circuit when, in 1862, Lincoln appointed him associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Thus, he was the first Illinoisan to sit on the Supreme Court. His most memorable act on the bench was writing the majority opinion in a landmark civil rights case, ex parte Milligan, in 1866. In that decision, the court set aside the death sentence imposed during the Civil War by a military commission upon a civilian, Lambdin P. Milligan. He had been found guilty of inciting insurrection. The Supreme Court held that since the civil courts were operative, the trial of a civilian by a military tribunal was unconstitutional.

In 1874 the election to the Illinois legislature of a number of Greenback party members and their combined efforts with Democrats elected David Davis to the Senate. Some historians say this kept Samuel J. Tilden from becoming president. Later in 1876 Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes battled for the presidency. Congress created an electoral commission of five senators, five representatives, and five judges of the Supreme Court to help decide the result. The expected fifth judge would be Davis, but his election to the Senate by the Democrats in the Illinois legislature gave him an excuse to decline the task.

Smaller, significant accomplishments included Davis's term as trustee of Illinois Wesleyan University. This by itself shows Davis's standing. Not just anyone can do something like that. It takes a person of great social standing to achieve that.

David Davis played an important role in Illinois history and the history of the United States. He was an important political ally and friend to Abraham Lincoln. Davis served on the United States Supreme Court from 1862 to 1877. He then served in the United States Senate, replacing Senator John Logan, from 1877 to 1883. History would not have been the same without David Davis.[From Arthur Charles Cole, The Era of the Civil War, 1848 to 1870; Walter Havighurst, The Heartland; John H. Keiser, Building for the Centuries; Dorrell Kilduff and C. H. Pygman, Illinois History, Government and Geography; Douglas Waitley, Portrait of the Midwest From the Ice Age to the Industrial Era.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1993 33


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