David Davis (Supreme Court justice)

David Davis (March 9, 1815 – June 26, 1886) was a United States Senator from Illinois and associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also served as Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager at the 1860 Republican National Convention, engineering Lincoln's nomination alongside Ward Hill Lamon and Leonard Swett.

David Davis
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
October 13, 1881  March 3, 1883
Preceded byThomas F. Bayard, Sr.
Succeeded byGeorge F. Edmunds
United States Senator
from Illinois
In office
March 4, 1877  March 4, 1883
Preceded byJohn Logan
Succeeded byShelby Cullom
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
October 17, 1862  March 4, 1877
Nominated byAbraham Lincoln
Preceded byJohn Campbell
Succeeded byJohn Harlan
Personal details
Born(1815-03-09)March 9, 1815
Cecil County, Maryland, U.S.
DiedJune 26, 1886(1886-06-26) (aged 71)
Bloomington, Illinois, U.S.
Political partyWhig (Before 1854)
Republican (1854–1870)
Liberal Republican (1870–1872)
Independent (1872–1886)
Spouse(s)Sarah Woodruff Walker (1838–1879)
RelationsDavid Davis IV (great-grandson)
EducationKenyon College (BA)
Yale University (LLB)

Educated at Kenyon College and Yale University, Davis settled in Bloomington, Illinois in the 1830s, where he practiced law. He served in the Illinois legislature and as a delegate to the state constitutional convention before becoming a state judge in 1848. After Lincoln won the presidency, he appointed Davis to the United States Supreme Court, where he served until 1877. He wrote the majority opinion in Ex parte Milligan, limiting the government's power to try citizens in military courts. He pursued the Liberal Republican Party's nomination in the 1872 presidential election, but was defeated at the convention by Horace Greeley.

Davis was a pivotal figure in Congress's establishment of the Electoral Commission, which was charged with resolving the disputed 1876 presidential election. Davis was widely expected to serve as the key member of the Commission, but he resigned from the Supreme Court to accept election to the Senate and thus did not serve on the commission. Known for his independence, he served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate from 1881 to 1883, placing him first in the line of presidential succession due to a vacancy in the office of the Vice President of the United States. He did not seek re-election in 1882 and retired from public life in 1883.

Early life

He was born to a wealthy family in Cecil County, Maryland, where he attended public school. After graduating from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 1832, he went on to study law in Massachusetts[1] and at Yale University. Upon his graduation from Yale in 1835, Davis moved to Bloomington, Illinois, to practice law. He married Sarah Woodruff Walker of Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1838. Two of their children, George and Sallie, survived to adulthood. Davis also served as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives in 1845 and a delegate to the Illinois constitutional convention in McLean County, 1847. From 1848 to 1862, Davis presided over the court of the Illinois Eighth Circuit, the same circuit where his friend, attorney Abraham Lincoln, was practicing.

Davis was a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, serving as Lincoln's campaign manager during the 1860 presidential election. After President Lincoln's assassination, Judge Davis was an administrator of his estate.[1]

National stage

On October 17, 1862, Davis received a recess appointment from President Lincoln to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by the resignation of John Archibald Campbell, who had resigned in protest of Lincoln's perceived intent to go to war with seceding Southern states. Formally nominated on December 1, 1862, Davis was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 8, 1862, and received his commission the same day.

On the Court, Davis became famous for writing one of the most profound decisions in the Supreme Court history, Ex parte Milligan (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. Milligan 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. The opinion denounced arbitrary military power, effectively becoming one of the bulwarks of held notions of American civil liberty.

In 1870 he held, with the minority of the Supreme Court, that the acts of Congress making government notes a legal tender in payment of debts were constitutional.[1] He is the only judge of the Supreme Court with no recorded affiliation to any religious sect.[2]

After refusing calls to become Chief Justice, Davis, a registered independent, was nominated for President by the Labor Reform Convention in February 1872 on a platform that declared, among other things, in favor of a national currency "based on the faith and resources of the nation", and interchangeable with 3.65% bonds of the government, and demanded the establishment of an eight-hour law throughout the country, and the payment of the national debt "without mortgaging the property of the people to enrich capitalists." In answer to the letter informing him of the nomination, Judge Davis said: "Be pleased to thank the convention for the unexpected honor which they have conferred upon me. The chief magistracy of the republic should neither be sought nor declined by any American citizen."[1]

He withdrew from the presidential contest when he failed to receive the Liberal Republican Party nomination, which went to editor Horace Greeley. Greeley died after the popular election and before the return of the electoral vote. One of Greeley's electoral votes went to Davis.

Disputed election of 1876

In 1877, Davis narrowly avoided the opportunity to be the only person to ever single-handedly select the President of the United States. In the disputed Presidential election of 1876 between the Republican Rutherford Hayes and the Democrat Samuel Tilden, Congress created a special Electoral Commission to decide to whom to award a total of 20 electoral votes which were disputed from the states of Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon. The Commission was to be composed of 15 members: five drawn from the U.S. House of Representatives, five from the U.S. Senate, and five from the U.S. Supreme Court. The majority party in each legislative chamber would get three seats on the Commission, and the minority party would get two. Both parties agreed to this arrangement because it was understood that the Commission would have seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and Davis, who was arguably the most trusted independent in the nation.

According to one historian, "No one, perhaps not even Davis himself, knew which presidential candidate he preferred."[3] Just as the Electoral Commission Bill was passing Congress, the legislature of Illinois elected Davis to the Senate. Democrats in the Illinois Legislature believed that they had purchased Davis's support by voting for him. However, they had made a miscalculation; instead of staying on the Supreme Court so that he could serve on the Commission, he promptly resigned as a Justice, in order to take his Senate seat. Because of this, Davis was unable to assume the spot, always intended for him, as one of the Supreme Court's members of the Commission. His replacement on the Commission was Joseph Philo Bradley, a Republican, thus the Commission ended up with an 8–7 Republican majority. Each of the 20 disputed electoral votes was eventually awarded to Hayes, the Republican, by that same 8-7 majority; Hayes won the election, 185 electoral votes to 184. Had Davis been on the Commission, his would have been the deciding vote, and Tilden would have been elected president if Davis and the commission had awarded him even one electoral vote.

Senate career

Davis served only a single term as U.S. Senator from Illinois.

In 1881, Davis's renowned independence was again called upon. Upon the assassination of President James A. Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur succeeded to the office of president. Per the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which was still in effect, the President pro tempore of the Senate would be next in line for the presidency, should it again become vacant at any time in the 3½ years remaining in Garfield's term. As the Senate was evenly divided between the parties, this posed the risk of deadlock. However, the presence of Davis provided an answer; despite being only a freshman Senator, the Senate elected Davis as President Pro Tempore.[4] Davis was not a candidate for re-election. At the end of his term in 1883, he retired to his home in Bloomington.[1]


Upon his death in 1886, he was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois. His grave can be found in section G, lot 659.

His home in that city, the David Davis Mansion, is a state historic site. At his death, he was the largest landowner in Illinois, and his estate was worth between four and five million dollars.

His great-grandson was David Davis IV (19061978), lawyer and Illinois state senator.[5]


  1.  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Davis, David" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  2. Religious Affiliation of the U.S. Supreme Court adherents.com
  3. Morris, Roy, Jr. (2003). Fraud Of The Century. Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden And The Stolen Election Of 1876. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  4. President pro tempore, from the Senate's website; American National Biography, "David Davis"
  5. 'Illinois Blue Book 1965-1966,' Biographical of David Davis, pg. 170-171
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Campbell
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
John Harlan
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
John Logan
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Illinois
Served alongside: Richard Oglesby, John Logan
Succeeded by
Shelby Cullom
Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Bayard
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
Succeeded by
George Edmunds
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