Happy Birthday, Mr. Davis!
Few Americans will know -- or care -- that April 13 is the 139th anniversary of the birth of John W. Davis, the 1924 Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Though David has earned some share of praise -- columnist Walter Lippmann believed that Davis was "one of the finest men ever nominated for President" -- most Americans have doubtless forgotten completely about the man, if they ever knew him at all. Yet an age like ours -- where the political mudslinging disgusts and repels all but the most ardent news-followers -- could stand to learn a lesson or two from John Davis's sterling example.
Even if they seem sadly outdated to modern ears, the two qualities most often applied to Davis during his lifetime -- namely, graciousness and civility -- are bound to resonate. There appears never to have been even a trace of self-promotion in Davis's long career, for he was always put forward for office by his friends who knew him well. As the Washington Post noted, "[i]n whatever circle he moved, there was none other who seemed so fitted to be at the head of the table. To that place his fellows instinctively beckoned him."
A great secret of Davis's long, successful career -- as solicitor general of the United States under Wilson, and later as senior partner of his Wall Street law firm -- was his ability to establish a warm rapport with his adversaries. Justice Learned Hand spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, "I do not like to have John W. Davis come into my courtroom. I am so fascinated by his charm and eloquence that I always fear that I am going to decide in his favor irrespective of the merits of the case." One of Davis's assistants as solicitor general, John Lord O'Brian, marveled that, above all else, "Davis had the gift of graciousness." And as President Wilson's postwar ambassador to Great Britain, Davis proceeded to win over the British -- including King George V, who declared, "John W. Davis was the most perfect gentleman I ever met."
The second hallmark of Mr. Davis was integrity: in his long public career, no trace of scandal ever touched him. Shortly after receiving the Democratic nomination, he was confronted with the hottest political issue of the day. The night before the opening speech of his campaign, the Ku Klux Klan -- a national force in the 1920s, especially within the Democratic Party -- delivered to Davis a letter offering to provide critical support. Davis read the letter, tore it in two, and handed it back to the Klansman, saying, "That is your answer."
Shortly before Davis's death at age 81, a reporter asked him what advice he could offer. He thought for a moment, and then replied, "Let every man make an honest man of himself[;] then he can be sure there will be one less rascal!"
It is appropriate that Davis shared a birthday with his political godfather, Thomas Jefferson. His bedrock values, completely in line with Jeffersonian conservatism, were the sanctity of private property, the rule of law, and the obligation of the government to ensure equality of opportunity -- not outcome. To this end, he wrote, "The chief aim of all government is to preserve the freedom of the citizen. His control over his person, his property, his movements, his business, his desires should be restrained only so far as the public welfare imperatively demands. The world is in more danger of being governed too much than too little."
Though it may shock today's conservatives (and liberals, for that matter), Davis believed that the traditional role of the Democratic Party (before the twentieth century) had been "to oppose centralization in government as the sure road to tyranny and has demanded the preservation of the local self-governing power of the states." In fact, he always viewed himself as "an old fashioned liberal," in the eighteenth-century sense of the term. Writing to a close friend in the 1940s -- after the term "liberal" had been appropriated by the progressives -- Davis commented, "I have gloried in the name of liberal, which I interpret to mean a love for the greatest liberty consistent with public order. The great trouble with our modern 'liberals' is that they think liberalism means exceeding liberality with other people's money." Not a bad definition for the twenty-first century as well.
So why has Davis been forgotten? In his book, Simple Justice, Richard Kluger suggests that it is because America has abandoned Davis's bedrock values of Jeffersonian conservatism. Private property is no longer synonymous with personal liberty, the Constitution and the rule of law are no longer considered immutable, and the government is committed to equality of outcome rather than opportunity.
Kluger may be right, but there is unfortunately another aspect to Davis's fall into obscurity that is simply too striking to ignore. To wit, even in the 1920s, Davis's civility and graciousness, although widely admired, were not great assets in his presidential race. While he spoke with conviction, Davis was not a rousing stump orator. For his whole career, he had sought to remove every trace of emotion from his oral arguments and to rely instead on the power of his reasoning and command of the facts. His legal career, before and after 1924, attested to his exceptional ability to persuade, but the requirements and the audience of the stump were different from those of any court.
In this respect, Davis's fall into obscurity may have more to do with us than with Davis himself. We live in a society that values sound bites over reasoned arguments, emotional exhortations over appeals to reason. Though Davis was widely beloved for his congeniality, it was his stalwart dedication to facts and truth that made him presidential caliber -- yet even a hundred years ago, the American people were already starting to drift away from their emphasis on this most important criterion.
In short, John W. Davis respected the American Constitution and ethos in a way that puts our era of political hysterics and vanity to shame. If only the people of the United States can return to those bedrock values that so motivated Mr. Davis, then its people might well also experience the joy of re-discovering Mr. Davis himself -- and build a nation all the better for it.
Garland S. Tucker III is president/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, a NYSE-listed specialty finance company, and author of The High Tide of American Conservatism -- Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election (Emerald Book Co., 2010).