McLean County, Illinois
THE HON. DAVID DAVIS, the eminent Judge, Jurist and Statesman, was born in Cecil County, Md., March 9, 1815, and departed this life June 26, 1886, at Bloomington. He had lived out more than the usual period allotted to man, but the immediate cause of his demise was diabetes, superinduced by a complication carbuncle and erysipelas. In the early morning, when the intelligence of his dissolution spread through the city, on every face was depicted an expression of sorrow. Flags were displayed at half-mast, and the bells of the city echoed the sad news. Later in the day houses were draped, and Bloomington assumed an air of deep mourning. Cecil County lies on the eastern shore of Maryland, but a few miles from our National Capital, and here young David spent his youthful days beneath the parental roof. During this period he had made several visits to Washington, the impressions of which remained with him through life, and which he often related to friends in his later years. It was during these visits that the ambition to become President of the United States was planted in his mind. This very laudable desire remained with him even after he had ceased to be in public life, and he waited at his beautiful home in Bloomington for its realization, like Cincinnatus from his plow. He was modest and diffident about this ambition, however, as though it were a mere childish whim, and was sensitive at any allusion by strangers to the subject, although he was wont to converse freely of the matter with his friends.
After completing his preliminary studies young Davis was placed in Kenyon College, Ohio, where he graduated Sept. 4, 1832. In October following he commenced the study of law at Lenox, Mass., in the office of Judge Henry W. Bishop, where he remained two years. From there he went into the New Haven Law School, continuing his studies until the fall of 1835. After receiving his license to practice he settled in Pekin, Tazewell County, Ill., and opened a law office, but one year later removed to Bloomington and took up his abode, where he lived until his earthly labors ended. Upon coming here he took possession of the office of Jesse W. Fell, whom he succeeded as an attorney and counselor, the latter having given up his practice to engage in the real-estate business. Though not an orator, or what might be called a very fluent speaker, he was successful in his practice, and soon obtained an enviable position in the profession.
Before leaving the East Mr. Davis formed the acquaintance of Sarah, the accomplished daughter of Judge Walker, of Lenox, Mass., with whom he was united in marriage Oct. 30, 1838. Of this union there are two children living George P. and a daughter, Mrs. Sarah D. Swayne, both residents of Bloomington. The mother died in 1879. By his second marriage, which was consummated soon after his retirement from the United States Senate, there was no issue.
From the time he became a citizen of Illinois Mr. Davis took an active part in politics. In 1840 he was a candidate on the Whig ticket for State Senator. In 1844 he was elected to the Legislature. In 1847 he was elected a member of the Constitutional Convention, and the year following was chosen Judge of the Eighth Judicial District. He was re-elected twice, and served continuously as Judge of this circuit until 1862, when he was called by his old friend, President Lincoln, to fill one of the highest positions within the gift of this Government, as Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He occupied this exalted position for fifteen years, or until 1877, when he left the Supreme Bench for the National Legislature, succeeding Gen. John A. Logan as Senator from this State.
There have been greater law students than David Davis, but no greater Judges. It was said by one of his eminent colleagues that he knew just enough of law to be a great Judge and not enough to spoil him. His talents were in the direction of common sense, and rose into the region of genius. He never lost sight of the practical ends of litigation. To him the facts of the case were the integral part of it. He was fair and impartial, and rose above prejudice without for a moment forgetting the object in view, which was not to spin fine legal theories, but to promote the ends of justice. No jurist seeking a model could do better than to study the record made by Judge Davis while on the Supreme Bench of the United States. There is no other tribunal in this world that can compare with this. Since the organization of this Government there have been forty-nine Supreme Court Justices, some of whom have been Chief Justices, but each practically having the same authority. Any law passed by Congress can be brought before this Court for its crucial analysis, and from its judgment there is no appeal. More than one narrow escape the country has had from the abuse of this authority, one of the most notable of which was the legal-tender act, which was put upon its Constitutional trial, and made to show cause why it should not be repudiated and thrown out of the window of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Chase, its putative father, was fast yielding to this when Judge Davis made a bold and successful stand, and thus pre vented the act from being strangled to death. Thus the best monetary system the world ever saw was saved to bless mankind.
The last judicial act of Judge Davis, though it may seem a paradox, was a refusal to preside in a judicial capacity. He had been elected by the Legislature of Illinois to the Senate. About this time he was placed on the Electoral Commission as one of the referees to determine which one of the Presidential candidates voted for in 1876 was legally elected. He refused to act, upon the ground that, being a State Senator, at least in embryo, he could not with propriety serve.
The ever memorable year of 1860, memorable not only to the State of Illinois, but to the whole country, may be considered the year in which the subject of this sketch entered upon a career which carried him beyond the confines of his State, and gave him a national reputation. This was the year that witnessed the nomination of Illinois' greatest son for the highest position within the gift of the American people. To David Davis the credit is due more than to any other man for bringing forward and finally securing the nomination at the Chicago Convention, of Abraham Lincoln as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. In this he was assisted greatly by his old friend and fellow-townsman, Jesse W. Fell. Before this Judge Davis had never taken any part in National politics, but this year he sought and secured the election as one of the Senatorial Delegates at the Decatur State Convention, and some days prior to the Chicago Convention he, with others, opened the Lincoln headquarters at the Tremont House, lie appointed himself Master of Ceremonies, called aides about him, set them to work, and took the entire management of Lincoln's candidacy into his own hands. Oglesby was sent into the pit of the " wigwam " to work enthusiasm there and appoint committees to all the State delegations to popularize Lincoln. No one questioned the right of Judge Davis to do this, or doubted his judgment. He was a natural born leader, never gave up, never faltered or made any mistakes. The result of this was that his old friend, who had for so many years tried cases before his court, who had ridden with him on the circuit, swam rivers with him, who had sat with him around the fire place. of the country hostelry late o' nights telling quaint and funny stories Abraham Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for President of the United States.
In 1872 Judge Davis himself came prominently before the people as a third-party man for the Presidential nomination. His name was endorsed for this by the labor reformers at the Columbus Convention, and this through jealousy defeated his nomination by the Liberal Republican Convention at Cincinnati. It has been thought by many prominent politicians that had Mr. Davis instead of Mr. Greeley been nominated at the Cincinnati Convention, he would, as did Greeley, have received the endorsement by the Democratic Convention at Baltimore, which would have secured his election.
Judge Davis took his seat in the United States Senate on the 4th of March, 1877. From his first entrance into this body he was an influential and distinguished member, and so remained until his retirement in 1883. Although possessing but little legislative experience he ranked with the great men of the Senate, serving on the Judiciary Committee with Conkling, Edmonds, Carpenter, Thurman, Garland, and other eminent lawyers of that body. Though the ambition of his life was not yet realized, he came within one degree of it as a Presidential possibility. Only one life stood between him and this exalted position, that of President Arthur. From October, 1881, to March, 1883, he was the acting Vice President of the United States and presiding officer of the Senate.
Judge Davis was a very kind-hearted man, and disliked much to see men at variance with each other, and he could not understand why any man should think ill of him. His heart was as tender s a woman's, and he was as susceptible to flattery as a school-girl. A kind word was always remembered and an unkind one speedily forgotten. Senator Conkling was one day making a great speech in the Senate, on a subject in which there were fine legal points, and often he would turn to Senator Davis as though addressing him. The latter was a little annoyed at being singled out as a target for the great Senator's eloquence, and once interrupted him, asking why his remarks seemed directed at him. Mr. Conkling drew himself up to his full height and quietly, but with great dignity, answered, "When the Musselman prays he turns his face toward Mecca. When I speak of law, I cannot resist the temptation to address myself to the most eminent and learned jurist in the Senate, a man who left the highest tribunal in the world to give this body the honor of his presence and the benefit of his wisdom." These two great en were always the warmest of friends, and during his Senatorial term Judge Davis was constantly seeking to reconcile Conkling with the men whom he disliked, and they were not few. Among these was Elaine. One day the two met accidentally in Mr. Davis' committee room. It was an occasion he had long sought, and joy filled his big heart. "Now look here," he said in his familiar way to the two Senators, who were standing like icebergs beside him, " You two fellows have been enemies long enough, and it is time you made up. You are both good friends of mine, and I want you to be good friends of each other. I want you to shake hands and I'll bless you." Touched by the sincerity of the good old man, these two men gave way for the moment, and the hands of Conkling and Elaine came together the first time for twenty years. But it was not a reconciliation or a surrender of either side ; it was only a momentary truce offered out of reverence for the kind heart that had so much desired to make peace between them. They have never spoken to each other since.
While Judge Davis was active and influential in his congressional life, yet he will be known in history and to fame as a jurist. As a legislator he left no particular impress upon the country, commencing too late in life to do this. By nature, education and training he was pre-eminently qualified for a Judge, and this part of his life the student will find a prolific field for study and instruction. Though possessed of great wealth yet his habits of life were frugal; he lived in the simplest manner. He had rooms on the first floor, fronting on Sixth street, of the National Hotel, which he occupied during his entire life at the Capital as Associate Justice and as Senator. His rooms were commodious but plainly furnished. His lunch while at the Capitol building, either as Justice or Senator, consisted of two apples, a ginger cookie and a glass of milk. This was taken at precisely the same hour every day, standing at a lunch-counter in the Senate corridor. The counter was presided over by an old woman who is known to history as " Dyspepsia Mary."
Judge Davis in stature was nearly six feet in height, of heavy weight, large forehead, clear blue eyes, prominent nose and altogether of commanding figure. In disposition he was genial, companionable, benevolent, charitable and kind. Though not a member of any church yet he believed in all religions and contributed liberally to all denominations. He was broad and Catholic in his views and in his conduct. Many a school-house and many a church building in Central Illinois rest to-day on a lot given by him. He had a numerous tenantry on his extensive estates, and when from drought or other causes there was a failure in crops, he would remit to his tenants his entire claims for rent. About his home when he died there were many old persons who were living on his bounty. In land investments and land speculations he was shrewd and possessed an insight into future valuation of property that was truly remarkable. It was through his land operations that he accumulated an estate which at his death was estimated at about $600,000 ; and it may be said of Judge Davis that this vast estate was acquired by him without ever having wronged or oppressed his fellow-men. In private life he was absolutely above reproach. Honest, robust, tender and considerate, he passed triumphantly through life a model in character and a model of success, finishing up at life's close, a completely rounded, personal individuality. He was never the circumference of an occasion, but always near the center, molding with his great mind and noble character the forces about him. Nature and education had stamped upon him every lineament of gentility. No occasion ever found him inferior to its demands and whether among the humblest or the richest and most powerful of the land, he was the same inborn gentleman. He was, to quote from his favorite author :
A combination and a form indeed. When every god did seem to set his seal, To give the world assurance of a man.
Portrait and biographical album of McLean County, Ill. : containing full page portraits and biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens of the county, together with portraits and biographies of all the governors of Illinois, and of the presidents of the United States. (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1887), 187-190. Transcribed by Judy Rosella Edwards.
JUDGE DAVID DAVIS was born on the 9th day of March, 1815, in Cecil county, Maryland. His family was of Welsh origin, but had been settled in that county more than a century, and had acquired in every particular the distinctive features of American nationality.
He was unfortunate in the loss of his father at an early age; but the kindness of an uncle in many ways atoned in some measure for his early privation. His father left sufficient estate, not only to educate him in classical acquirements, but enough to enable him to live beyond the apprehension of want, during the years of unproductive life, in the early career of manhood. This patrimony was, through the dishonesty and negligence of his guardian, lost to him.
Having attended the local schools of Maryland, at the age of thirteen he was entered a student at Kenyon College, Ohio, from which he graduated at the age of seventeen. Although he had no special talent for public speaking, his taste and inclination directed his attention to the bar as the business of life. As has been said, he had sufficient means to enable him to acquire an education and profession. He was not borne down by the privations of poverty, nor was he enervated by the expectation of hereditary riches. The lines had fallen to him in the golden mean, between want and wealth.
After leaving college, he went to Lenox, Massachusetts, and read law in the office of Judge Henry W. Bishop, then one of the leading lawyers of Massachusetts. After remaining in the law office of Judge Bishop about two years, he attended the New Haven Law School for one year. With a good classical education, a course of reading in the office of Judge Bishop, and a term at New Haven, he was fully prepared to enter upon the responsible and arduous duties of a practicing lawyer.
His residence in Ohio, and other information, impressed on his mind the magnitude of the resources of the Mississippi Valley, especially the northwest; and on being admitted to the bar he emigrated, in the year 1835, to Illinois. It has been said, "At the time he sought his home in the west as a very young man, he traversed the breadth of nearly five states then in comparative infancy, that he might grow with the growth, and strengthen with the strength of that commonwealth, which has so honored him by its confidence, and whose history his name has enriched in the example of a great character." He first located at Pekin, but after a short time, in 1836, he removed to Bloomington, which for a period of fifty years was his home.
In 1838 he was married to Miss Sarah W. Walker, daughter of Judge William P. Walker, of Lenox, Massachusetts. She was well worthy to be the wife of Judge Davis, and shared with him the privations of his early struggles, and the prosperity of his later triumphs, with all the grace and dignity that is born of the beauty of goodness. The Judge, on coming to the years of responsible life, followed the hereditary tendency of his family in politics, and became an ardent Whig.
He had a great admiration for Mr. Clay, which amounted to an enthusiasm. In 1840 he was the Whig candidate in the Bloomington district for state senator, but the majority being largely against his party, he was defeated by Governor John Moore, then and for many years after one of the popular Democrats of the state. While the Judge was active in politics, he did not permit his party to interfere with his practice. He was most diligent in and devoted to his profession. Shortly after his coming to the bar, he was offered the position of clerk of the court, in which he could make four times his income from his practice; but he declined, having no doubt the inspiration of that hope, which, in the end of his career, placed him among the most distinguished jurists of the United States. Daniel Webster had the same experience with a clerkship in the commencement of his career as a lawyer, and disposed of it in the same way — much to the disgust and disappointment of his father.
In 1844 Judge Davis was elected to the lower house of the Illinois legislature, and distinguished himself by the clearness and accuracy of his views of the law, and his great capacity of labor in the committee room. He declined a re-nomination. Although pronounced in his political opinions, he was not a politician; he delighted in the practice of law, and the acquirement of that information which would enable him to discharge the higher functions of judge.
During the time of his practice, the bar of central Illinois was very able, and afterwards became most distinguished. Among the prominent were Mr. Lincoln, Judge Logan, Judge Douglas, Colonel Baker — one of the most brilliant orators of his day — Judge Trumbull, Major Stuart, Mr. Browning and Colonel Hardin. It would be untrue, and therefore unjust to the memory of Judge Davis, to rank him with some of those names as a practicing lawyer. He always disclaimed the comparison, and an honest chronicler should disclaim it for him.
The profession of law had to him a wider range than the ambition of the barrister. Nature had made him a judge by the same mysterious economy that it had made others advocates, and while he was not to wear the glory of the gown, he was to be graced by the beauty of the ermine. While at the bar he had a judicial cast of mind, and his career as a lawyer marks the high mission and duty of the truly professional in the economy of society.
In 1847 he was elected to the constitutional convention which framed the constitution of 1848, and he bore a very important part, especially in work providing for and establishing the judicial department. During his public life as a legislator he has been conspicuous in his efforts to remodel and improve the judicial machinery of both the state and national governments. The present system of federal appellate jurisdiction is modeled on the plan proposed by him when a member of the senate of the United States, and which passed that body with marked unanimity.
At the time of the adoption of the constitution of 1848 he had been at the bar about twelve years, and during that time had most diligently given his attention to the practice, and had impressed upon the mind of the bar and the people of central Illinois the fact that he was most eminently qualified for the bench. At the first election of judge, without opposition he was elected in a circuit composed of fourteen counties, embracing McLean and Sangamon. At the time he became identified with the bar of Illinois, in 1836, Mr. Lincoln was struggling in the commencement of that career which not only made him conspicuous in the ranks of the profession, but marked him as one of the greatest men of history. Between him and Judge Davis, from their first acquaintance to the close of Mr. Lincoln's life, a most cordial intimacy existed. In the exercise of that unerring judgment which enabled the Judge to pass upon the qualities of men, he discerned in Mr. Lincoln intellectual and moral attributes of the highest order.
After Mr. Davis became judge, Mr. Lincoln continued to travel the circuit, attending court in all counties in the circuit, contributing by his learning and ability to the administration of justice, and to the social enjoyment of life by a humor unsurpassed in the richness of its merriment. In 1848 the soil of the circuit had not been broken by the survey of a railroad, and his duties as judge required him to hold two sessions of the court in each year, in fourteen of the largest counties of the state. The clearness and quickness of his intellect, his preparatory education, both literary and professional, and his practice, had fully capacitated him to discharge with promptness the various and laborious duties of his position. In some of the qualities of a judge he has but few superiors in the long line of judicial ability with which our history as a people has been graced.
The important duty of a judge is not all performed in the statement and application of the just principles of the law; these can be gathered, in a majority of cases, from vast storehouses of jurisprudence, to which in England and America, the eminent judges and lawyers have contributed; but to ascertain the truth, to eliminate error, and to adjust the rights of parties, on the facts as they really exist, is the exercise of a faculty that cannot be directed by adjudged cases. The preservation of estates and the protection of infants against the incompetency or dishonesty of guardians, and the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators, marked one of his traits as a circuit judge. His faithfulness in behalf of the trust estate of wards may have been strengthened by his own experience, the estate inherited from his father having been squandered by an unscrupulous and irresponsible guardian. He had great faith in the ultimate value of Illinois land, and it required a very urgent necessity to justify the sale of an infant's real estate. His administration of the law in the circuit court was most eminently satisfactory to the people and the bar. But few appeals were taken from his decisions, and his dispatch of the public business was a marvel of efficiency and industry.
He was a natural born judge, and while he was not tyrannical, he forcibly exercised power to accomplish the ends of justice. After his election as judge in 1848, he ceased any active agency in politics, but continued his adhesion to the Whig party until its disruption after the disastrous campaign of 1852. Although anti-slavery in his thoughts and feeling, he disliked the radical tendency of the Abolitionists. In the campaign of 1858 he took a great interest, being opposed to repeal of the Missouri compromise, and a devoted friend of Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln and Judge Douglas had been the great champions of the Whig and Democratic parties, and aside from Judge Davis' persona! attachment to Mr. Lincoln, he was interested in him as the great leader of the opposition to the Democratic party. Mr. Lincoln, though defeated for Senator, laid the foundation in 1858 for his election to the Presidency.
Upon his great success in the joint debate in 1858, Judge Davis, in common with the rest of Mr. Lincoln's personal friends in Illinois, enlarged the boundaries of his ambition, and from that time he was an avowed candidate for the Presidency. In that candidacy Judge Davis took a lively interest, and bore a most distinguished part. He thought that the aspirations of his most intimate friend for the highest office in the land justified his participation in politics. The National Convention of the Republicans met in Chicago on the 16th day of May, 1860, and to that convention he was one of the delegates-at-large. He was so much devoted to the interests of Mr. Lincoln that he could not absent himself from the convention, and besides, it was Mr. Lincoln's personal desire that he should attend.
This was the first great convention held by the Republican party, and had before it as candidates the most distinguished statesmen of that party and of its delegates, the ablest members and the most accomplished politicians. Judge Davis, from the commencement to the close, was recognized as the leader of Mr. Lincoln's forces, and without his agency in that convention it may be doubted whether he would have received the nomination. In his adhesion to Mr. Lincoln he was not actuated by his personal friendship, but by an abiding faith in the ability and integrity of the man.
While he had no apprehension that the election of a Republican as President would involve the country in war, he thought that the grave responsibility that would fall upon the choice of that party would require ability of the highest order and patriotism of the most heroic mold. He took a great interest in the campaign which followed the nomination, but did not participate in it as an active politician. He continued to hold the Circuit Court uninterruptedly until the autumn of 1862.
During the first year of the war the Department of Missouri, through the inefficient administration of the quartermaster, became a chaos of confusion, with millions of money contracted and claimed, with honest demands delayed and dishonest claims pressed for payment. The President, to relieve the embarrassment of the situation, appointed a commission consisting of Judge Davis, General Holt and Mr. Campbell, of St. Louis, to investigate and pass judgment upon the rights of the parties.
It was an immense work of investigation, and required the highest grade of talent to bring order and justice out of the confusion. The three men as a combination had the best quality of ability for the task — Judge Davis and General Holt being eminent lawyers, and Mr. Campbell being one of the most experienced merchants of St. Louis. The findings and reports of that commission have been quoted by the highest courts of the land, and the result accomplished by it is an enduring compliment to the integrity and capacity of the men who composed it.
During the fourteen years in which Judge Davis presided in the Circuit Court of Illinois the popular estimate which the bar and the people had made of his ability to perform the duties was justified beyond the most sanguine expectations of his friends, so that when a vacancy occurred in the Supreme Court of the United States in the Circuit including the State of Illinois, he was recognized by the bar as the person to be appointed to that responsible position. The President had an acquaintance with all the prominent lawyers of the circuit, and had the most intimate knowledge of the ability of Judge Davis, and into his hands, by the Constitution, was committed the power and duty of selecting from those lawyers a fit justice for the most important court ever instituted by man. In the quality of Washington, which in the selection of a public officer arose superior to the obligation of personal friendship, President Lincoln, as shown by his administration, was not deficient; and it must be presumed that in the selection of Judge Davis the public had a just regard for the exigencies of the condition of the country which prompted his selection as one of the justices of the United States Supreme Court.
After a service of fourteen years on the circuit bench of Illinois he was, in November, 1862, transferred to the higher jurisdiction of the national judiciary. He had not been accustomed to the accuracy of judicial thought required in the preparation of written opinions, but had most thoroughly investigated and studied the law in all the leading features of its administration. At the time he became a member of the Supreme Court it was composed of some of the ablest judges of its entire history. The promotion was well calculated to embarrass him with grave apprehensions of his success, for while he was brave and fearless when boldness was a virtue, he had a modest appreciation of his own ability. His opinions, when deliberately formed, though firm, while in the process of development, were susceptible to every legitimate and logical influence.
At the time he became a member of the Supreme Court many questions of importance were pending — questions not of property, not of individual reputation — but great questions of international and public law, questions of civil liberty, not in the interpretation of statutes, but in the construction of the constitution of the United States. He was eminently conservative in the tendency of his mind and judgment; and while he did not coincide with many of the theories of constitutional construction in favor of a strong government, he believed in the sovereignty of the Federal power, in the passage and execution of such laws as it might determine were within the purview of the Constitution.
He believed in that theory of the Constitution which recognized the Union, not as a mere compact between the States, but as a government formed upon the adoption of the people, and creating direct relations between itself and the citizen. In the discharge of his new duty as a justice of the Supreme Court he soon impressed his brethren of the bench with his superior judicial qualifications, and he wrote but few opinions until the American bar was satisfied that the President made no mistake in his selection of a judge.
The period of the war was remarkably prolific in forcing upon the consideration of all the departments of the Government new issues of legal inquiry. The financial policy of the Government, the belligerent rights of enemies, questions of personal liberty, military commissions, questions of prize — in fact all the interests of fifty millions of people, both of peace and war, were the subject matter of jurisdictions from 1862 to 1877.
One of the most important cases of the period was assigned to him — a case which excited great public interest and provoked much popular discussion. The matter at issue, being a question of individual liberty, and the power of the Government in time of war, made it one of the great historical cases, ranking in importance with Marbtay vs. Madison, and the Dartmouth College case. It is the case of ex parte Milligan, and an examination of it will justify the resolution of the McLean county bar "That we do most especially appreciate, as fine specimens of judicial statement, his opinions which embrace a discussion of the genius and mold of the American government, and recognize those opinions as worthy of a place among the great judicial interpretations of the American Constitution." The leading thoughts of the decision are: " The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, and at all times, and under all circumstances. The government, within the constitution, has all the powers granted to it, which are necessary to preserve its existence, as has been happily proved by the result of the great effort to overthrow it." It will be seen by an examination of the reports containing his opinions, that he fearlessly followed the dictates of an honest judgment, regardless of what might be the prejudice or passion of the hour, and whether his reason was on one side or the other of the line of popular clamor, he followed the logic of his convictions.
After the close of the war many cases came before the Supreme Court involving the constitutionality of the legal tender acts. In the case of Hepburn vs. Griswold, a majority of the Court held that " There is in the constitution no express grant of legislative power to make any description of credit currency a legal tender in payment of debt. " The effect of this decision was to invalidate by judicial judgment one of the most important acts of the Government in the prosecution of the war, and to disturb the business of the country, by making nothing but coin applicable to the payment of debts contracted before the passage of the acts of Congress providing for the issue of Treasury notes. To that decision Judge Davis, with Judges Swayne and Miller dissented.
In a short time, after the promulgation of this decision, other cases reached the Supreme Court involving the same question, and in what is known as the "legal tender cases" the Court reversed the decision of Hepburn vs. Griswold, by holding, " The acts of Congress known as the Legal Tender Acts are constitutional when applied to contracts made before their passage, and are also applicable to contracts made since." The last decision was made by a divided Court, Judge Davis holding with the majority that Congress had the power to pass the legal tender acts of 1862 and 1863.
Mr. Choate, with the wand of his genius, has marked with beautiful accuracy the perfect judge: " He shall know nothing about the parties; everything about the case. He shall do everything for justice; nothing for himself; nothing for his patrons; nothing for his sovereign. If on one side is the executive power and the legislature and the people — the source of his honors, the givers of his daily bread — and on the other side an individual, nameless and odious, his eye is to see neither great nor small, attending only to the trepidations of the balance." " Give," says Mr. Choate, " to the community such a Judge and I care little who makes the rest of the constitution, or what party administers it. It will be a free government." To this ideal, high though it is, Judge Davis attained. Although he had not participated in politics since the convention of i860, in January, 1872, the Labor Reform party nominated him for President.
Owing to the dissatisfaction in the Republican party the liberal movement was inaugurated in the early part of 1872, which culminated in a convention in May; and to that convention his name was submitted as a candidate. Illinois was divided between Judge Davis and Senator Trumbull, which destroyed the chances of both. The friends of Judge Davis were largely in the majority, but there being no state convention held in Illinois, the question had to be settled by an equal division of the delegation. The result of the convention was the nomination of Mr. Greeley, and the memorable campaign of 1872.
In the election of 1876 in Illinois neither of the great parties secured a majority of the legislature, and the balance of power was held by the Independent party, which nominated Judge Davis as its candidate for the United States Senate. General Logan was the nominee for the Republican party and various persons were supported by the Democracy. After a contest lasting from the first of January until the first of March, the Democracy united with the Independents and elected the Judge a Senator from the 4th of March, 1877.
The honor was unsolicited on his part, and no effort was made by him to influence the choice of the legislature. He did not exchange the court for the senate because he preferred the dignity and duty of the latter; but because the legislature tendered him the place, and under all the circumstances he did not feel at liberty to decline.
His career as judge commenced in 1848 and ended in 1877, making a continuous service of twenty-nine years of judicial labor. Upon his retirement his brethren of the bench left upon the records of the court an enduring memorial of his many virtues as shown by correspondence. On the 5th of March, 1877, he addressed his brethren of the court: " My official connection with the Supreme Court of the United States closes to-day. Having passed all the years of my active life at the bar or on the bench, it is not without serious misgivings that I enter upon a new sphere of public service; but I have not felt at liberty to decline a seat in the Senate, with which I have been honored by the General Assembly of the State of Illinois. Having severed the relations which have existed between us for so many years, I beg leave to bear my testimony to the eminent learning, ability and integrity which have characterized your judicial labors. From the organization of the government, the Supreme Court has been composed of able and upright judges. In my judgment, it is now as worthy of the confidence of the American people as it ever has been at any period of its history. Since I was invited to its councils by President Lincoln, six of its members have been numbered with the dead. I take great satisfaction in the reflection that my relations with them, and all my associates, have been uniformly kind and cordial. In offering you my parting salutations, I beg you to be assured of the respect and sincere good wishes with which I remain your friend and servant."
To which the Court by letter replied: "We have received with sincere regret your letter announcing that your official connection with us is closed. During the fifteen years in which you have been a member of this Court, questions of the gravest character have come before it for adjudication, and you have borne your full share of the labor and responsibility which their decision involved. We shall miss you in the conference room, your wise judgment and your just appreciation of facts; in the reception room, your kind and courteous greetings. With the hope that your life in the future may be as useful as it has been in the past, and that the ties of personal friendship which now bind us so closely to you may never be broken, we subscribe ourselves very sincerely your friends."
While he had but little legislative experience when he became a member of the Senate, he at once took a position among the leaders of that distinguished body, serving on the judiciary committee with Edmunds, Conkling, Thurman, Garland, Carpenter, and other great lawyers of the American Senate. In November, 1879, less than two years after his election, Mrs. Davis, who had been in delicate health for some time, died at her old home in Massachusetts, leaving after her the memory of many acts of kindness in alleviating the wants of the poor, both in Washington and the city in which she lived for nearly half a century.
Judge Davis served as acting vice-president for nearly two years, and with but little experience in the technical knowledge of parliamentary law he decided every question that came before the Senate without submission, and never was reversed by the action of the Senate. In the Senate, as in every other situation, he commanded the respect and confidence of his associates, and retired from that body at the end of his term to enjoy the ease and comfort of private life. As a member of the judiciary committee, he performed faithful service in shaping the legislation of Congress during the entire term of his office.
In March, 1883, upon the expiration of his term as senator, he was married to Miss Adeline Burr, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, a lady of many accomplishments and fitted in every respect for the high social position which she occupied as the wife of Judge Davis.
After his retirement from the senate, he devoted his attention to private business, which, on account of his extensive property, was large and exacting. As he approached the age of seventy, the vigor of his constitution and the vivacity of his spirits became much impaired by the encroachments of disease, and on the 26th of June, 1886, after an illness of several months, he passed the mysterious change of death.
At the time of his decease, though retired from public life, men of all creeds and of all parties anxiously hoped for his restoration to health and vigor. As a public man, he filled no ordinary space in the affections of the people, and in the appreciation of personal friendship throughout the length and breadth of a land made better and happier by the goodness and greatness of his character.
He left surviving as children Mr. George Perrin Davis and Mrs. Sarah D. Swayne to perpetuate the worth of a life rich in the goodness of duty performed. Nature and education had stamped upon him every lineament of gentility. Though he was wealthy, fortune making was not a passion of his life. He loved thrift, independence and possession; but mere wealth had no allurements for him.
He served the state as a judge at a nominal salary, to the great sacrifice of his pecuniary interests, and his whole life was devoted to the public service to the detriment of his private fortune. His life was a success; not accidental, but deserved. He approached the ladder of fortune and fame and placed his feet on every round on which he stood as the result of his own labor and merit. If he had opportunity, he created it; if he had success, he achieved it; if he had victory, he won it. He produced the conditions of his own advancement.
He filled three score and ten years with goodness and crowned them with greatness. He commanded the respect of his fellow citizens of all sections and of all parties, and, in the language of Judge Kelley: " He is so well known to the country by his career as an independent senator and a learned and conscientious justice of the supreme court of the United States."
[The Biographical record of McLean County, Illinois - S.J. Clarke Publishing Company - (1899)]
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