The man who made Lincoln President

Political conventions in the 19th century were wild, chaotic affairs. Unlike today’s quadrennial events which ratify nominees chosen weeks or months earlier, conventions in the 1800s saw enormous amounts of wheeling and dealing among those vying for nominations, as well as for cabinet posts, patronage and a myriad of other potential spoils from the victor.

Ironically enough, the President who has gone down in history as the most honest man ever to sit in the Oval Office secured his nomination through this traditional method of horse-trading, and it was a Bloomington judge named David Davis who helped him to do it; ensuring that Abraham Lincoln would be the Republican nominee for President at the 1860 convention in Chicago.

David Davis came to Illinois in the 1830s and settled in Bloomington after obtaining an education at Yale and at Ohio’s Kenyon College. Born in Maryland in 1815, Davis married Sarah Woodruff Walker of Massachusetts and together they had two children. He practiced law in New England before setting out for the frontier, first in Tazewell County, Illinois, and then McLean County.

Davis was elected to the Illinois House as a Whig at the age of 29 and served as a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention which produced the state’s second Constitution in 1848 (his great grandson, State Senator David Davis IV, helped write the current Illinois state Constitution as a member of the 1969-1970 convention). That same year he was elected Judge of the 8th Circuit in central Illinois. It was there that he met the young lawyer from Springfield.

Davis and Lincoln crossed paths often. In the mid-19th century court hearings were one part solemn legal proceeding, one part traveling road show. Judges rode a multi-county circuit, holding court in the county seat only on a certain number of scheduled days each year. Lawyers in the area would follow the court schedule and travel to the courthouse towns, signing up clients and preparing for their hearings. When the judges and lawyers would ride into town, residents would turn out at the courthouse, eager for the entertainment. They were rarely disappointed.

Bound for the same town at the same time, it was inevitable that Lincoln and Davis would begin riding the circuit together, and the two became close friends. When Lincoln sought the Presidency, he chose Davis to run his campaign. Davis was a natural in the raucous atmosphere of the convention halls as Lincoln vied with other prominent northern Republicans for the 1860 nomination.

Davis began by working the Illinois delegation to ensure that it would support the state’s favorite son. Lincoln’s campaign managers set to work cutting the customary deals for support from other influential leaders and their state delegations. These efforts included an arrangement with Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron which would lead to Cameron receiving a Cabinet post after Pennsylvania’s delegate vote swung to Lincoln on the convention’s second ballot. The move came in direct contravention of instructions issued by Lincoln: “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” The agreement with Cameron was therefore considered an understanding, not a bargain.

They swayed other delegates by portraying Lincoln as the only viable alternative to the incendiary New York Senator William Seward. The hard work by Davis and others paid off, as Lincoln was nominated for President on the third ballot.

“A lot of factors got Lincoln nominated, but the biggest factor was he had a friend like Davis who was a very skilled politician in 1860,” said Guy Fraker a Bloomington historian. “That’s something we in Bloomington can be very proud of.”

Lincoln of course won the Presidency that November and then set about fulfilling the promises (and understandings) that had been made at the convention, assembling what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called his “Team of Rivals,” a Cabinet made up of vanquished foes such as Seward for Secretary of State, Cameron as Secretary of War and Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase for Secretary of the Treasury.

One person not initially rewarded was Davis.

“After Lincoln was elected President, there were two openings on the Supreme Court,” said Fraker in an interview with the Bloomington Pantagraph. “All the lawyers who knew Davis told Lincoln to take care of him and give him a seat. Lincoln never responded to any of that and their mutual friends were quite critical of his decision.”

But Davis’ turn did eventually come. On December 1, 1862, Lincoln nominated Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was confirmed a week later and became an Associate Justice.

Justice David Davis (far left) and other members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photo from the University of Chicago Library.

On the Court Davis was a guardian of civil liberties and was instrumental in striking the balance between civil and military government in the south after the Civil War. He wrote an opinion striking down a death sentence handed down by a military court against a civilian, arguing instead that the case should have been tried in a civil court. Davis was considered a Presidential contender in 1872, even being nominated by one of the splinter parties of the era, but he declined the nomination. He still received one electoral vote from Missouri in an election won overwhelmingly by his fellow Illinoisan Ulysses S. Grant.

That same year the Davis family constructed a new home in Bloomington. Built by Alfred Piquenard; the same architect who designed the new state capitol building then under construction in Springfield; the 36-room house called Clover Lawn was completed at a cost of $75,000.

In the next Presidential election Davis dodged a major political bullet, with some help from the Illinois General Assembly.

The 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio and Samuel Tilden of New York was still unresolved two days before the date of the inauguration in March. Desperate to break the deadlock, Congress set up an electoral commission of seven Republicans and seven Democrats to resolve the matter. To break any potential ties, Justice Davis was named as the 15thmember of the commission due to his reputation for independence, integrity and honesty.

As events would play out, this would have placed Davis in the position of personally choosing the 19th President of the United States. But just before the commission was to meet, Davis was notified that he had been selected by the Illinois legislature as the state’s next U.S. Senator. Resigning from the Court to take the Senate seat, Davis also had to leave the commission. It was left to his successor, Joseph Philo Bradley, to break the tie and hand the Presidency to Hayes, earning the inevitable contempt of half the nation.

In the Senate Davis was immediately well-respected for his integrity. In the last two years of his one and only term in that body Davis was chosen as President Pro Tempore, the second-highest ranking office in the Senate behind only the Vice President of the United States. When President James A. Garfield was assassinated in 1881 and his Vice President Chester A. Arthur became the 21st President of the United States; thus leaving the vice presidency vacant; Senator Davis, under the law then in effect, became next in line for the Presidency. He was even unofficially known by some of his colleagues as “Mr. Vice President.”

David Davis Mansion in Bloomington. 
Nearing the age of 70, Davis did not stand for a second term and retired from the Senate in 1883. He returned to Clover Lawn with his family, where he died on June 26, 1886. At the time of his death the estate was valued at more than $4 million. The house was donated by the Davis family to the state of Illinois in 1960 and remains one of central Illinois’ most popular tourist attractions. It is now known as the David Davis Mansion, and hosts more than 40,000 visitors per year.

Justice David Davis, the man who perhaps did more than any other to make Abraham Lincoln President of the United States, is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington.