John W. Davis and the presidential election in 1924 made U.S. history on a number fronts

By Local News | May 11, 2017
By Feature Writer & Historian Rod Rogers.  As the minutes ticked away ending a beautiful spring day on the thirteenth of April 1873, Anna Kennedy Davis gave birth to her first and only son, John William Davis. Anna had been reading Gibbon’s, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; in fact she was on the last volume of Gibbon’s monumental work. She had been reading the last of the chapters quickly in her attempt to complete the volumes in totality before giving birth. The last chapter in the last volume was never finished.  She closed the book and sent for her husband, John James Davis.  That night the word traveled throughout Clarksburg, West Virginia that, “They got em a boy at John J’s.”  The Davis household on Mechanics Street (later renamed Washington Avenue) was full of happiness.
 
The fact that John William Davis was born on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is not in contention, however there was some dispute in the Davis family for years as to the exact hour of young John’s arrival.  One sister said he was born at nine o’clock p.m., and another sister had stated that he was actually born well after midnight.  His mother always adamantly claimed that John was in fact born twenty minutes till twelve.  Her record will have to stand; after all she was in fact present. 
 
It was her sister who wrapped him in towels and presented the young John William Davis to his mother, and announced on behalf of the family, “He is a noble Roman.”
 
The education of young John rested mainly on the shoulders of his mother.  Everyone that knew Anna knew that education and study was her life.  She was, in fact, one of the first women in the United States to receive a college degree. In 1858, she had graduated from Baltimore Women’s College, only the second institution in the country to confer degrees on women.
 
John was educated at home until the age of 10. At which time his mother started planning John’s formal education. He attended several private schools early in his childhood such as the Clarksburg (WV) Female Seminary, and Pantops Academy (VA). He later attended Washington and Lee where he received his Law Degree.
 
In 1910, against John’s wishes, the state Democratic Party leaders nominated him for a seat in Congress representing the First District. That November John Davis easily triumphed over his opponent, Charles E. Carrigan. John became the first Democrat to represent the First Congressional District since 1894.
 
In the fall of 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed John W. Davis as Solicitor General of the United States, a position which he was more than qualified. Davis himself stated, “I think the office of Solicitor General is the most attractive office within the gift of government for the man who loves the practice of law.”
 
Both of Davis’ parents died during his solicitor generalship. His father, John J., died in 1916, Anna his mother in 1917.  Both are buried in the family plot located at the Odd Fellows cemetery on Chestnut Street in Clarksburg (WV).
 
Davis resigned his position as Solicitor General in the fall of 1918 to again resume private practice. He had earned the respect and affection of all his associates. In fact, he had earned the reputation of being the greatest Solicitor General in the nation’s history.  As Solicitor General, John argued more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone in the twentieth century. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes perhaps said it the best, “there was never anybody more elegant, more clear, more concise or more logical than John W. Davis.”
 
President Wilson soon called Davis back to duty. On September 6, 1918, John Davis was asked to accept the appointment of Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, by Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. After conferring with friends and family he formally accepted the assignment on September 11, 1918.
 
Davis did a remarkable job as Ambassador. He was truly admired and loved by the British people. At the end of his tenure as the Ambassador, according to the London Observer on March 6, 1921, “virtually every newspaper in England praised him for his dignity and sincerity, for the eloquence of his formal addresses and the charm of his after dinner talks, for the sensitivity that had softened conflict and kept the mutual interest of the two great democracies in the foreground…everyone who knew him and his work agreed that the United States had never had a more beloved representative at the court of Saint James.” When Davis sailed for home, the British Navy passed in review, its sailors cheering, as his homeward bound ship steamed by. John W. Davis was the only American Ambassador ever to be honored in this way by the British Government.
 
Before he resigned as Ambassador, Davis’ name was being floated by some West Virginians as a possible nominee for President in 1920. The Clarksburg Exponent newspaper headline on June 22, 1920, read, “MUCH DAVIS SENTIMENT AT SAN FRANCISCO.” Stephen Jackson and Clem Shaver chaired the Davis group at the convention. They had even gone as far as opening campaign headquarters near the convention at the Palace Hotel. All financed by a former WV Senator and mine owner, Clarence A. Watson, whom had donated $25,000.00.  
 
Davis was impressed, but nevertheless sincerely wanted to return to private practice and also because he had no intentions or desires to run, Davis delayed his resignation, for fear that his leaving would add additional speculation that he was indeed a candidate. As the convention deadlocked and the number of ballots went on, many felt that Davis was certain to be the nominee. However on the forty-fourth roll call, James Cox received the nomination. Davis actively campaigned for Cox and his young running mate, Franklin Roosevelt in the fall of 1920.
 
In 1924, Davis’ political momentum was increasing. He was being mention in several national publications as a possible candidate for President. A poll of 1900 attorneys, politicians, businessmen and labor leaders gave him 44 percent, well ahead of others mentioned as possible candidates. By spring Davis had already agreed to a minimal campaign effort. In March he authorized Louis Johnson (future Secretary of War) to send campaign literature to Washington and Lee alumni.
 
On the 24th of June, the Democratic Convention formally opened in the old Madison Square Garden, as the hottest most oppressive heat wave enveloped New York City. Everyone thought this convention was going to be different than past conventions due to the fact that the proceedings would be broadcast nationwide by radio-a first.  But the delegates and their alternates had no idea how different this convention would be. They would soon find out.
 
As the convention progressed Al Smith and former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, the son-in-law of President Wilson were the chief contenders of the nomination, but they were deadlocked. The convention found itself bitterly divided over a number of issues such as; prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, the League of Nations and progressive economics. Neither side would release their delegates for fear of having to support the other. The two contenders finally agreed after ninety-three ballots to withdraw. 
 
Davis support soon grew.  On the 103rd ballot he was far from being nominated when the Texas delegation headed by Governor Pat N. Neff, unexpectedly switched to Davis. Franklin Roosevelt followed by announcing that New York was casting 60 of its ninety votes for John W. Davis. The convention then rushed to support Davis; he was declared the Democratic nominee by acclamation. The motion carried and at 3:25 Wednesday afternoon, July 9, the ninth day of balloting and the fifteenth day of the convention, John W. Davis was declared the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
 
The convention of 1924 set several records such as; the first political convention ever broadcast nation-wide on radio, the longest political convention in history, and the most hotdogs and beer consumed. The convention lasted so long that a group of New York businessmen headed up by William Randolph Hurst donated money to the delegates and the alternates to pay for their room and board. Some attendees even needed financial assistance for the travel cost home.
 
Even though William Jennings Bryan, adamantly opposed John Davis’ nomination throughout the convention, his brother, Nebraska Governor Charles Bryan was nominated as his vice presidential running mate. Just another example that politics does in-fact make strange bed fellows-amen!
 
The fact that the convention was the longest in history meant absolutely nothing to the citizens of West Virginia and more specifically Clarksburg. All they knew was a fellow West Virginian and Clarksburg native had been nominated for President.  The town of Clarksburg erupted almost immediately; thousands were involved in impromptu parades, parties, fireworks, etc. It was definitely “a hot time in the ole town” that night. The following morning Clarksburg, West Virginia found itself famous, as the birthplace of John W. Davis.

It was reported in several national publications that never before had a single town produced a candidate for President (John W. Davis), Senate (Guy Goff), and Governor (Howard Gore).
When the official word came that the formal notification would be held in Clarksburg, Samuel R. Bentley, President of the Clarksburg Chamber of Commerce, and a local Insurance executive asked Dorsey Potter to travel to New York to coordinate the arrangements. Mr. Potter wired Bentley on July 11 that the date of the notification would be in thirty days (August 11).
 
On July 12, just three days after the nomination, Samuel Bentley, held a meeting with citizens who were interested in organizing the Davis Day celebrations. The group organized a total of 21 different committees. The committees ranged from auto traffic, housing bureau, tourist camps, music, pictures-still & moving, and of course finance. The committees worked night and day.
 
The B & O Railroad planned to run special trains with Pullman and Diner from Washington, D.C.  Monongahela Power ran thousands of feet of electric line into the Goff Plaza section of Clarksburg to illuminate the historical speech, seventy-five Boy Scouts would act as messengers wherever needed. Clarksburg was ready.
 
On Saturday morning August 9, the VIP’s started arriving into Clarksburg at the B & O railroad station. The town was packed with citizens and visitors alike. At exactly 9:15am Davis’ special train pulled into the train station in the Glen Elk section of Clarksburg. Several local bands were playing to celebrate the arrival of their favorite son. As Davis disembarked from the train several dignitaries representing Clarksburg; City Manager Harrison B. Otis and Chamber of Commerce President Samuel R. Bentley greeted him. 
 
After making his way to his car he stood in the back of the touring car and addressed the thousands in attendance, “Just as in every crisis in my life, I have come back [home] for sympathy, and for encouragement.  I shall leave you strengthened for the task ahead.” Davis then joined by John C. Johnson of Bridgeport, West Virginia, his long-time political mentor and Governor Saunders of Louisville, Kentucky traveled in the open car to the Davis residence located on Lee Avenue. All along the way well-wishers were lined elbow-to-elbow, 6 and 7 deep along the streets of Clarksburg.
 
Once at the Davis residence the candidate greeted family, friends and supporters well into the early afternoon. At approximately 2:30p.m. Davis and his entourage headed to Fairmont, West Virginia on a special Traction (rail) car. Upon arrival to Fairmont, Davis was greeted by approximately 10,000 well-wishers. Davis traveled to the home of his Campaign Manager, Clem Shaver, where he addressed the enthuastic group. Davis spent several hours in Fairmont greeting supporters. Davis left Fairmont at 10:00pm for his return to Clarksburg.
 
On Sunday, August 10, the Davis’ attended church services at the Central Presbyterian Church. The day was planned as a personal day for the candidate. During the day the constant arrival of dignitaries, meant citizens and bands would gather to escort the new arrivals to their destination.
 
One of the challenging aspects of the Davis Day celebration was the limited availability of hotel rooms. The Davis Day Housing Committee decided to ask local citizens to call the committee if anyone had any extra bedrooms in their homes that they would be willing to allow an incoming VIP to use.  The idea was a success. For example, Thomas Walsh, Senator from Montana and Convention Chairman actually stayed at the home of George L. Duncan, 141 East Main Street instead of a hotel.
  
Monday, August 11, finally the day Clarksburg and West Virginia had waited for! More trains continued to arrive almost hourly. Every major national media company was in Clarksburg to report on Davis Day celebrations and the acceptance speech to be given that night in the Goff Plaza section of Clarksburg. Over 15 newsreel companies had strategically located their cameras throughout the city at such places as the Train Station, across from the Elks Club on Pike Street and on East Main Street – the site of the acceptance speech. In addition to the newsreel companies, there were over 100 newspapers represented for this event.
 
Monday was a very hectic day for the candidate.  As VIP’s arrived in Clarksburg, instead of checking into hotels they chose to visit Davis unannounced at his home. As you can imagine Davis had several meetings, interviews, a parade scheduled for Monday, and of course he wanted time to practice his speech prior to delivery that evening.  He was late for several meetings that day due to this problem. At 11:00am he had scheduled a meeting with the National Democratic Committee located at the Elks Building on Pike Street, he was over an hour late for that meeting alone. Davis’ schedule was running so far behind that his Campaign Manager, Clem Shaver, advised Davis not to participate in the parade.  It appears that Davis took his advice.
 
For the purpose of research for this article, I have read numerous Letters to the Editors in the newspapers from that weekend; several people were more than a little upset that Davis did not appear in the Davis Day parade. Imagine driving to Clarksburg (no easy feat in 1924), finding a place to stay, park the car, standing for hours elbow-to-elbow in hot humid conditions along the streets of Clarksburg in your finest apparel (usually constructed of heavy wool), only to find out that Davis was not in the parade. This was just one of many poor decisions made by Davis’ Campaign Manager, Clem Shaver.
 
“Finally the climax to Clarksburg’s greatest day had been reached.” According to The Daily Telegram, August 12, 1924, “Never will the evening be repeated. A switch was turned and the floodlights routed the approaching darkness for blocks around Goff Plaza. This took place just as the last orange stain showed on the western hills and dusk came slipping down a side street like a girl in gray slippers.”
 
This is the way it was reported by a young cub reporter by the name of Jennings Randolph (a future US Senator). It was a night to behold, nearly 50,000 folks crammed into Goff Plaza on that hot August evening. KDKA radio had transported their equipment in from Pittsburgh to broadcast the proceeding live nation-wide. Never before in history had an acceptance speech ever been broadcast nationwide.
 
The Davis for President Committee had hired the Zambelli Fireworks Company to illuminate the night’s sky at the conclusion of the speech.
 
The crowd was there, everyone was ready. Davis was introduced. As he made his way to the podium large black clouds moved in overhead. Davis began to speak; the clouds began to open on Davis. It was the worst storm of the year. Louis Johnson held an umbrella over Davis as members of the crowd shouted for Davis to continue. In the background you could hear the crew from KDKA radio trying to cover their equipment with pieces of canvas before the rain hit the hot glass bulbs that were an integral part of the transmission equipment. Others in attendance were running to seek shelter. At the same time, the technicians with the fireworks company located on Pinnickinnick Hill, over looking the Davis site, were worried that if their fuses got wet they would be unable to detonate the fireworks and not get paid. So they started igniting the fireworks early, instead of waiting until the end of the speech as instructed.   All of this created a scene of mass confusion as Davis maintained his calmness and delivered his speech, within 15 minutes from the end of the speech the skies cleared.
 
The following morning the State newspapers reviews of Davis’ speech were kind. They stated that Davis delivered a beautiful and eloquent speech. However some in attendance felt the speech was not moving, it lacked force, and it failed to convey a sense of mission. The same could have been said for the majority of his speeches during his campaign. Many felt most of Davis’ speeches went over the heads of those in attendance.
 
Davis waged a tiresome campaign, traveling throughout the country. He boldly condemned the Ku Klux Klan. According to William Harbaugh’s, Lawyers Lawyer, “many West Virginians believed that his anti-Klan statements cost him his native state.” On the evening of the election Davis sat listening to the results, as the radio announcer reported that Davis had lost his home state and his home precinct, Davis appeared sad and remorseful.
 
During the campaign Davis tried to draw Coolidge out into the open, but the President, who believed that he could not get into trouble if he didn’t say anything, kept his silence. Due to this Coolidge was referred to as “Silent Cal.” On Election Day the voters overwhelmingly supported Coolidge.
 
Richard S. Arnold asked Davis after the campaign, “Did you say anything…you didn’t believe?” “Oh yes,” Davis said, “I went around the country telling people I was going to be elected, and I knew I hadn’t any more chance than a snowball in Hell.”
 
Even though Davis suffered a sounding political defeat his professional career was far from over. Davis was fifty-one when the election was over. While his name was mentioned from time to time for public office, particularly a Supreme Court appointment, he never considered a government position again.
 
Instead he settled into the life of corporate New York lawyer. His clients were a “Who’s Who” of American Business, and he sat on the Boards of many of America’s giant corporations, including US Rubber, AT & T, The National Bank of Commerce, the Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and other national firms. He also became the Director of the Carnegie Endowment, the Rockefeller Foundation and the influential Business Round Table.
 
Davis died on Thursday, March 24, 1955. Over 1000 mourners attended his funeral. Among the most moving commentaries was the editorial in the Washington Post, “He was a gentleman in the sense that Confucius used that much abused word-a superior man, with a courtliness that came from a fine intellect and warm heart and a gentle manner.  In whatever circle he moved, there was none other who seemed so fit to be at the head of the table.  To that place his fellows instinctively beckoned him. Nobody can say what kind of a President he would have made, but one can say with confidence that John W. Davis had a sense of statesmanship.”
 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rod Rogers has been collecting John W. Davis memorabilia since the early 1980's. His collection has been shown at numerous locations in and out of state. Several years ago part of the collection was shown the National Women's Democratic Club in Washington, DC. He has been published in several national publications and interviewed on National Public Radio. Mr. Rogers is noted throughout West Virginia for delivering audio visual presentations regarding the life and times of Mr. Davis.
 
IN his early political career, John W. Davis was the Congressman from the First Congressional District of West Virginia. Ironically, Rod Rogers is the district director for Congressman David B. McKinley, the current Congressman from the First District.  
 
If anyone has any John W. Davis items they would like to sell, please contact Rod Rogers at 304-997-0931 or via email at RRRWVA@aol.com
 
 

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