Davis, David

Born: 1815-03-09 Sassafras Neck, Maryland

Died: 1886-06-26 Bloomington, Illinois

David's father died before he was born and he spent his early years living on his grandfather's plantation, with his mother and stepfather in Baltimore, and later with his uncle in Annapolis. During this time, Davis attended boarding schools in Maryland. His mother and stepfather moved to Newark, Delaware, and Davis began attending New Ark Academy in September 1826. Two years later, Davis enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Davis graduated in September 1832 and soon thereafter began studying law in the office of attorney Henry W. Bishop in Lenox, Massachusetts. While there, Davis met both his future wife, Sarah Woodruff Walker, and his future law partner, Wells Colton. In 1834, Davis enrolled in the New Haven Law School, in New Haven, Connecticut, but after less than one year, Davis moved to Pekin, Illinois, and opened a law office.

In the fall of 1836, Davis moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where he had purchased Jesse Fell's office and law practice. In 1837, Davis and Colton formed a partnership, and on October 30, 1838, Davis married Sarah Woodruff Walker. Davis supported the Whig Party, and in 1840, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Illinois State Senate. Voters elected him to the state legislature in 1844 and as a delegate to the 1847 Illinois constitutional convention. At the convention in Springfield, he drafted resolutions that reformed the state judiciary. In 1848, Davis was elected judge over the Eighth Judicial Circuit, a position he held until 1862. During his tenure, Davis presided over more than 1,685 cases that Abraham Lincoln argued on the circuit between 1849 and 1860. During 1854 and 1858, Davis actively campaigned for Lincoln's election to the U.S. Senate and, in 1860, he served as Lincoln's campaign manager for nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. He also served as a delegate-at-large to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, where he was instrumental in obtaining enough votes for Lincoln's nomination on the third ballot.

Davis accompanied Lincoln on his inaugural journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. In 1861, President Lincoln selected Davis to investigate claims in John C. Fremont's Department of the West in Missouri and, in 1862, appointed Davis as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. As a justice of the Supreme Court, Davis presided over the federal circuit composed of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Davis was considered a civil libertarian on the Supreme Court because of his 1866 opinion in Ex parte Milligan. Lambdin P. Milligan, an Indiana Democratic politician, was arrested in 1864 and sentenced to death by a military commission for conspiring against the United States. Davis held that martial rule "can never exist where the [civil] courts are open, and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction." After Lincoln's assassination, his family appointed Davis as administrator of Lincoln's estate.

Bloomington Daily Pantagraph (IL), 28 June 1886, 2:1; John J. Duff, A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer (New York: Bramhall House, 1960); Robert M. Goldman, "Davis, David," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:181-82; Kermit Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 218-19; James G. Randall, "Davis, David," Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 3:110-12; Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager: David Davis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois (Chicago: The Chicago Legal News, 1879), 181-88; Mark E. Neely Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), 77-79; John M. Palmer, ed., The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent (Chicago: Lewis, 1899), 1:154-55, 541-49. Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.