LAWYER'S LAWYER: A Life of John W. Davis by William H. Harbaugh

LAWYER'S LAWYER: A Life of John W. Davis

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It's safe to say that 99.9% of the population couldn't tell you who John W. Davis was. As Woodrow Wilson, his old boss, was fond of saying, popularity is an evanescent thing. And those few who can might quarrel with Harbaugh's title. After all, Davis was not only a gifted attorney (Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that ""there was never anybody more elegant, more clear, more concise or more logical than John W. Davis"" to appear before the Court ""in my time"") but also a politician of some considerable consequence: a U.S. Congressman from West Virginia (1910-12), Ambassador to the Court of St. James after World War I, and -- hold on to your history books -- the Democratic presidential nominee in 1924, the man who took on Silent Cal, albeit reluctantly, after the longest (103 ballots) and perhaps most bitter convention the party has ever experienced. But Harbaugh, who has written the definitive life of this ignored American, is right -- Davis was first and always a lawyer, a brilliant advocate who as Solicitor General under Wilson argued some of the most important cases of that progressive era (winning more than 50 of some 70 -- a record which still stands), a strict constitutionalist who was once everyone's choice for a seat on the Supreme Court (he rejected it as a ""life sentence to monastic seclusion""), a legal talent who ultimately served the interests of J.P. Morgan and the conservative corporate institutions, opposing the New Deal and at the end fighting the lost cause for segregation against the NAACP, ACLU, and Thurgood Marshall -- ""He dripped scorn on Dr. Kenneth Clark and the social sciences"" but he lost. He was gentlemanly, courtly, diplomatic, and kindly. But, to the final breath, he remained a Social Darwinist -- a man who believed in the clap-trap of the survival of the fittest. It was, as Harbaugh points out, Davis' greatest strength and his most treacherous weakness.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1973
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press