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The Manipulator

December 2023
2min read

Neither the profound sense of reaching forward into the unknown nor the bitterness of unbridled passion attaches to the career of Judge David Davis of Illinois; yet this man’s life, too, is worth examining, even in the context set by the examination of the lives of Secretary Stimson and Senator Sumner. For Judge Davis had a great deal to do with the purely political decision that made Abraham Lincoln President, and this was possibly the most momentous choice the electorate ever made. Like all political decisions, it did not just happen. An expression of the popular will, it was nevertheless managed; behind the scenes, someone was pulling the strings. Judge Davis was the man who pulled most of the strings.

Born in eastern Maryland in 1815, Davis went to the Illinois country as a young man to make his way as a lawyer. The growing frontier territory was a good place for a bright, energetic, and careful young man who wanted to get on in the world, and Davis got on. He had neither the sense of dedication that marked Stimson nor the blind desire to lead mankind to righteousness that characterized Sumner; he was just a good man who planned to do his best, hoping to become a useful and successful citizen. Like the others, he found what he was looking for, and a fine study of his life is at hand in Willard King’s Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis . (It has been a good season for biographies.)

The first thing Davis found was Lincoln himself. Like other lawyers in that time and place, Davis “rode the circuit,” going from one county town to another to try cases before the itinerant circuit judges, and he was also active in Whig politics; in both realms he found Lincoln a good friend and a good man to work with. They must have made an odd pair—Lincoln, so long and slim, and the compact Davis whose weight quickly rose to a solid three hundred pounds—but they established an intimacy. Eighteen years before the famous Debates the two men made common cause against another circuit-rider, Stephen A. Douglas, in the Harrison-Van Buren election.

Their friendship was dampened for a time, when Lincoln refused to help Davis get a judgeship that Davis wanted, but the trouble was presently smoothed over. Davis won another judgeship before long, in 1849 he supported Lincoln’s unsuccessful (and seemingly inexplicable) desire to win appointment as Federal Land Office commissioner in Chicago, and a year later the two were as intimate as ever. Renewed comradeship on the circuit helped pull them back together; so, too, did the growth of Free Soil sentiment in the West, which found the two men standing together more and more against slavery, against Douglas, and against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and all that went with it. By 1860, when Lincoln was an avowed candidate for the Presidency, and a Chicago politician advised him to “get a feller to run you like Seward has Weed,” Lincoln unhesitatingly chose Davis.

Davis ran him well. He had an organization—a carefully chosen set of skilled political operators—but he was the strategist. When the Republican convention met at Chicago in May, 1860, it was Davis who went about lining up delegates, strengthening the faithful and persuading the undecided, and (here and there) making the deals that would mean blocs of votes. He gets blamed, Mr. King indicates, for making worse deals than were actually made; by and large, he committed his candidate to very little more than Lincoln was willing to be committed to, and the accepted story that he won the Indiana and Pennsylvania delegations by making ironclad bargains that Lincoln detested but felt himself bound by does not quite stand up under Mr. King’s examination.

Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis , by Willard L. King. Harvard University Press. 352 pp. $6.75.

In any case, the story of the Chicago convention is one of the most fascinating stories in American politics. Davis emerges as a shrewd, hard-working manipulator, a role which he continued to play in the national campaign. The Republicans (as is obvious now) were bound to win that election, provided various defeated candidates for the nomination did not kick over the traces. Davis saw to it that they did not.

Davis survived the man he managed. Lincoln made him a justice of the Supreme Court, where he served with distinction, and late in the 1870’s he resigned to accept election as senator from Illinois ( see “The Election That Got Away,” page 4). He died what he originally wanted to be, a wealthy and distinguished citizen. Meanwhile, he had had a part in great events … and there is something fascinating about looking at him in conjunction with Stimson and Sumner: the man of decision, the reformer, the manipulator—each one notable, and highly controversial, in his own field; each one leaving his mark on his times.

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