Transcript – John W. Davis Also Ran

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For most people, John W. Davis is at best a footnote, a speck of information and a textbook about presidential election history, the Also-Ran of Calvin Coolidge. Nineteen twenty four. You open up the historical electoral maps and you see John W. Davis with a bunch of states shaded in green and then Calvin Coolidge in yellow and will follow in an orange or something like that. 1978 article about hobby collecting a political item said that getting a John W. Davis is tough.

But there is at least a little more to say about John W. Davis, and this podcast is where we say a few little things about people. There are some public figures his daughter wrote, who, like some actors, look smaller offstage with him, the opposite was true. The nearer one came to him, the larger he appeared to King George, the fifth. He was the most perfect gentleman but the king ever met. The Oliver Wendell Holmes sat for 30 years as a justice in the Supreme Court. No advocate who ever argued before the Supreme Court was more elegant, more clear, more concise. If you know John W. Davis at all, you know about the 1924 Democratic convention that met for a week torn between two candidates, two visions for America, S. strife on display, rural versus urban, Protestant versus Catholic, wet versus dry. And after dozens of ballots could not reach a consensus.

All of it broadcasted on the radio is pretty gray.

And the rest of the rhetoric and manufacturing company RCA was specifically selling radio sets with ads that promoted that listeners could cheer with the ballots at the upcoming political convention.

We’d appreciate it if anyone hearing this broadcast would communicate with us. And we are very anxious to know how far the broadcast is reaching and how it is being received.

Alabama cast its votes for Oscar Underwood, making people laugh because it was going to be heard over 100 times. Alabama cast its votes for Oscar Underwood. It might have been one of the first drinking game worthy broadcast events with people sneaking in Prohibition era shots every time, the radio announcer said. Alabama cast its votes for Oscar Underwood Klencke.

Well, it wasn’t funny, the party was going into debt and delegates were tired and frustrated, the candidates were tired. There were good moments to FDR speech at the gallery screaming. The party rightly took it to the crooks who stole American oil and Teapot Dome in that scandal. Yes, but the good parts became a distant memory with ballot after ballot is in hot days and delegates were racking up hotel bills. And although they couldn’t do it at the concession stands, drinking an awful lot, ballots continue. William Gibbs, McAdoo, son in law of the president of the United States, and Alfred E. Smith, the governor of New York. They can’t decide. At one point, somebody suggests John W. Davis, former solicitor general, country lawyer from West Virginia, turned Wall Street lawyer William Jennings Bryan, who had been his party’s candidate several times, said what many liberals in the Democratic Party felt. This convention must not nominate a Wall Street man. It wasn’t just a battle over who would represent Democrats in the election. It was about what Democrats represented. The state is headed by a governor whose Catholic Alfred E. Smith and many there want to get something on the record, want the party to make a statement.

And that statement would be a proposed platform plank condemning the secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan by its name. It’s debated while crowds in the balcony, mostly supporting Catholic Smith and against the Klan, jeer at delegates who refused to condemn the Klan. The other side say they’re just supporting the First Amendment. That’s what McAdoo says. He’s not for the Klan, but he stands square in support of the First Amendment. One reporter from the Daily News at the time purportedly referred to the convention as a Klan bake.

This has been misunderstood sometimes in future beams that have come out in the 21st century, because it almost sounds like somebody’s having a fun party for people and put it robes, and that’s not what’s going on.

This reporter meant to say that the cleanse being cooked in this room of Democrats to be shouted at and making fun of delegates who are members and won’t admit it, SMIs people have those galleries. His police are the police at the convention, but the delegates themselves have the votes and they are torn. One of those people that was here is a man who’s going to run for president as a Republican himself. One day. He is Wendell Willkie of Akron, Ohio, and he’s a Democrat. And against the Klan, the vote is contentious and there’s so much fighting. William Jennings Bryan, thrice the leader of the party and its candidate gets up and tries to cool tempers.

He suggests something can have this plank. Just don’t call the organization out by name.

He shouted down.

The plank fails by a narrow vote may even be one vote. The convention also can’t pick a candidate. Ballots and more ballots make it do. The son in law of the last Democratic president. Smith was Catholic, anti pro-abortion, pro labor, pro immigrant. The new face of an urban nation is exactly what McAdoo supporters fear.

It’s a mess, and John W. Davis has suggested, again, William Jennings Bryan tells people, I have no personal objection of any kind to Mr. Davis is a man of high character.

Something many would say about Davis, but he adds, So is Mr. Coolidge and there’s no difference between them.

Davis was a lawyer and his law firm worked for JPMorgan, among many, many other clients.

This was after he served as solicitor general and as ambassador to the court of St. James, ambassador to Great Britain under the Wilson administration. He always insisted that he wasn’t a Wall Street trader, that he had clients, and he refused. After his name was brought up in 1920, people told him, you’ll give up these clients. And he and he, in a speech that was pointed to by many lawyers at the time, defended the lawyer’s right to take on clients, whether they agree with them or not, whether they represent people that may not be themselves, when you shouldn’t have to give up his income to participate in politics. And this is why Davis was known for years as a lawyer’s lawyer. He would be president, the American Bar Association for a time. This part of the story is kind of well known about the Democrats sweltering and trying to pick a leader. It’s the longest ever. It goes from June 24th to July 9th. Alfred Smith is broken. He’s reached the top vote he’s going to get and he knows he’s not getting the nomination. Now, McAdoo reluctantly doesn’t want to give up, but eventually has to or supporters are going to bolt party elders.

Governor Cox, the nominee the last time in 1920, flies in. John W. Davis is suggested again. Bryant argues a little. He said the presidency ought to only go to those who champion causes.

Half a plug for himself, so negotiations continue and it’s decided that for the vice presidential nominee, they will pick Charles Brian William Jennings, Brian’s brother. This helps Brian to swallow his disagreements. And he endorses Davis after the nomination. And on the one hundred and third ballot, John W. Davis is the candidate. A lot of this won’t be new, that’s the story we know, but you may wonder and I sort of wonder what happened after that. Well, if I were to start the next scene, let’s say it’s a little movie and what happens from then, of course, spoiler alert he loses. But how John W. Davis loses is actually interesting.

If I did tell the rest of the story, we’d zoom the camera to a mess on the floor, posters with shoe prints on them, a banana peel. Now scratch that. They would need bananas at this convention. A paper cups, hats, McAdoo badges, ballots flattened and dirty by the feet of thousands of delegates who have fled the scene. The candidate’s manager wakes up from a booth or chair someplace. He’s napping. It’s Clem Shaver, West Virginia Democratic Party head. Literally, he can’t believe his eyes or know if what had happened was really trying to ask others. Did we really do it?

Yeah, you did come to we nominate John. Yep.

And their home state of West Virginia amazed people in a tiny town who had been listening to the radio. And we’d expect to hear any other name on Earth, hear the name John W. Davis.

There never been a presidential candidate from West Virginia before, but now you’ll see the photo.

Davis straddled with the governor of the state, Al Smith, and Franklin Roosevelt, soon to be governor and soon to be president. Right now, just the 1920 vice presidential candidate photographed on crutches.

He didn’t disguise it.

He was healing, getting better as far as he knew and told the press it was a proud moment.

But McDo, the other contender, only reluctantly even gave up his delegates and fled New York after the convention.

What do you do in a campaign in the nineteen twenties, you develop lots of merchandise, better days with Davis, let Davis do it, lots of printing presses and machine shops that are set up to do it. Dave is Brian Fobbs. Items that are attached to the end of a leather strap used to hold a pocket watch popular then license plate attachments. You attach it on to the license plate of your car and ride around glass paperweights that look something like John W. Davis. Cardboard noisemakers, cigar labels, posters and stickers.

If they didn’t know what Davis looked like all over the Democratic counties of America, they soon would now. And a month later, August 1924, many would come out to see Davis in a parade. There were people standing 10 deep along the parade route except Clem Shamer. His first time managing a big time presidential candidate, tells the candidate that he should save his strength instead of appearing in the parade. Some people stood for six hours never to see him. And then in Clarksburg, there were 50 to 70000 people there to hear his speech. They’ve got fireworks planned.

They’ve got floodlights, radio down.

There’s a radio station from Pittsburgh. This is the first time that a presidential candidate will make an acceptance speech that will go to America’s living rooms. Small town of Clarksburg has like three houses where he’s going to speak there surrounded with people. John W. Davis daughter Julia, said that the presidential campaign was to him or what it felt like was a process of being picked and pulled by millions of hands and fed into millions of Moore’s. But people loved it. They cheer for him.

But as soon as he starts speaking, there’s a tremendous downpour, the rain starts bursting, the bulbs on the floodlights. So when he’s talking about Teapot Dome or the tariff, all of a sudden bulbs are exploding, shocking people. Brew has to start running over, putting tarps on the bulb or somebody puts an umbrella over daviss head. The fireworks that were supposed to come out after he speaks well, the people up on the ground seeing the storm come in. No, they’re not going to be able to do the fireworks later. So they make a decision to do the fireworks now. So while Daviess is speaking of fireworks, go off in the middle of it, yet the audience keeps telling to go on, go on. And they’re drenched and they still don’t leave.

That was Davis’s first speech as a presidential candidate. But it’s in his second speech where he took a stand. He speaks in Seagirt, New Jersey, the Jersey Shore. Why does he do this? This is symbolic. This is close to the home of a Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson has died beloved, worshipped by Democrats at the time. Davis attacks the Republicans on the oil scandals, on the Veterans Bureau scandals of the Harding and Coolidge administration, Teapot Dome.

He says in 1913, the oil lobby was scourged from Washington under Wilson’s administration. In nineteen twenty one, like a flock of unclean birds hastening to the feast, it gathered from the four winds and descended upon Washington City in foreign affairs. He says that there was a time when America sat at the Council of Nations and now all we have is to encourage American citizens and restore Europe with sympathetic support, nothing more. It’s a far cry from the declaration of Theodore Roosevelt. If we are to be really a great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world.

This is what David said in a speech.

But more he turns to a different topic, that of secret organizations and reporters clasp their notebooks. If any organization, no matter what it chooses to be called, whether Ku Klux Klan or by any other name, raises the standard of racial and religious prejudice or attempts to make racial origins or religious beliefs the test of fitness for public office. It does violence to the spirit of American institutions and must be condemned by all those who believe, as I do in American ideals.

Nineteen twenty four. This is the candidate of the Democratic Party. He has just done what his convention was unable to do.

It’s a big deal also, which would have been huge at this time, he used the name of the KKK. Others had attacked groups, but he did just the opposite of what William Jennings Bryan for party unity had suggested when he said, just don’t use the name of the organization. He calls them out.

There’s a story that Klansmen approached him the night before his speech, having heard rumors that this was going to happen and wrote a note suggesting that he not do that and he ripped it in half. Indeed, not too far from where Davis was speaking just a few miles in Long Branch, New Jersey, the very organization he had so named in his speech had met on July 4th to have not a secret fire or a cross burning, but to have a parade. The leader of the local Klan, Arthur Bill, would give Sunday talks in a big auditorium. This was not the South. That was New Jersey. And the Klan’s targets were not only African-Americans, although it certainly was, but also Jews and also Catholics. The latter was most alarming to this group, to the new Northern Klan, because it was growing in 1880, only 40000 Italians lived in the United States in the 20s, five million.

There’s an excellent book about Asbury Park, New Jersey’s History by Daniel Wuhl, Fourth of July, Asbury Park, A History of the Promised Land.

But I have to say that fine town of Asbury Park had a progressive mayor who shunned the Klan, did not allow them to parade, which made political life difficult for him.

They were banned from Asbury, but in nearby Long Branch, New Jersey. There, the Independence Day parade consisted of 4000 men, women and children all dressed in white robes, all hooded, led by a man also hooded, riding a white horse and carrying an enormous American flag. It was the largest Ku Klux Klan gathering ever held in the United States, 25000 people lined long branch streets to watch men in black bowlers stood by their Model T’s. A Boy Scout held up a sign that read. We want the Holy Bible in our schools, the parade highlighted a day long celebration that took place out at the old Monmouth Park site.

With horse racing still banned, the KKK had been able to purchase one hundred and seventy five acres for its new imperial palace. The day long all-American affair include a mid-morning baseball game between the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Klans, a christening, an egg and spoon race and a minister’s race.

In the evening, fireworks were shot off and an orchestra played, in addition to the many attractions, interested people could take a baseball and throw it at an image of Alfred Smith. Only a Protestant will ever be president of the United States, one of the speakers at the event said. That’s Daniel Wolf’s excellent Asbury Park, Fourth of July, Asbury Park, so Davis didn’t speak out against some nefarious, hidden abstract, you know, removed organization.

He didn’t speak out about something in the north that only existed in the south. He was taken aside on leading a charge. Unlike its 18 70s reconstruction iteration, this clan operated everywhere. The 1920s clan was not just in Alabama, but Oregon, California and in Maine had harassed French Canadian schoolteachers Texas. It controlled the Dallas government, everything but the school board. In Kansas, it was dominant in Indiana. Half the members of the elected assembly were Klansmen, and its governor openly supported them and granted the organization a state charter, Profarmer, anti Wall Street anti jazz anti flapper demanding one hundred percent Americanism. It had four million members in the 1920s. How did it happen? It was part of the storm. In the late teens of the twentieth century, racial violence strikes war. It had been reorganized by Colonel William Simmons from Alabama, a Spanish American war veteran who failed at most of what he tried preaching. He was a failure. He was only a colonel, not because of his Spanish American war service, because of a group that he was part of, the woodsmen of the world, a fraternal group. He tried selling memberships and merchandise that didn’t do too well. And then he gets into a car accident, and if anyone could go in time and fix one car accident in history, this might be the one, because while he’s recuperating, he gets the idea that he’s read in the past about the Ku Klux Klan over the reconstruction days.

But more than that, he designs everything, the structure of the organization, the clothes that they’re going to wear, terms like the illegals and clefs and Cyclopes and dragons and things like that and exactly how it’s going to work. The combination of public and secret elements, the rituals that will make it a dangerous group. Each group would have a committee to preserve wholesomeness, but really to investigate people and decide if they were worthy targets of intimidation. He soon became flush with cash and turned his local organization over to the Southern Publicity Association, who, for exchange for most of the recruiting fees, would recruit all over the nation. He was also helped by a movie that came out Birth of a Nation, which put onto the silver screen the image of the old Klan. He hired police detectives to keep up espionage on foreigners. But this and it’s key to say in the 20s iteration, Republicans as well as Democrats were in this organization and interplay with their politics. The Indiana and Kansas groups, for instance, Republicans, the Indiana’s Republican Party was completely controlled. As we said, Democrats met in New York and never were able to get that vote passed.

But in 1924, the Republicans met in Cleveland to nominate Calvin Coolidge. That was a was a given and they never even discussed the issue at all. There were people, particularly a delegate from Texas, that wanted to bring this up. He actually said to other Republicans, this is the best issue for Republicans in Texas. We go on this anticholinergic, you know, not brought up for a vote at the convention. And this is the part that sometimes forgotten when the story of the 1924 conventions told that the Democrats couldn’t decide to, you know, how to go on their condemnation plank. The very reason there’s a plank vote is because they saw the Republicans had done it before them. And some of that is written off to Coolidge just being Coolidge silent. Cal, not talking about many issues, doesn’t talk about this one. There are other situations where Cal Coolidge defends African-Americans, particularly those who served in World War One, but doesn’t specifically call out this group. And there’s more that goes on in his in the convention in Cleveland. Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, a plump dentist by day by night, was now the wizard of the Klan. Yes, indeed. Simmons, who we talked about, there’s no honor among thieves, right? He was forced out of his own organization after some internal fighting.

The wizard was a dentist, Wesley Evans. He has control over the goblins and dragons of this invisible empire. And he comes to Cleveland with a 60 person entourage, stays at a private home not far from where the convention is being held. He doesn’t speak out. He doesn’t go to the convention. He sits there with an operation making sure that there is no plank condemning the Klan. They even do try to get the vice presidential nominee to be a senator from Indiana, Jim Watson. And they don’t succeed. Watson was like, are you trying to kill my political career? And perhaps he was he wasn’t a member of the Klan, although he didn’t condemn the Klan either. With Evans in Cleveland, no plank was proposed. Evans insists that he wasn’t political. No party can ever own or disown us. The strength politically of this organization makes it all the more stirring that John Davis has these words in his Seagirt speech, if any organization, no matter what it chooses to be called, whether Ku Klux Klan or by any other name, raises the standard of racial or religious prejudice it does violent to the spirit of American institutions. Now, he’ll make that same speech in many other places across the country and he does more. This is not just a strike at the organization, but also a bit of a hook that he would like to plunge into his opponent.

Hopefully, I repeat, that these matters must not be permitted to divert the attention of the public from the vital questions now before them. I venture, therefore, to express the hope that the nominee of the Republican Party will see fit by some explicit declaration to join in entirely removing this topic from the field of political debate. Davis is a clever lawyer. Here’s what he’s done, he’s just tagged Goule. Now it’s all being done with bunting, bandstands and front porches and straw hats, the spoken word on the stump and then the printed word on the gray page. But to follow what happened here, he just tagged them. He’s spoken out. And now reporters are going to go over to Coolidge and try to get a comment. He won’t. Davis is going to say several times I spent the whole election of nineteen twenty four trying to get opponent, my opponent to debate the issues. Not everybody is happy with this within the Democratic Party. Here’s what a senator from South Carolina says. They sent word to Mr. Calvin Coolidge, so it is said to join Mr. Davis in denouncing the Klan. A bunch of priests called on them and told them Davis was going to denounce the Klan.

It is said he better denounce it to. Coolidge said that he did not make a chatterbox out of his mouth about things that were not in the platform and he got elected, John W. Davis denounced it after this group of Catholics from Tammany, New York City. Al Smith’s crowd insisted that he denounce it and he lost four states by this action. And it’s absolutely true. Davis loses a few states that even the Democrats would normally get, including his home state of West Virginia. In fact, his home county, Harrison, voted for Coolidge. That news gave him a pain which he could not conceal. So his daughter wrote. There was another issue, too, that came back to haunt him as solicitor general.

Davis, as part of the Wilson administration, had used his legal skills to overturn an Oklahoma law that prevented people from voting if their grandfather had not voted. This was just a simple, clever, semantic way to get African-Americans not to vote since they were enslaved and could not vote. This issue was brought up that he’d fought for this, and Davis’s twenty eight point eight percent remains the smallest percentage of popular vote ever. What I wanted, Davis said, was for Coolidge to say something. I didn’t care what it was, just so I had somebody to debate with. He never opened his mouth. John W. Davis would continue his legal practice. He’d be opponent of the New Deal.

He would actually argue before the Supreme Court in the case of Youngstown Steel, that would actually limit the executive power of the presidency.

One case that his law partners and his daughter urged him not to take was the case of Brown v. Board of Ed.

And so if John W.. Davis is known for anything else but his presidential run, it’s that he was the lawyer opposing Thurgood Marshall for the case of Brown v. Board of Ed, which was a case that he argued but lost on behalf of South Carolina. There is no reason to defend him on this issue. His views in terms of what he felt about the Brown decision, what he was arguing, we’re not just representing a client. They were mostly his own. His daughter explains that he did see a time when integration of schools would happen, but wanted to start with colleges first and move downward. This type of incrementalism is not something that stands up well to modern times. I think we see that Brown decision is something highly necessary to to make action happen. And so you have in the story of John W. Davis, it’s not a tale of a hero, but it is an old tale of somebody who, when they had a platform, used it for the right reason. And although there’s a long history of especially in its reconstruction time of Democrats and the Klan, and there are a lot of Democrats in the past who were Klan members being the prominent party in the South, you have two nominees in a row, Davis, and then who will follow him will be Al Smith. This time, he’ll get that nomination supported by some Southerners this time, including the whole delegation of Texas supporting a Catholic candidate. He’ll get the votes of the South. You have during this time, you know, to Democratic candidates in a row who specifically call out to Klan. And for that, it’s worth thinking a little bit about this Also-Ran.