David Davis served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1862 to 1877. An Illinois attorney and judge, Davis acted as Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager in the 1860 election, working tirelessly to win the republican party nomination and the general election for Lincoln.
Davis was born in Sassafras Neck, Maryland, on March 9, 1815. He attended Kenyon College at the age of thirteen. Following graduation he read the law in a Massachusetts law firm, before attending New Haven Law School for less than a year. In 1835 he moved to Illinois and was admitted to the bar, and opened a law firm in Pekin. In 1836 he purchased a law practice in Bloomington, Illinois, where he remained a resident the rest of his life.
He was soon drawn into politics. After losing a bid for a seat in the Illinois Senate in 1840, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1844. He participated in the Illinois Constitutional Convention, which convened in 1847. A force for judicial reform, Davis was elected to Illinois's Eighth Judicial Circuit, where he served as presiding judge until 1862.
During his years as a practicing attorney and judge, Davis became a close friend and adviser to abraham lincoln. Ignoring the traditional concept of judicial neutrality concerning politics, Davis acted as Lincoln's campaign manager during the 1860 election. His actions have been credited with securing the Republican party nomination for Lincoln.
In 1862 Lincoln rewarded his friend with an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis's tenure encompassed both the Civil War and Reconstruction. He is best remembered for his 1866 majority opinion in ex parte milligan,71 U.S. 2, 18 L. Ed. 281. In 1864 Lamdin Milligan
was arrested and tried for treason by a military commission established by order of President Lincoln. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was not carried out.
In his majority opinion, Davis noted that the civilian courts were open and operating in Indiana when Milligan was arrested and tried by the military. In ordering Milligan's release, Davis condemned Lincoln's directive establishing military jurisdiction over civilians outside of the immediate war area. He strongly affirmed the fundamental right of a civilian to be tried in a regular court of law, with all the required procedural safeguards.
In 1872 Davis was nominated for president by the National Labor Reform party, but he turned down the opportunity. However, political ambition led him to resign from the Supreme
Court in 1877 and run for the Senate, representing Illinois. He was elected as an independent and served one six-year term. From 1881 to 1883, he served as president pro tempore of the Senate.
Davis died June 26, 1886, in Bloomington, Illinois.
David Davis, 1815–86, American jurist, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1862–77), b. Cecil co., Md., grad. Kenyon College, 1832; cousin of Henry Winter Davis. In 1836 he settled as a lawyer in Bloomington, Ill., his home thereafter. From 1848 to 1862 Davis presided over the eighth judicial circuit in Illinois, famous because Abraham Lincoln practiced in its courts. An intimate of Lincoln (the tall, spare Lincoln and the corpulent Davis often bunked together in traveling the circuit), he successfully managed his friend's campaign to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency at Chicago in 1860. Davis and Leonard Swett, another lawyer from the eighth circuit active in Lincoln's cause, gave several political assurances without Lincoln's knowledge (notably one to Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania), which Lincoln reluctantly honored. Lincoln appointed (1862) Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not especially learned in the law, he nevertheless wrote one of the most important opinions in the history of the court in Ex parte Milligan (1866). The decision, denouncing arbitrary military power, became famous as one of the bulwarks of civil liberty in the United States. Davis, who did not allow his judicial position to interfere with his political ambitions, was nominated for President by the Labor Reform Convention at Columbus, Ohio, in 1872, but withdrew when he failed to win the nomination of the Liberal Republican party as well. In 1877 he resigned from the court to serve (1877–83) as U.S. Senator from Illinois.
See biography by W. L. King (1960).