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John W. Davis and Southern Wilsonianism

ISSUE:  Summer 1988

On July 14, 1918, Congressman Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina stood up before a group of friendly Yankees, convened in Trenton, New Jersey, and waxed eloquent about Americans and World War I. Doughton urged that “grandsons of the men who wore the blue and . . .grandsons of the men who wore the grey [were] . . . now marching with locked shields and martial step to the mingled strains of Dixie and the Star Spangled Banner.” The Congressman failed to note that those same shields, those same steps had been finding a closer and closer harmony since the Spanish-American War. Yet he had the central point. By 1918 the spirit of North-South reconciliation ran deeper than ever before.

A key source of this optimistic nationalism was Woodrow Wilson. This president enjoyed popularity all across the nation, especially in the South which had not been favorably inclined toward the White House since the 1850’s. Even though Wilson drew his public philosophy chiefly from the Progressive nationalism of the urban Northeast, he was considered “Southern” by Southerners because of his roots in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Southerners desperately wanted one of their own in the White House, and Wilson encouraged them to think that they had such a leader. To them, Wilsonianism had brought Progressive improvements in commerce, education, and health; and when that reform optimism was also applied to the international scene, they felt encouraged to believe that in great part because of Wilson their Dixie was well on its way to regaining a secure, respected role in the nation and the world. In fact, not since the early 19th century, when “another Virginian” occupied the White House, had Southern leaders felt so confident about their section. Equally important, with Wilson’s presidency and the reemergence of the Democratic party, they gained what they were lacking as late as 1911: access to national political power. In this sense, the appearance of Southern Wilsonianism in world affairs—Southern “internationalism”—is an important element of the “return of the South” to the American mainstream often associated with the Wilson presidency.

Sectionalism connected to a reverence for the Anglo-Saxon influence in history played a curious role in the way Southern leaders sought their region’s redemption through Wilsonianism. In the antebellum years white Southerners indeed had exhibited nothing short of adoration for “the English speaking people”—a connection based on common families, the cotton trade, and a romantic, “cavalier” view of the planter as English country gentlemen. They believed in the white man’s manifest destiny. Yet in the postbellum era that attitude gave way to an intense Anglophobia. Alabama’s Senator John Tyler Morgan and many other ex-Confederates would not forgive Britain for wavering on aid during the Civil War. Still other Southerners viewed Britain’s approach to world affairs as unprincipled imperialism, not so different from what they perceived to be the Northeast’s continuing economic policies toward the South. Populists revolting in the early 1890’s reinforced this Anglophobia. British investors in Southern lumber and railroads, not to mention the general British support of the gold standard, represented critical elements in the “foreign capitalist” oppression of Southern working classes. Although this Anglophobia continued after the turn of the century, as expressed by such leaders as Mississippi’s James K. Vardaman and North Carolina’s Claude Kitchin, it soon was displaced as the dominant sentiment by a resurging Anglophilism. Confederate veterans died. The silver issue lost out, and cotton prices improved. British investment in Dixie textiles suddenly was perceived as helping New South businessmen compete with Northeastern textilists. Most important, Britain’s expansionist approach to world affairs increasingly stood as a model as Southern leaders embraced expansionism. Also America’s general acceptance of Jim Crow in the South may have encouraged Southerners to believe that, after all, their section’s traditional advocacy of white superiority had a legitimate place in the national and international mainstream. Certainly, as many Southerners advanced the Progressive policies of segregation and disfranchisement, so did they seek to extend the idea of racial progress to the international scene by advancing Anglo-American preeminence. As Walter Hiñes Page, newly appointed ambassador to Britain, wrote his fellow Progressive Edwin A. Alderman, “I can’t get over the feeling . . .that the English-speaking folk must rule the world.”

Thus when war opened in Europe in 1914, Southern Anglophiles such as Page, Alderman, and the Mississippi senator, John Sharp Williams, were primed for the task at hand. Granted, the South’s developing prowar, pro-League stance derived from some essentially nonracial currents, some old, some new in the section’s history: a sectional eye focused tightly on free trade sure to follow the establishment of the League; loyalty to the Democratic party; and the powerful image of Woodrow Wilson in the mind of the South. Still, the racial current—one that could subsume and integrate all the others—found expression in the section’s strong ethnic and cultural affinity for an Anglo-American mission to regenerate the warring world of the early 20th century. And Southern ideas about Wilson and Civil War and Reconstruction were strong elements within this current.

White paternalism had a questionable hold on President Wilson’s own mind, but it did indeed find strong representation among his advisors from the South. In the Cabinet there were the Tar Heel turned Texan David F. Houston, another North Carolinian, Josephus Daniels, and two other Texans, Albert Sydney Burleson and the president’s most influential advisor, Edward M. House. The diplomatic corps, still victim of patronage, also bore the Southern Anglophile mark. No fewer than 20 of Wilson’s 42 diplomatic appointments went to Southerners considered “enlightened” by the standards of Progressivism. Most noted were South Carolina’s William E. Gonzales (Minister to Cuba, then Peru), Virginia’s Thomas Nelson Page (Ambassador to Italy), and of course the former North Carolinian who had made a career as a New York editor, Ambassador Page. Still, there remains no more fascinating example of the Southern Progressive advocating Anglo-Saxon leadership in the world than the man who succeeded Page at the Court of St. James’s—John W. Davis, the West Virginia attorney who ran for president in 1924 and argued against Thurgood Marshall in the desegregation cases of the 1950’s.


The roots of Davis’s role as a Wilsonian diplomat from the South can be traced in part to the forces of his early years and of his developing persona. In 1860 his Scots-Presbyterian father, a lawyer, joined other prominent Clarksburg residents in opposing West Virginia’s separation from Virginia. Ironically, out of the same Southern interest the father also opposed the secession of West Virginia from the Union: a full secession movement, he argued, surely would result in open civil violence, and as the “Northern fanatics” invaded they would eliminate slavery and thus the Southern way of life. An aggressive Jeffersonian Democrat of renowned strict constructionist rhetoric, the elder Davis went on to Congress after the War where he fought against the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as encroachments upon state rights and efforts to destroy “white man’s government.” Considering that Davis’s father “yielded to no one in [his] devotion to the South,” it is not surprising that John, born in 1873, grew up hating Thaddeus Stevens’ Republican party and the Reconstruction that had reduced the white South “to rags.” Equally unsurprising, the son matured to revere Claude G. Bowers’ Tragic Era and that novel in which Southerners “come alive,” Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Young Davis’s education at Washington and Lee University provided a parallel influence. When he enrolled at this “Athens of the South,” located at Lexington, Virginia, the institution was only a few years beyond the presidency of Robert E. Lee. Here Davis encountered the magnetic professor John Randolph Tucker, grandson of Thomas Jefferson’s teacher, George Wythe. Tucker extolled the superiority of governmental institutions Americans had inherited from England. In Davis’s later life—as a Washington and Lee law professor, a private practice attorney, solicitor general of the United States, and certainly as a diplomat—he would reflect the enduring mark of Tucker. He would exhibit a continual scholarly interest in the “advanced” legal institutions of England and focus intently on the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes as well as the Magna Charta and Parliament. Professing a “life-long admiration for the British people,” moreover, he would view nonwhites, including American Negroes, as inferior (though he always avoided the term nigger and despised the Ku Klux Klan) and urge that the world needed the stabilizing, progressive influence of British and American whites. Nevertheless, he would part with Tucker on matters of economic productivity. Although Davis always revered Thomas Jefferson, he would oppose maintenance of the small-farm economy and advocate, instead, “the creative force of industry” in “the cause of his [own] region,” In fact, Davis would use his own finely honed talents as a corporate attorney to foster Yankee-style industrial growth in West Virginia.

Davis’s persona fitted with these ideas. Even by his late thirties, when he headed for Washington, he acted, indeed appeared, in every respect as “the distinguished Southern gentleman” and one “good to look at.” With premature silver hair and twinkling blue eyes set deeply in a “long Anglo-American face,” he stood straight and dignified at just under six feet. Those recalling his personality invariably hit on the stereotype: “a gentle manner,” “courtliness,” “charm,” “a raconteur . . .without rival,” “a ready, soft smile,” “well turned out” in conservative, vested suit, complete with watch chain. Yet, much like Joseph T. Robinson, Cordell Hull, Edwin Alderman, and his other Southern friends, there lurked beneath Davis’s genuine gentlemanly exterior an equally real interior as if grafted from the Yankee ways he sought to emulate. Noted for his photographic memory, he was “master of his emotions,” cool, calculating. Perhaps the Times of London came closest to Davis’s complexity when it wrote that he had “the ease and quiet finish of the South and its mellow humor, mingling with the sterner qualities, the competence, the decisiveness of the North.” If so, Ellen Graham Bassell (“Nell”)—whom he married in 1910—provided the perfect complement. This prominent lady, who was also from Clarksburg, had “classic Anglo-American beauty . . .[with] golden hair, blue eyes [and] perfect, if chiselled, features.” At ease in any social setting, she seemed to combine the drive of a Scarlett O’Hara with the concern of a Melanie Wilkes as she urged her husband onward in his rapidly developing professional life.

Still another key to Davis’s role as a Southern Wilsonian was his early foreign affairs views. Along with many others of his section, he opposed Republicans from Benjamin Harrison to Theodore Roosevelt for their party’s reluctance to lower the tariff. Moreover, as an attorney in constant demand as a public speaker, he refused to jump headlong into the “Splendid Little War” mentality of 1898. He connected the war fever of that year to the “Republican demagogues” who elected a president as weak “as a human fishing worm.” He decried the “power of brute force” as still the “recognized . . . final arbiter of quarrels.” As late as April 14, 1898—a week before the Spanish-American War broke—Davis thought like a pacifist and anti-imperialist.

I am filled with genuine sadness at the thought of the war which seems on us at last, and I regret it because all war is horrible at best, because I believe it to be wholly unnecessary if not wholly unjustifiable, and because I think no matter what the outcome may be this country will be the loser. . . .

Even in the midst of the conflict he believed that “history” would “place [the war] among the greatest of mistakes” and professed opposition to “all land-grabbing and imperialism.” By the time Spain sued for peace in July, the attorney was exasperated: “I hope . . .the war is nearly over.”

Still, as with so many people of the South looking outward at the turn of the century, Davis seemed torn in different directions by the events of 1898. As early as February, while he opposed the war, he had begun to adjust to the unpleasant reality before him: “I cannot give up the conviction that there will be no war—[but] perhaps the wish [only] fathers the thought.” By early April, despite his continued criticism of war mongers, he believed that “after war comes there must be but one sentiment [for us], and we must all be pro patria.” And in late April, with war under way, the same approach: “If we have to fight, let’s give them thunder. We must all be pro patria.” Finally, by May he added to the growing wave of Southern patriotism. Before a West Virginia group celebrating George Washington’s birthday, he integrated Confederate experiences of 1865 with national feelings of 1898.

For the first time since the war drums ceased to thunder over thirty years ago, decoration day finds us listening to the roar of cannon and the tramp of armed men. But today it is no longer brother against brother, American against American, but humanity against cruelty and liberty against despotism.

And then, still caught in limbo between the dynamics of expansionism and isolationism, he concluded the address with stern warnings about “those who think the time is ripe for us to enter upon a colonial policy, forgetting that liberty is best preserved in small places, and that men—not acres— make a country great.”

Some 20 years later, with a career expanded from West Virginia attorney to solicitor general of the United States, Davis had much the same reference point regarding world affairs: his section’s history and culture. As Congress resolved to enter World War I, Davis wrote his daughter that “we shall [soon] set out on what may be the hardest task of our national life—certainly since the [eighteen] sixties. . . .” Yet over the last two decades his guidepost had begun to emit a dramatically different signal. The patriotism in the signal had grown to a spurious intensity, drowning out the earlier anti-expansionist sentiments. Domestic trends were the key cause. The South’s involvement in the Progressive Era and Davis’s own dynamic role in the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson provided him with a Southern-based patriotism emphasizing Anglo-Saxonism, free trade, the enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, and the general American mission to help the world find progress. If Davis would not always see eye to eye with Wilson, he was like John Sharp Williams, Oscar W. Underwood, and many others of his region in no longer being ambivalent about American power abroad. He looked out upon the world as a missionary expansionist, and in a general sense Wilson the “Southerner” was his leader.

More specifically, Solicitor General Davis viewed World War I with “an unwavering faith in the civilizing force” of Britain and its liberal expansionist role in world affairs. As the progenitor of Anglo-Saxon legal institutions, Britain appeared in Davis’s eyes as the symbol of “reason,” “the reign of law,” the defender of international economic activity and order. Against a world setting of economic instability and conflict, he viewed the Commonwealth as an agent of cultural superiority and uplift. Because the attacking Germans were “a people without either manners or morals,” this Victorian gentleman deemed a British victory essential.

Moreover, in Davis’s view (if not Wilson’s) Britain’s mission was America’s. The two nations had the samé predestined role as progressive, white societies. As early as 1914, he had confessed to his father, “I have never had less neutrality in my soul in any war than I have in this one.” By 1917 he was even stronger. When the stakes are this high, “there are things far worse than war,” for America was helping “defend the rights of the world” to progress according to Anglo-American guidance, helping “set the day of democracy and peace far ahead.” Davis always had reservations about President Wilson’s “insensitive” and “petty” ways of dealing with people. But he nevertheless considered Wilson’s war message the “most thrilling scene” he would ever witness, and throughout World War I reveled in the president’s “devotion” to “civilization,” “democracy,” and a postwar world receptive to the “superior” influence.

Although the president was never personally close to Davis, he knew the West Virginian’s patriotism from his role as solicitor general, particularly from his nationalistic defense of the Selective Service Act. He also had a clear impression of Davis from Colonel House and from Davis’s close friend, Secretary of State Robert Lansing. So with the war virtually over and Ambassador Page resigning at London, Wilson turned to Davis—the sophisticated Anglo-Saxonist, the easy talking yet hard driving Southern gentleman, the scholarly attorney—to help extend Progressivism into the postwar world.


On Sept. 11, 1918 Davis accepted Wilson’s invitation to serve as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and on December 4 embarked for London with Nell. As it turned out, he sailed on the ship carrying President Wilson and other members of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. This permitted Davis his only conversation with Wilson that was even vaguely related to his duties at London. The president stated his own well-known views on the League and other pending international matters but never addressed the specific assignment that Davis would soon discover was his: pursuing the vision of Anglo-American influence in the postwar world with an American policy often working against such harmony.

Granted, as Davis took charge of the embassy on Dec. 14, 1918, Anglo-American relations appeared bright in the immediate afterglow of Allied victory. Armistice was 33 days old. However, if November had brought cessation of hostilities, it also had seen Wilson’s urging for strong American leadership go unsupported by the American congressional elections. Republicans now controlled both houses. At first Davis did not seem to comprehend this omen. As he wrote his friend Charles Warren in Washington, postwar problems were basically European: “It requires no stretch of the imagination to see the whole of continental Europe [as] one of seething bedlam.” Still, by early September 1919 Davis had a full appreciation for the complexity of the situation he faced. Against the background of opening sessions of the Paris Peace Conference, he appraised the scene:

. . . What a witches stew it is when one comes to contemplate it—a crushed but revengeful Germany, a disappointed but nonetheless ambitious France, . . .a Russia in chaos, . . .and . . . an American Senate which seems to have no realization of the volcanic forces with which it is seeking to deal or how urgently time is the essence of the situation. I still have faith in the ultimate [condition] of a world ordered by law and reason, based on the common consent of the nations; but you call upon me to vindicate the grounds of my belief, [and] I must fall back on the monastic dogma—”Credo, qui a impossibile est.”

Davis actually held to an additional “right to hope”: “the resisting power of the human animal” coupled with “the basic common sense of the British breed.” Thus one finds Davis, like so many Southern Wilsonians, devoted to the cause of the League of Nations. As with other diplomatic issues he confronted, Davis found that he often had to exceed the limits of Wilson’s foreign policy to advance what he perceived to be this ultimate of Wilsonian visions.

From January 1919, when Davis set to work on League affairs, to the following November, when the League began to meet defeat in Congress, Davis conveyed to the British public a cautiously conceived optimism about America’s willingness to help shoulder the burden of world leadership. He perceived Wilson’s personality and general approach to diplomacy as problematical. The president, he believed, suffered from a severe lack of human warmth and sensitivity, making it difficult for him to deal intuitively with Europeans, Britains, or even Americans on the matter of the League.

However, Davis was convinced that the rightness of the president’s vision would enable it to prevail. During late January and early February 1919, as Wilson joined Georges Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando at the Paris Peace Conference and hammered out a draft covenant for the League, Davis looked upon his president “as the great outstanding figure and mastermind of the gathering . . ., [a leader] slowly but surely bringing all the divergent elements to his point of view.” Davis confided to Thomas Gregory, attorney general and his former boss, and he shared his close friend’s “sense of humiliation that it is in America alone that he [Wilson] is belittled and decried.” Davis’s main fear, however, was not that Americans would reject the League; rather that, “as usual, [Wilson] is trying to do it all himself and I feel some apprehension on that score.”

Events of late February and March increased his optimism about the League’s future. With the League covenant developed and submitted to the plenary session of the Peace Conference, Wilson sailed for home to confront developing Republican opposition to the League. His meetings and speeches convinced Davis even more of the virtue of Wilson’s vision: “He is playing for great stakes and I hope and believe—for the sake of mankind—that he will win.” But his caution about Wilson’s personality and his overwork was joined by a third fear, Henry Cabot Lodge. After reading reports of Lodge’s hostile reception for Wilson’s plan of connecting the Covenant to the peace treaty, Davis concluded that the Massachusetts senator was determined to defeat the League forever. The ambassador wrote to Henry White urging immediate effort at ratification in America before the Republican opposition could gain force.

That was a prescient message. During the spring of 1919 Davis devoted long hours to helping edit the League Covenant. But what increasingly concerned him during this time was the rapid movement of events resulting ultimately in America’s rejection of that document. His earlier concern over Wilson’s liabilities appeared justified. Wilson returned to America in midsummer. This crossing led to the 22-day marathón of speeches in September and, at the end of that month, Wilson’s collapse and stroke. For Davis, the future of “the cause” became bleaker: “the collapse feeds my anxiety” over ratification.

Then came the fateful Senate vote of Nov. 19, 1919. Senator Lodge offered a resolution of ratification with 14 reservations. Although these provisos limited American obligations under the Covenant, in Davis’s view they did not dramatically impair the League. Still, upon Wilson’s instruction Democrats joined with irreconcilable Republicans, and the Lodge version of American membership in the League—the only version with a chance of passage—went down to defeat. Virtually all Southern senators supported Wilson’s ironic tactic; and some of the most influential ones were such Southern leaders as Mississippi’s Williams, Alabama’s Underwood, and Davis’s good friend from Arkansas, Joseph T. Robinson.

Hurt and distraught, the ambassador now witnessed what in cautious moods he always had feared: his president and the Progressive’s world order were failing. As he wrote in his diary, “[This] seems . . .to postpone indefinitely any new order of things.” Yet he kept these thoughts to himself. In public he continued to serve as the optimistic ambassador of the Anglo-American bond. At the University of Edinburgh he spoke on the night of November 19, “dwelling on the moral unity between Great Britain and America” and emphasizing at least “their common ideals.” On a weekend visit to The Firs, Davis found himself cornered by the prime minister: “America was offered the leadership of the world and [threw] the sceptre into the sea; . . .the trouble with the League is that it was drawn up by men who are used to written constitutions, especially Woodrow Wilson.” Davis politely deflected the first shot by “describing as frankly as [he] could the different [political] elements which entered into the difficulties and of course the tremendous disadvantage of the President’s illness, . . .” As to the second point, Davis would recall, “I held my tongue, but the truth is I entirely agree[d] with him. [Robert] Lansing had the right idea in his skeleton form of general principles which the President so curtly brushed aside.”

That continued as Davis’s private assessment. Other than a flurry of excitement over the visit to the United States of Edward, Prince of Wales, Anglo-American relations were not encouraging for him. Throughout the winter and spring of 1919—20—on to that point in May when Wilson even vetoed a joint resolution ending the war—Davis’s mind played on the causes for the League’s defeat: Wilson’s sickness, rigidity, and pettiness; the Senate; a fickle America. His depression finally hit rock bottom in early spring when news of Secretary Lansing’s resignation reached London. “In the present state of affairs, it is difficult to maintain robust faith in the final survival of the League.” Looking upon Lansing’s action as an unexplained “sensation of the first magnitude,” Davis sat down on the night of March 24 and poured out to Charles Warren his inner feelings about American foreign relations.

My chief feeling is one of deep humiliation at the demonstrated ineptitude of the U.S. in foreign affairs. The position apparently is that we refuse to cooperate with the rest of the world for fear of involving ourselves in their affairs or permitting their intrusion into our own; reserving to ourselves, however, the sovereign privilege of meddling in other people’s business as offensively as we choose. . . . With its growth in wealth, in population, and in commerce, the U.S. must have foreign relations whether it wishes them or not. Hermit Kingdoms are out of date.

Yet his intense depression was relatively shortlived. Davis’s longtime hatred for Republicans—those who had freed the slaves, defeated the South, and operated according to the dictates of Thaddeus Stevens and the carpetbaggers— provided the key vehicle for his resurging faith in the Wilsonian mission to the world. With the developing presidential election back home, partisan attacks on Wilson activated a siege aggressiveness within Davis which renewed his advocacy of Mr. Wilson and “the cause.”

The rally was gradual. From June 1920 until his final departure from London in March 1921, the ambassador continued to exhibit lingering signs of defeat. He firmly believed that “the state of the world becomes daily more, rather than less, alarming.” On the other hand, Davis increasingly blamed this state of affairs not on Wilson but on the Republicans. If Davis had wished for the success of Lodge’s reservationist version of the Covenant, he had never stopped perceiving the Massachusetts senator and his colleagues as Wilson’s personal opposition. Now, throughout the summer and fall of 1920, Davis approached the notion that the world around him was chaotic for the same reason that the American South of 1865 had been: the Republicans. When Republican campaigners attacked the Democratic contender James M. Cox by criticizing Wilson’s Democratic appointments to the Peace Commission, Davis descended on the British Museum to plow through dusty issues of the Congressional Record. Here he found that Republican president William McKinley had shown almost equal partisanship in establishing the 1898 peace committee. How Davis used this information is not clear; what does appear clear is that it intensified his negativism about the hypocritical party of Lincoln. After Republicans won the presidential election in November, Davis seemed unsurprised about America’s withdrawal from the Supreme Council in Paris: “Nothing [now] remains for our complete divorcement from Europe except to withdraw the Army at Colbenz. I should imagine that this should soon follow under the [Warren G. Harding] administration.” Indeed, Harding’s Republicans would now complete their pernicious victory over Woodrow Wilson. “The American election was not a verdict on the League,” only further indication of the manipulative powers of the Republicans— “contemptible” obstructionists, people of “egotism and partisanship,” and more than one “sneak.”

The emerging corollary of course was that Wilson, after all, would have prevailed in his enlightened mission had only the “tragic illness” not hampered his ability to repulse the Republican attack. With no further references to Wilson’s basic personality flaws, Davis more and more understood Wilson’s vacillation between rigidity and “lack of decision” in advancing the League as a function of these vicious circumstances. “How different things might have been”— American membership in the League, world progress—had there been no stroke. Thus, when the Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize to Wilson in December, Davis easily turned to his diary: “A deserved tribute.”

In fact, Davis’s renewed excitement about Wilson’s cause grew so rapidly during the summer and fall of 1920 that he began thinking again in terms of American membership in the League and how this was the key to world progress in the context of Anglo-American friendship. In July, he was invited to serve on a League-sponsored international tribunal to settle the Aaland Island controversy. He wanted badly to accept so there would be an “American of some repute as a member of the Commission . . .to show the American people that the League is a going concern,” and he certainly would have accepted had not his State Department appointment prohibited such service. That same month he dined at the Garrick Club with Edward M. House, Sir William Wiseman, and Sir Eric Drummond to discuss how best to “present the League of Nations to the American people.” In mid-August, anticipating a Republican victory in November and ready to relinquish his post, he and Nell crossed the Atlantic for a leave of absence in New York, Washington, D. C. , and West Virginia to make plans for their life after London. While home, he made a point of visiting with Lansing and persuaded him to postpone publication of a strong indictment of Wilson’s leadership. If this appeared, Davis argued, “it would furnish ammunition to enemies” of a revived effort at American membership in the League.

He also spent several days at the State Department researching for a speech advocating American membership in the League. Delivered at the Opera House in his hometown of Clarksburg, West Virginia before the largest audience ever gathered in Harrison County, the speech reflected the heart and the mind of a resurrected Southerner. The League, he pronounced, was “the greatest question confront[ing] the people since the Civil War.” If Americans failed to join, they would have to arm themselves “with every means which mankind can devise” for there would be perpetual war so long as the League lacked America’s influence. He argued there had been too much debate about small matters: “If the principles which underlie the League are sound . . .the League will survive any shortcomings in outward form and will correct any mistakes in its structure.” Finally, he sounded the Wilsonian trumpet: “To stay out. . .is not only false to America’s ideals [and] untrue to her professions of humanity and service, but fraught with utmost dangers to [our] vital interests.”

In November, the Davises returned to London. There the Ambassador sorrowfully followed press accounts of the presidential election and promptly rededicated himself to “the cause” despite the Republican victory. On more than one occasion during his last winter abroad he connived with Huntingdon Gilchrist, secretary to the League, to move Senator Medill McGormick and other influential Americans into “League circles” when they visited in Britain or Europe.

The same tone marked his final departure from London, not to mention most of his subsequent career. On March 9, 1921, he and Nell boarded the Olympia at Southampton and headed for home. As his diary shows, Davis may have been relieved to be returning to the practice of law, but he did not fail to apply his noted personal touch to the departure scene.

The admiralty sent out a convoy of nine destroyers flying the stars and stripes at the peak. . . . When they left they sailed alongside cheering, with the rails manned. I sent them this message: “Mr. Davis . . .is glad to have as his last sight of England the representatives of the valiant British navy which has done so much to make the seas secure for the commerce of the world. Good by and good luck forever.” They sent [back]: . . . . “Everyone greatly regrets your departure. . . . We are greatly honored [for] the pleasure of escorting you our ally’s representative from the British shores for those of your own country.”

A stop at Cherbourg—out to the open sea and home! It is the end of a great adventure.


In a broader sense the “adventure” continued for some 30 years more. With his expanded reputation Davis quickly established a prosperous law practice in New York City. From that prestigious base, he declined nominations for the presidencies of the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia and then grudgingly, futilely ran for president of the United States on the 1924 Democratic ticket. Similar to the election of 1920, the 1924 loss to Republicans only intensified his Wilsonianism. From the offices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations, which he helped establish, Davis wrote and spoke throughout the twenties, thirties, and forties on the need for a League of Nations and ultimately a United Nations. During these years the ingredients of the message never really changed. Against a domestic backdrop of growing national authority and the nascent civil rights movement, both of which he opposed, Davis supported Franklin Roosevelt’s war policies and still urged internationalism built upon the principles of the Anglo-American bond and world organization. Only in this way could the world move beyond war and disorder and into the age of conservatively enlightened (“liberal”) politics and balanced industrialism.

Finally, the larger “adventure” did indeed come to a close. Toward the end of his life this Southern Progressive, as others, encountered a defeat that could not even be blamed on the Republicans. The consummated creature of Wilsonianism, the UN, proved unable to block the return to another period of conflict. And in 1955, the year Davis died, a world of Cold War and an America of lingering McCarthyism left him confused about “the cause” he had so long espoused.

It is doubtful that Davis ever consciously connected the history and culture of his section to his developing role in Wilsonianism. Still, there are relationships between the two separate if intertwined parts of his life which would seem to defy coincidence. Raised on vivid memories of Southern suffering in the violence and chaos of Civil War and Reconstruction, Davis became an advocate of peace and order and economic progress not just at home but throughout the world. Nurtured on the evils of mid-19th century Republicans, he always seemed wary of Republicans in national office and had an equally intense faith in the virtues of Democrats— alive or dead and especially Thomas Jefferson. Educated at a time when the South was increasingly perceived from both inside and outside as defeated, economically backward, and socially inferior, he presented his section’s virtue by exuding a Progressive’s “enlightened conservatism,” a safe Victorian persona, and a driving professionalism all wrapped up in a resurrected yet genuine version of “Southern gentleman”—a key element of his style as a diplomat in early 20th-century London. Raised on “the lesson” of Southern race relations, the dictum that the white must control the nonwhite, he advocated the internationalization of white paternalism as a key to an advancing world community. No doubt these are among the principal reasons that John W. Davis embraced Woodrow Wilson, another Victorian gentleman and a man understood to be “a Southerner” promising a progressive world order under the auspices of white, Democratic leadership.

This is not to say that Davis, the Southern Progressive, was Wilson’s clone. Far from it. On the central matters of race, nationalism, and internationalism, the two were different. Upon more than one occasion Davis’s preoccupation with the Anglo-American bond moved him further into the worlds of diplomatic compromise and cultural expansionism than Wilson was willing to go. A man whose primary influences can be traced to the nationalistic urban Northeast, Wilson was an American of moderate white paternalist race views; while Davis, a Southerner raised never to really trust “the government” in Washington, was an Anglo-American whose strong white paternalism derived in great part from the experience of the American South. Wilson advocated the expansion of the progressive Anglo-American society with a close eye to his nation’s self-interest. Davis urged a more transnational and cultural force, one lacking the national power to turn on him but one sufficiently international to advance the white man’s mission to bring orderly reform to the traditional world political-economy. In this sense, while neither man should be considered an imperialist, Davis surpassed Wilson as an internationalist-expansionist.

If Wilson’s nationalistic realism and reluctance to move beyond a broadly defined American self-interest caused Davis problem after problem, the overriding point is that Davis never stopped employing his exceptional diplomatic talents to ease Anglo-American tensions. The ambassador to the Court of St. James’s wanted his President’s basic foreign policy to succeed. Although Davis as an insider knew Wilson to be petty, he joined other Southern Progressives in looking upon Wilson as the enlightened, virtuous man from the South, the international leader. Hence as a Southern Wilsonian, Davis needed Wilson to succeed—for the progressive world, for America, for the South, for Clarksburg, West Virginia, and for John W. Davis.


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