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Henry Winter Davis

Henry Winter Davis (August 16, 1817 – 30 December 1865) was a United States Representative from the 4th and 3rd congressional districts of Maryland, well known as one of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War.

Early life and career[]

Born in Annapolis, Maryland, his father, the Reverend Henry Lyon Davis (1775-1836), was a prominent Maryland Episcopal clergyman and was for some years president of St John's College at Annapolis. The son graduated at Kenyon College at Gambier, Ohio in 1837, and from the law department of the University of Virginia in 1841, and began the practice of law in Alexandria, Virginia, but in 1850 removed to Baltimore, Maryland, where he won a high position at the bar.

Davis was a man of scholarly tastes, an orator of unusual ability and great eloquence, tireless and fearless in fighting political battles, but impulsive to the verge of rashness, impractical, tactless and autocratic. He wrote an elaborate political work entitled The War of Ormuzd and Ahriman in the Nineteenth Century (1853), in which he described the American Republic and the Russian Empire as the ultimate opponents in the struggles of humanity; it also dismissed the Southern contention that slavery was a divine institution.

Career in Congress[]


Henry Winter Davis

Early becoming imbued with strong anti-slavery views, though by inheritance he was himself a slave holder, he began political life as a Whig. After the Whig Party disintegrated, he became a Know Nothing, and served as a member of the Know Nothing-influenced American Party in the House of Representatives from 1855 to 1861. By his independent course in Congress he won the respect and esteem of all political groups.

In the contest over the speakership at the opening of the 36th United States Congress in 1859 he voted with the Republicans, incurring a vote of censure from the Maryland Legislature, which called upon him to resign.

In the 1860 presidential election, not yet ready to become a Republican, he declined to be a candidate for the Republican nomination for Vice President of the United States, instead supported the Constitutional Union ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett. Defeated that year for reelection to Congress, in the winter of 1860 and 1861 - between the secession of some Southern states and the beginning of the Civil War with the assault on Fort Sumner - Davis was involved in compromise measures.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected and the Civil War began, Davis became a Republican. He was re-elected in 1862 to the U.S. House of Representatives and quickly became an aggressive Radical Republican, which was viewed as particularly surprising given that Maryland was a slaveholding border state.

From December 1863 to March 1865 Davis served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In 1864, unwilling to leave the delicate questions concerning the French occupation of Mexico entirely in the hands of President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, and brought in a report very hostile to France, which was adopted by the House but not by the Senate.

With other Radical Republicans, Davis was a bitter opponent of Lincoln's plan for the Reconstruction of the Southern states, which he thought too lenient.

On February 15, 1864, he reported from committee a bill placing the process of Reconstruction under the control of Congress, and stipulating that the Confederate states, as a condition of being re-admitted to the Union would disfranchise all important civil and military officers of the Confederacy, abolish slavery, and repudiate all debts incurred by or with the sanction of the Confederate government. In his speech supporting this measure, Davis declared that until Congress should recognize a government established under its auspices, there is no government in the rebel states save the authority of Congress. The bill, the first formal expression by Congress with regard to Reconstruction, did not pass both Houses until the closing hours of the session.

President Lincoln disapproved and on July 8 issued a proclamation defining his position. Soon afterward, on August 5, 1864, Davis joined Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, who had piloted the bill through the Senate, in issuing the so-called Wade-Davis Bill, which violently denounced President Lincoln for encroaching on the domain of Congress and insinuated that the presidential policy would leave slavery unimpaired in the reconstructed states.

In a debate in Congress some months later he declared, "When I came into Congress ten years ago this was a government of law. I have lived to see it a government of personal will." He was one of the radical leaders who preferred John C. Fremont to Lincoln in the 1864 election, but subsequently withdrew his opposition and supported the President for re-election. Joining the Unconditional Union Party, he early favored the enlistment of negroes, and in July 1865 publicly advocated the extension of the suffrage to them. He was not a candidate for re-election to Congress in 1864, and died in Baltimore at the very end of 1865. His remains were interred in Greenmount Cemetery.

Henry W. Davis was a cousin of David Davis, a U.S. Senator from Illinois and later an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

See also[]

  • The Speeches of Henry Winter Davis (New York, 1867), to which is prefixed an oration on his life and character delivered in the House of Representatives by Senator John A. J. Creswell of Maryland.
  • Tracy Matthew Melton, Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies, 1854-1860 (2005). Details political activities in Davis' district during his tenure as an American Party congressman. A great deal of information on Davis is included in the narrative.


External links[]

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