Henry Winter Davis (1817-1865)

Henry Winter Davis (August 16, 1817 - December 30, 1865) was an American politician, well known as one of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War.

Early life and career

He was born in Annapolis, Maryland. His father, Rev Henry Lyon Davis (1775-1836), was a prominent Protestant Episcopal clergyman of Maryland, and for some years president of St Johns College at Annapolis. The son graduated at Kenyon College, 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 Alzriman in the Ninteenth Century (1853), in which he combated the Southern contention that slavery was a divine institution.

U.S. Congressman

Early becoming imbued with strong anti-slavery views, though by inheritance he was himself a slave holder, he began political life as a Whig, but when the Whig party disintegrated, he became an American or Know-Nothing, and as such served in the national 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 Thirty-Sixth Congress (1859) he voted with the Republicans, thereby incurring a vote of censure from the Maryland legislature, which called upon him to resign. In 1860, not being quite ready to ally himself wholly with the Republican party, he declined to be a candidate for the Republican nomination for the vice-presidency, and supported the Bell and Everett ticket. He was himself defeated in this year for reelection to Congress. In the winter of 1860-1861 he was active on behalf of compromise measures.

From Whig to Republican

Finally, after President Lincolns election, he became a Republican, and as such was re-elected in 1862 to the national House of Representatives, in which he at once became one of the most radical and aggressive members, his views commanding especial attention owing to his being one of the few representatives from a slave state. From December 1863 to March 1865 he was chairman of the committee on foreign affairs; as such, in 1864, he was unwilling to leave the delicate questions concerning the French occupation of Mexico entirely in the hands of the president and his secretary of state, and brought in a report very hostile to France, which was adopted in the House, but fortunately, as it proved later, was not adopted by the Senate.

Reconstruction views

With other radical Republicans, Davis was a bitter opponent of Lincoln's plan for the reconstruction of the Southern States, and 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, before resuming their former status in the Union, must 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, and failed to receive the approval of the president, who on the July 8 issued a proclamation defining his position. Soon afterwards, 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 Manifesto, 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 1864, but subsequently withdrew his opposition and supported the President for re-election. 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.