Jeff Davis (Arkansas governor)

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Jeff Davis
Jeff Davis.jpg
United States Senator
from Arkansas
In office
March 4, 1907 – January 3, 1913
Preceded by James H. Berry
Succeeded by John N. Heiskell
20th Governor of Arkansas
In office
January 8, 1901 – January 8, 1907
Preceded by Daniel Webster Jones
Succeeded by John Sebastian Little
Personal details
Born Jefferson Davis
May 6, 1862
Rocky Comfort, Arkansas
Died January 3, 1913(1913-01-03) (aged 50)
Little Rock, Arkansas
Resting place Mount Holly Cemetery
Little Rock, Arkansas
34°44′16.5″N 92°16′38.6″W / 34.737917°N 92.277389°W / 34.737917; -92.277389
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Ina MacKenzie (1882–1910)
Leila Carter (1911–1913)
Education University of Arkansas
Vanderbilt University
Cumberland University (J.D.)
Profession Lawyer

Jeff Davis (born Jefferson Davis; May 6, 1862 – January 3, 1913) was a Democratic politician who served as the 20th Governor of Arkansas from 1901 to 1907 and in the United States Senate from 1907 to 1913. He took office as one of Arkansas's first New South governors and proved to be one of the state's most polarizing figures. Davis utilized his silver tongue and ability to demagogue to exploit existing feelings of agrarian frustration among poor rural whites and thus build a large populist appeal.[1] However, since Davis often blamed city-dwellers, blacks and Yankees for problems on the farm,[2] the state was quickly and ardently split into "pro-Davis" or "anti-Davis" factions.

Davis began his political career as Arkansas Attorney General, where he immediately began making political waves. His office challenged the legality of the Kimball State House Act and made an extremely controversial extraterritorial interpretation of the Rector Antitrust Act. His fight to prevent trusts from doing business in Arkansas and the extreme lengths he went to enforce his opinion would be a common theme throughout his political career and provided him with credibility among the poor rural whites that would become his base.

Davis' three two-year terms as Arkansas Governor "produced more politics than government",[3] but succeeded in building a new state house and reforming the penal system. An almost-constant series of scandals and outrageous behavior characterized his time in office, which followed him when he won election to the United States Senate in 1906. Davis is often put in the same class as Benjamin Tillman, Robert Love Taylor, Thomas E. Watson, James K. Vardaman, Coleman Livingston Blease, and later Huey Long, controversial figures known as part-Southern demagogues, part-populists and part-political bosses.

Early life[edit]

Historical marker of the birthplace of Governor Jeff Davis

Davis was born near Rocky Comfort in Little River County in southwestern Arkansas. His parents were Lewis W. Davis, a Baptist preacher originally from Kentucky and his wife, Elizabeth Phillips, originally from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.[4] Lewis Davis did not join the Confederate army until drafted in 1864, but he named his only son after Jefferson Davis, then-President of the Confederate States of America. His service was largely a chaplain's commission, but he quit the ministry following the war and became a lawyer.[5]

Civil War and Reconstruction[edit]

No Civil War battles were fought within Sevier County's bounds, but there were many opportunities for the war to make an impression on a young Jeff Davis. After the Union captured Little Rock in 1863, the state capitol was moved to Washington. Union General Nathaniel Banks later lead the Red River Campaign, an unsuccessful attempt to capture Shreveport, Louisiana via southwest Arkansas, through the county. Beginning in 1865, Laynesport became a Confederate garrison, not far from the Davis property. Perhaps equally indelible was the romanticism of "The Lost Cause" in the years following the war; as a majority of southwestern Arkansas residents remained staunch Confederate supporters.[6]

Following the war, Lewis Davis was elected to serve as county and probate judge of Sevier County, and later Little River County following its creation in 1867. The following year, Radical Reconstruction swept Davis and most other Democrats from office. Confederate supporters did not accept this political overhaul, turning to vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Knights of the White Camelia to intimidate blacks and Republicans. The rough and tumble nature of Little River County was especially conductive for gangs, outlaws and violence.[5] Eventually the situation devolved to such lawlessness that governor Powell Clayton declared martial law in Little River and nine other counties to restore order. Desperado Cullen Baker initially assembled a posse to oppose Clayton's militia, but after several skirmishes the militia gained control of the county. Local history tells of rape, torture, murder and pillaging by the militia in the ensuing months. The martial law months were later described by Jeff Davis as the "most bitter episode of his youth".[5] The Davis family moved to Dover, Arkansas in the Arkansas River Valley in 1869.

Move to Pope County[edit]

Following a move to Pope County, Lewis Davis' former judgeship quickly elevated him within a very small legal community. However, the Davis family had moved into a similarly explosive post-war situation rooted deep in Pope County's past. Divided sharply into city-country and Union-Rebel factions, both sides held grudges long after the war was over. The Republican domination of local government lead to resentment from the ex-Confederate Democrats, and the situation exploded in 1872. Later known as the Pope County Militia War, the county fell into lawlessness for six months resulting in robbery, murder and pillaging.[7] Pope County Democrats became heroes across the state for providing openly armed resistance to Powell Clayton's state militia. In a new town but witnessing a violent conflict, Reconstruction violence continued to make an impact on ten-year-old Jeff Davis.[8]

Education and early career[edit]

Main Building as it would've appeared when Davis attended Vanderbilt Law School in 1880

Davis attended public schools in Russellville, Arkansas.[9] After being rejected by West Point in 1878, Davis enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he studied until 1880. Davis transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Completing the two-year law curriculum in one year, the Vanderbilt University Law School withheld his diploma for failure to satisfy their residency requirement.[10] He returned to Russellville in the summer of 1881 and received bar admission despite being underaged with the help of his father's influence. In the fall of 1881, Davis enrolled at Cumberland University, which granted his law degree in May 1882.

Now twenty years old, Davis joined his father's law firm, L.W. Davis and Son, Attorneys, in Russellville as a junior law partner. Focusing on homestead cases, the law practice had become rather successful. The elder Davis, buoyed by a growing law practice while also working as a newspaper editor, real estate broker, and local booster, had become one of the county's most successful citizens.[11] The elder Davis won election into the Arkansas General Assembly in 1877, and Jeff became heavily involved in political campaigns as early as 1884. After supporting Grover Cleveland in the 1888 presidential election, Davis decided to run for district prosecuting attorney in the Fifth Judicial District the following cycle.[12]



At the time, the South was ruled by an unofficial one-party system, with Democratic hegemony, white supremacy, and black disfranchisement remaining intertwined between the Civil War well into the 20th century.[13] Redeemers, usually prominent landowning white men, ruled politics in the South during much of Davis' adult life. This group sought to reverse Republican gains made during Reconstruction and a return to the white supremacy of the Antebellum South by establishing Jim Crow laws. An underground paramilitary component, including groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, also rose to prominence during this period, committing countless lynchings and other acts of violence against Republicans, blacks, and other groups.

Style and contemporaries[edit]

Davis in 1905

Davis is often put in the same class as Benjamin Tillman, Robert Love Taylor, Thomas E. Watson, James K. Vardaman, Coleman Livingston Blease, and later Huey Long, controversial figures known as part-Southern demagogues, part-populists and part-political bosses. Davis was one of many Southern demagogue politicians who rose to power on a populist message of agrarian frustration with big business and elites. His coarse language, insults, and theatrics were all crafted to enhance his "common man" credentials.[14] Davis made a career of skewering the business interests, newspapers, and urban dwellers in order to appeal to the poor rural citizens of the state. He portrayed himself as 'just another poor country boy' against the moneyed interests that held back the common man. Davis often used words such as "rednecks" or "hillbillies", but as terms of endearment rather than pejorative, a technique Huey Long learned from Davis and later used with success in Louisiana.[15]

As with many of his contemporaries, a strong segregationist component drove much of Davis' rhetoric. Although Davis did not succeed in implementing many of his racist promises on the stump, Davis supported disfranchisement of blacks, segregation of school taxes, and white supremacy.[16] He attacked 1904 gubernatorial opponent Carroll D. Wood for appointing a black man as a jury commissioner, promising "no man could be appointed to office under my administration unless he was a white man, a Democrat, and a Jeff Davis man".[17]

It was also said that many of his supporters incorrectly believed he was of familial relation to the Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America, a belief that Davis did nothing to discourage, and may have covertly encouraged.[18]

Early career[edit]

Davis served as prosecuting attorney of the Fifth Judicial District of Arkansas from 1892 to 1896.

Attorney General[edit]

He was then elected Arkansas Attorney General and served from 1898 to 1901.


He served as Governor of Arkansas from 1901 to 1907.[19]

In 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Arkansas, Davis greeted him with a speech in defense of the practice of lynching. Roosevelt responded with a calmer speech in defense of the rule of law.[18]

U.S. Senate[edit]

Davis was elected to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1907 until his death in Little Rock, Arkansas on 3 January 1913. He was chairman of the Committee on the Mississippi and its Tributaries.


Davis served in the United States Senate until his death in 1913. He is buried at historic Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas.[20]


Selected Quotes:

  • "The Helena World says that I'm a carrot haired, red-faced, load-mouthed, strong limbed, ox-driving mountaineer lawyer. That I'm a friend to the fellow that brews 40 rod bug juice back in the mountains. Now, I have a little boy, God bless him, and if I find that boy is a smart boy I will go and make a preacher out of him. If I find that he's not so smart, I'm going to make a lawyer out of him but if I find he has not a bit of sense on this earth, I'm going to make an editor out of him and send him to Little Rock to edit the Arkansas Democrat."
  • "They sent for the high-collared crowd - that crowd that wears collars so high they can't see the sun except at high noon, looking over the top of their collars. They sent for that crowd that when they shake hands with you, they only give you the tip of two fingers." Davis scolding members of an anti-trust committee for inviting businessmen but not farmers to testify.[21]
  • "Jeff Davis, Thrice Governor of Arkansas arouses enthusiasm of that part of his followers whom he calls "red necks and hill billies" in effort to oust Senator Berry, who has represented state at Washington for more than twenty years-Governor's career has been marked by sensational episodes and his enemies are as enthusiastic in their hatred of him as his friends are on his behalf."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ozarks" (1988), pp. 5-7.
  2. ^ "Ozarks" (1988), pp. 11-13.
  3. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 130.
  4. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 115.
  5. ^ a b c "Ozarks" (1988), p. 29.
  6. ^ "Ozarks" (1988), pp. 26-27.
  7. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 116.
  8. ^ "Ozarks" (1988), p. 29.
  9. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 116.
  10. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 116.
  11. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 116.
  12. ^ "Governors" (1995), p. 117.
  13. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), p. 120.
  14. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), p. 117.
  15. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), p. 117.
  16. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), pp. 118-119.
  17. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), p. 118.
  18. ^ a b "The Arkansas News: Jeff Davis Funeral Attracts Crowd of Thousands". Archived from the original on 2007-10-06. Retrieved 2007-04-09. 
  19. ^ "Arkansas Governor Jefferson Davis". National Governors Association. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  20. ^ "Jeff Davis". Find A Grave. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  21. ^ "Demagoguery" (1980), p. 116.


External links[edit]