John W. Davis (governor)

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John W. Davis
RI Governor John W Davis.jpg
38th & 41st Governor of Rhode Island
In office
May 27, 1890 – May 26, 1891
Lieutenant William T. C. Wardwell
Preceded by Herbert W. Ladd
Succeeded by Herbert W. Ladd
In office
May 29, 1887 – May 29, 1888
Lieutenant Samuel R. Honey
Preceded by George P. Wetmore
Succeeded by Royal C. Taft
Member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born John William Davis
(1826-03-07)March 7, 1826
Rehoboth, Massachusetts, US
Died January 25, 1907(1907-01-25) (aged 80)
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Resting place Riverside Cemetery
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Lydia W. Kenyon, Emily P. Goffe
Occupation Mason, teacher
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch National Guard
Years of service 1861–1865
Unit Rhode Island National Guard
Battles/wars American Civil War

John William Davis (March 7, 1826 – January 25, 1907) was a United States Democratic politician, who served as the 38th and 41st Governor of Rhode Island (1887–1888 and 1890–1891).

Early life and career[edit]

John W. Davis was born at his family's farm house in Rehoboth, Massachusetts on March 7, 1826.[1] He attended public schools in Rehoboth[1] and a private school in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.[2] Before entering politics, he was engaged in various occupations; in 1844 he moved to Providence to become apprenticed as a mason. He also received his certification as a schoolteacher, and for several years traveled through the southern states to work in both professions.[1][3] Davis then started in partnership with his brother a grain and provisions business on South Water Street in Providence, which operated from 1850 to 1890.[1][4]

During the American Civil War, he served in the Rhode Island Militia, first as a member of an infantry unit, and later in a local unit known as the Providence Horse Guards.[5][6]

Early political career[edit]

His first experience in politics was as a member of the Democratic City Committee of Providence in 1854.[4]

Davis moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1877 to serve as the resident manager of Riverside Cemetery.[4] He lived on the cemetery grounds in a wooden octagonal gatehouse.[4] Davis served in a number of local offices in Pawtucket.[4] In 1882 and 1885 he served on the Town Council.[4] He served as a State Senator in 1885 and 1886.[4]

In 1886, Davis was appointed by fellow Democratic President Grover Cleveland as an Appraiser of Foreign Merchandise for the Providence U.S. Customs District.[1]


Davis served two nonconsecutive one-year terms as governor. He was the first Democratic governor since the 1850s and the first Pawtucket resident in the State House since Joseph Jenckes, Jr. in the 1730s.[4] His progressive administration was known for giving foreign-born residents the same voting rights as native-born citizens,[4] expanding suffrage to women, establishing the boundary line between Rhode Island and Connecticut, and reforming election laws and orphanages.[7]

First term[edit]

He was Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1887 and defeated incumbent Republican George P. Wetmore. Davis won with support from many Republicans, who were unhappy with party leadership.[7]

During his first term as governor, the Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the state constitution was approved, the boundary line between Rhode Island and Connecticut was established, and election laws were reformed to eliminate fraud. Davis was defeated for re-election in 1888 by Republican candidate Royal C. Taft, but ran again in 1889 against Herbert W. Ladd.

Plurality is not enough to win[edit]

Prior to 1893, Rhode Island's constitution had a majority election requirement; that is, if no candidate for state races received an outright majority, the result would be decided by the General Assembly.[8] This became an issue during a period of four years, 1889-1893, during which the rise of the Prohibition Party caused several state races to be sent to the Assembly for decision.[8] Three times, in 1889, 1890, and 1891, Democrat Davis received more votes than Republican Ladd in the governor's race, yet did not receive a majority.[8] The Assembly decided in favor of Ladd twice (1889 and 1891) and for Davis in 1890.[8] This situation was eventually remedied in November 1893 by the adoption of Amendment X to the Rhode Island Constitution, which allowed for a winner by plurality vote.[8]

Second term[edit]

During Davis's second administration the governor was given authorization to appoint a commission to revise and codify general statutes, and funds were appropriated for completion of a Soldiers’ Home. He undertook the construction of College Hall at the University of Rhode Island, then the largest building on campus. When it burned down in 1895 and was rebuilt, it was renamed Davis Hall in his honor.[9]

Davis was defeated for re-election once again in 1891, but did not retire from active politics; he was elected to the state Senate from Pawtucket in 1892, and served as Mayor of Pawtucket in 1897.[4][7] He also served on the State House Commission.[1]

Davis died on January 25, 1907 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery, where he had previously served as manager.[4][10]


Davis was married three times: to Lydia W. Kenyon (died 1859); Emily P. Goffe, two children; and Marietta P. Pearse. Davis was raised Methodist and later became Episcopalian.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bicknell, Thomas W. (1894). Historical Addresses, Poem, and Other Exercises at the Celebration of the Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Settlement of Rehoboth, Mass., Held October 3, 1894. Rehoboth, MA. pp. 141–142. Retrieved 31 January 2016. 
  2. ^ McGuinness, Edwin D. (1890). Manual with Rules and Orders for the Use of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island. Providence, RI: E. L. Freeman & Sons, State Printers. p. 305. 
  3. ^ "Hon. John W. Davis: Governor-Elect of Rhode Island". Leslie's Illustrated. New York, NY: Mrs. Frank Leslie: 149. April 23, 1887. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Historic Resources of Pawtucket (PDF pages 134-137)" (PDF). Rhode Island Preservation. Retrieved 31 Jan 2016. 
  5. ^ "Ex-Gov. John W. Davis Dead". New York Times. New York, NY. January 26, 1907. 
  6. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. IX. New York, NY: James T. White & Company. 1907. pp. 407–408. 
  7. ^ a b c "Rhode Island Governor John William Davis". National Governors Association. Retrieved August 24, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Conley, Patrick T. (2011). The Rhode Island State Constitution. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 154. Retrieved 22 May 2015. 
  9. ^ "URI History and Timeline". University of Rhode Island. Archived from the original on December 23, 2012. Retrieved Jul 18, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Davis, John William (1826–1907)". The Political Graveyard. Retrieved September 18, 2008. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mohr, Ralph S. Governors for Three Hundred Years (1638–1954): Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. State of Rhode Island, Graves Registration Committee, August 1954.
  • The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 9. New York: James T. White & Company.
  • Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789–1978, Vol. 4. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
George P. Wetmore
Governor of Rhode Island
Succeeded by
Royal C. Taft
Preceded by
Herbert W. Ladd
Governor of Rhode Island
Succeeded by
Herbert W. Ladd