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Jeff Davis (Arkansas governor)

Jeff Davis
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, Little River County, Arkansas
Died January 3, 1913(1913-01-03) (aged 50)
Little Rock, Arkansas
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Ina MacKenzie (1882–1910)
Leila Carter (1911–1913)
Profession Lawyer
Religion Baptist
Historical marker of the birthplace of Governor Jeff Davis

Jefferson Davis (May 6, 1862 – January 3, 1913), commonly known as Jeff Davis, 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 and career 1
    • Civil War and Reconstruction 1.1
    • Move to Pope County 1.2
  • College and law school years 2
  • Political career 3
    • Attorney General 3.1
    • Governor 3.2
    • U.S. Senate 3.3
  • Death 4
  • Quote 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life and career

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

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

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. 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.[7]

College and law school years

Davis attended school in Russellville, Arkansas. He attended the University of Arkansas, and studied law at Cumberland University and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated in 1884 from Vanderbilt University.

Davis was admitted to the bar in Pope County, Arkansas and commenced private practice of law in Russellville.

Political career

Davis was well known for his outrageous rhetoric and oratorial skills. He 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 was equally able to wield humor, the "bloody shirt", and racial differences. It was also said that many of his supporters incorrectly believed he was of familial relation to the Jefferson Davis who was the President of the Confederacy, a belief that Davis did nothing to discourage, and which he may have covertly encouraged.[8]

Davis was an avowed racist and segregationist. 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.[8]

Attorney General

Davis served as prosecuting attorney of the Fifth Judicial District of Arkansas from 1892 to 1896. He was then elected Arkansas Attorney General and served from 1898 to 1901.


Davis in 1905

He served as Governor of Arkansas from 1901 to 1907.[9]

U.S. Senate

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. He is buried at historic Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas.[10]


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."
  • "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


  1. ^ Arsenault 1988, pp. 5-7.
  2. ^ Arsenault 1988, pp. 11-13.
  3. ^ Donovan et al. 1995, p. 130.
  4. ^ Donovan et al. 1995, p. 115.
  5. ^ a b c Arsenault 1988, p. 27.
  6. ^ Arsenault 1988, pp. 26-27.
  7. ^ Arsenault 1988, p. 29.
  8. ^ a b "The Arkansas News: Jeff Davis Funeral Attracts Crowd of Thousands". Archived from the original on 2007-10-06. Retrieved 2007-04-09. 
  9. ^ "Arkansas Governor Jefferson Davis". National Governors Association. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Jeff Davis". Find A Grave. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 


  • Arsenault, Raymond (1988) [1984]. The Wild Ass of the Ozarks (2nd ed.). Knoxville, Tennessee:  
  • Donovan, Timothy P.; Gatewood Jr., Willard B.; Whayne, Jeannie M., eds. (1995) [1981]. The Governors of Arkansas (2nd ed.). Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press.  
  • "Jeff Davis, Thrice Governor of Arkansas". The St. Louis Republic. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (Library of Congress) (St. Louis, Mo.: G. Knapp & Co.). July 23, 1905. p. 4.  

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Daniel Webster Jones
Governor of Arkansas
Succeeded by
John Sebastian Little
United States Senate
Preceded by
James Henderson Berry
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Arkansas
Succeeded by
John Netherland Heiskell
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