If Americans know anything about the presidential election of 1924, they know that it was won by the incumbent Calvin Coolidge in a landslide over the Democratic nominee, John W. Davis of West Virginia, a prominent lawyer and diplomat who was a compromise candidate after 103 ballots at a convention where support from the Ku Klux Klan was an issue. (Davis was an anti-Klan Southerner.)
But as Garland S. Tucker III makes clear in this fascinating study, it was considerably more than that. Among other things, that election was the last time the presidential nominees of the two parties could both be described as conservatives, and the conservatism of Davis and Coolidge, while different in degree, was a complex of ideas about the proper role of government in American life, articulated with erudition and skill by both candidates. The fundamental principles at issue have not evolved as much as we might think in the intervening 86 years, but since the Democratic party after 1924 was unreservedly the party of the left in the United States, this election may fairly be described, as Mr. Tucker does, as the “high tide of American conservatism.”
This interesting, engaging study might also serve to re-introduce John W. Davis to readers as someone other than the historical footnote who lost to Calvin Coolidge. Davis (1873-1955)--who was, incidentally, the uncle and adoptive parent of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance--was a lifelong political player, and one of the great advocates of his era, successfully arguing dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, including his triumphant, 90-minute presentation in the Youngstown steel case (1952), which struck down President Truman’s seizure of the steel mills during the Korean war. Davis’s reputation has suffered, to some degree, in our time as counsel for the state of South Carolina, and school segregation, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). But it tells us something about him—and about the evolving standards of the legal profession--that when the Court ruled unanimously against Davis, he declined to accept South Carolina’s (taxpayer-financed) fee for his services.
The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election
by Garland S. Tucker III,
Emerald, 336pp., $29.95