Westmoreland Davis

Westmoreland Davis (1859–1942)

Westmoreland Davis was a Democratic governor of Virginia from 1918 to 1922. During his term as governor, Davis streamlined the state's fiscal operations and reformed its penal system. An agricultural reformer, he also cofounded the Virginia State Dairymen's Association in 1907 and represented the Progressive farm lobby through his monthly journal the Southern Planter. MORE...

 

Davis, who came from a family of wealthy southern planters, was born on board a ship in the North Atlantic Ocean during his parents' annual voyage to Liverpool, England, in 1859. His father, Thomas Gordon Davis of South Carolina, his brother, and his sister all died shortly thereafter, leaving his mother, Annie Morriss of Gloucester County, and young Westmoreland, or "Morley," to face the social and economic upheaval of the American Civil War (1861–1865) on their own. Mrs. Davis moved from South Carolina to Richmond, where Davis spent his childhood. Despite what his mother referred to as "many bitter years of poverty and destitution," he managed to obtain a scholarship to Virginia Military Institute in 1873, at age fourteen, the youngest cadet ever to enroll at VMI. He graduated in 1877, just two months before his eighteenth birthday.

After two years teaching, he took a job in the offices of the Richmond & Allegheny Railroad until 1883. Davis then spent a year at the University of Virginia and studied law at Columbia University from 1884 until graduating in 1886. Davis remained in New York to practice corporate law; there he met Marguerite Inman of Atlanta, daughter of W. H. Inman, a New York cotton broker. The couple married in 1892 and soon moved to Orange County, New York, where from 1893 to 1902 they enjoyed fox-hunting as members of the Orange County Hunt Club. By 1903, at age forty-four, Davis had been successful enough to retire to Loudoun County, Virginia, where he and his wife purchased Morven Park, a country estate. Throughout his retirement, Davis transformed Morven into a model of Progressive farming and eventually into a champion dairy farm.

In 1907 he helped found the Virginia State Dairymen's Association. In 1909 he became president of the Virginia State Farmers' Institute and began lobbying the Virginia legislature for agricultural reform. One of his achievements was persuading the legislature to create state-owned fertilizer plants so that individual farmers could directly buy fertilizer in bulk. Davis also succeeded in lobbying for a legislative reference bureau in 1914. In 1912 Davis purchased the Southern Planter, an agricultural monthly, which he developed into a strong voice for the Progressive farm lobby in Virginia and later as a means of expressing his own political ambitions.

Spurred on by his success in the agricultural lobby, Davis ran for governor in 1917 as an independent Democrat in a three-way race with independent John Garland Pollard and Lieutenant Governor James Taylor Ellyson, the candidate of the Democratic Party's Martin Organization (named for Thomas Staples Martin. The central issue of the campaign was Prohibition, which had become law in Virginia the year before. Davis, who opposed Prohibition, was considered by many in the state to be an inexperienced outsider with an outsider's chance in the election, though, ironically, he did not even drink alcohol. But by throwing in his lot with the "wets" he gained a narrow electoral success against the other two candidates, who were considered "dry." As historian Jack Temple Kirby explains, "Such was the irony that would make a wet, inexperienced, independent Democrat the governor of a dry and machine-controlled state."

Streamlining management of state government, centralizing its finances, and reforming the penal system were among Davis's accomplishments while in office. In 1918 he successfully proposed transferring responsibility for budget-making from the legislative to the executive branch, and in 1920 he drew up the state's first executive budget. He also established the state Purchasing Commission. Among his prison reforms were creating more humane living conditions for prisoners and establishing prison industries to manufacture items used by state agencies. After leaving the governor's office in 1922, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for a seat in the United States Senate against incumbent U.S. senator, and former governor, Claude A. Swanson. Davis was a strong supporter of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies during the Great Depression of the 1930s and a vocal opponent of the Byrd Organization, the successor to the Martin Organization. Davis never again held public office.

Davis died on September 22, 1942, at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. His wife established the Westmoreland Davis Foundation in his honor in 1955 and opened their home, Morven Park, to the public. The Museum of Hounds and Hunting, a carriage collection, and an equestrian center are recent features of the complex.

Time Line

  • August 21, 1859 - Westmoreland Davis is born on board a ship in the North Atlantic Ocean during his parents’ annual voyage to Liverpool, England.
  • 1873 - At age fourteen, Westmoreland Davis obtains a scholarship to attend Virginia Military Institute, the youngest cadet ever to enroll at VMI.
  • 1877 - Westmoreland Davis graduates from Virginia Military Institute, just two months before his eighteenth birthday.
  • September 1883 - Westmoreland Davis enrolls in the University of Virginia for a year of post-graduate study. He begins law school at Columbia University the following year.
  • 1886 - Westmoreland Davis graduates from Columbia Law School.
  • 1892 - Westmoreland Davis marries Marguerite Inman of Atlanta, daughter of W. H. Inman, a New York cotton broker. The couple will live in Orange County, New York, until 1902.
  • 1903 - Westmoreland Davis retires to Loudoun County, Virginia, where he and his wife purchase Morven Park, a country estate.
  • December 1907 - Westmoreland Davis helps found the Virginia State Dairymen's Association.
  • 1909 - Westmoreland Davis becomes president of the Virginia State Farmers' Institute and begins lobbying the Virginia legislature for agricultural reform.
  • 1912 - Westmoreland Davis purchases the Southern Planter, an agricultural monthly, which he will develop into a strong voice for the Progressive farm lobby in Virginia and later as a means of expressing his own political ambitions.
  • November 7, 1917 - In a narrow victory, Westmoreland Davis is elected governor of Virginia as an independent Democrat in a three-way race with independent John Garland Pollard and Lieutenant Governor James Taylor Ellyson, the candidate of the Democratic Party's Martin Organization.
  • February 1, 1918 - Westmoreland Davis is inaugurated governor of Virginia. During his term he streamlines management of state government, centralizes its finances, and reforms the penal system.
  • 1920 - As governor of Virginia, Westmoreland Davis draws up Virginia's first ever executive budget.
  • February 1, 1922 - Westmoreland Davis's term as governor ends. E Lee Trinkle succeeds him.
  • August 1, 1922 - Westmoreland Davis loses the Democratic primary for a seat in the United States Senate to incumbent U.S. senator, and former governor, Claude A. Swanson.
  • September 22, 1942 - Westmoreland Davis dies.
Further Reading
Dabney, Virginius. Virginia, The New Dominion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971.
Heinemann, Ronald L., John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent Jr., and William G. Shade. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607–2007 Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2007.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Westmoreland Davis: Virginia Planter-Politician, 1859–1942. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
Wallenstein, Peter. Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bayliss, M. L. Westmoreland Davis (1859–1942). (2014, June 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Davis_Westmoreland_1859-1942.

  • MLA Citation:

    Bayliss, Mary Lynn. "Westmoreland Davis (1859–1942)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 28, 2009 | Last modified: June 2, 2014


Contributed by Mary Lynn Bayliss, a writer and historian who lives in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia.