Henry Winter Davis

Henry Winter Davis was born on August 16, 1817, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Henry Lyon Davis and Jane Brown Winter. His father was a prominent Episcopal minister who served as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis. Davis later praised his father as a “man of genius” and “unbending independence,” and observed that his mother was “highly educated for her day.”

Davis received his earliest education at home, and he briefly attended the grammar school affiliated with St. John’s College. In 1824, however, Democratic-Republicans on the college’s Board of Trustees removed his father (a former Federalist) from the presidency. The family relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, for a few years before returning to Anne Arundel County, Maryland, around 1827. His father supported the American Colonization Society and planned to emancipate his slaves once they turned 25 on the condition that they agree to migrate to Liberia. The elder Davis, however, never followed through on these plans, and his slaves secured their freedom only after his death.

Davis enrolled in the preparatory department at Kenyon College in October 1833. During the recent nullification crisis, the college’s debate society divided into separate northern and southern organizations, and Henry promptly joined the southern society. While at Kenyon, he refused to associate with many northern students, and he developed a “growing disgust for Abolitionists.” He graduated on September 6, 1837, and returned home to Maryland. His father’s death the year before had left their estate deeply in debt, and Henry worked as a tutor for the next two years to help support the family. He enrolled at the University of Virginia in October 1839 and spent the following year studying law. There, he found himself at odds with many of his classmates. While most students embraced “Jefferson’s political theories of State’s rights,” he recalled, he championed the Whig Party’s economic nationalism.

Davis left UVA in 1840 and began practicing law in Alexandria, in the District of Columbia. On October 30, 1845, he married Constance C. Gardiner, the daughter of Alexandria lawyer William C. Gardiner. She died a few years later, in early 1849. He later married Nancy Morris, on January 26, 1857, and they had two daughters: Anna Hollingsworth (1857) and Mary Winter (born on May 28, 1863).

In 1850, Davis moved to Baltimore, where he became a prominent lawyer and launched his political career. He addressed the Whig National Convention in 1852 and campaigned for presidential candidate Winfield Scott throughout the mid-Atlantic states. When the Whig Party disintegrated in the mid-1850s, Davis eventually joined the nativist Know Nothing Party. He published a pamphlet vindicating Know Nothing principles, insisting the party sought to defend the Union against sectional extremists. Maryland voters elected Davis to Congress in 1855, and the following year he championed Know Nothing presidential candidate Millard Fillmore. He condemned both Democrats and Republicans as “strictly sectional parties” and appealed to “conservative men to all parties” to uphold the Union and Constitution.

As Know Nothing strength collapsed, however, Davis gradually aligned with the Republican Party. In the late 1850s, he opposed Democrats’ territorial policies, rejecting Kansas’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution and the Supreme Court’s pro-slavery Dred Scott decision. He supported Constitutional Unionist John Bell in the election of 1860 and worked to unify Republicans, Know Nothings, and old southern Whigs in a national anti-Democratic coalition.

Davis remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, and in June 1861 he ran for reelection as an Unconditional Unionist. He lost to Henry May, a former Democrat who was later arrested on suspicion of treason. Early in the war, Davis condemned abolitionists as “ignorant fanatics” and focused his efforts on preserving the Union. By 1862, however, his convictions became increasingly radical. He supported emancipation in the country’s capital and territories, urged Congress to redistribute Confederate property among former slaves, and called upon Lincoln to arm African-American men. In November 1863, Maryland voters elected Davis to Congress as an Unconditional Unionist.

Davis opposed Lincoln’s lenient plan for Reconstruction, which offered amnesty to all but the highest-ranking Confederate officials and restored state governments once ten percent of voters had sworn oaths of future loyalty. As chairman of the Select Committee on the Rebellious States, Davis countered with his own plan in February 1864. The resulting Wade-Davis Bill required fifty percent of voters to swear an ironclad oath testifying to past loyalty before a state could be readmitted to the Union. Congress passed the bill on July 2, 1864, only for Lincoln to pocket veto it. Davis then co-authored a manifesto demanding that Lincoln “confine himself to his executive duties—to obey and execute, not to make laws.”

Davis’s policies, however, proved too radical for many of his constituents, and Baltimore’s Union Party refused to re-nominate him. Undaunted, on January 31, 1865, he helped secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the country. By the summer of 1865, Davis endorsed African-American suffrage, hoping former slaves would form the nucleus of a southern Republican Party. If African Americans were the equals of white men on the battlefield, he observed, then they deserved to be equals at the ballot box, as well.

Davis, however, did not live to see these visions realized. He died of pneumonia on December 30, 1865, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was buried in the city’s Green Mount Cemetery three days later, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton serving as pallbearers.

Image: Henry Winter Davis (courtesy National Archives).


Wade-Davis Bill, February 15, 1864

Wade-Davis Manifesto, August 9, 1864

Henry Winter Davis Calls for Black Suffrage

Name:Davis, Henry Winter
Alternative names:
  • UVA (Union)
  • Civilian
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Alexandria, VA
UVA Begin Year:1839
UVA End Year:1840
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1817-08-16
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Annapolis, MD
Death date:1865-12-30
Death place:Baltimore, MD
Causes of death:disease: pneumonia
Occupations:Attorney, Politician
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Davis, Henry Winterparent ofDavis, Anna Hollingsworth
Davis, Henry Winterparent ofDavis, Mary Winter
Davis, Constancewife ofDavis, Henry Winter
Davis, Nancywife ofDavis, Henry Winter

The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), August 27, 1856; Speeches and Addresses Delivered in the Congress of the United States (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1867); Brian Neumann, "The Unconditional Union: UVA Unionists and the Crisis of Decision," Unpublished manuscript; Henry Winter Davis, Autobiography, quoted in Bernard C. Stiner, Life of Henry Winter Davis (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1916); Gerald S. Henig, Henry Winter Davis: Antebellum and Civil War Congressman from Maryland (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973); John Niven, Salmon P. Chase: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); "Davis, Henry Winter," American National Biography Online (https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-97801986...).