Blurring party lines to build an empire

Blurring party lines to build an empire

 

The bond between West Virginia industrialist and politician Henry Gassaway Davis and his son-in-law Stephen B. Elkins withstood three decades of partnership in many businesses and philanthropic endeavors, including the Elkins Bank and the college that still bears their names.

The bond between West Virginia industrialist and politician Henry Gassaway Davis and his son-in-law Stephen B. Elkins withstood three decades of partnership in many businesses and philanthropic endeavors, including the Elkins Bank and the college that still bears their names. The relationship also endured despite what, by today’s standards, would have been an unresolvable difference:

Davis, a U.S. senator from 1871 to 1883, was a Democrat. Elkins, who served in President Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet before winning election to the Senate, was a Republican.

“Naturally, this brought them into conflict during heated political campaigns,” Davis’ biographer, Charles Melville Pepper, wrote. “But it never was allowed to alienate them even temporarily.”1

To many observers, the political difference between Davis and Elkins wasn’t much of a difference at all.

“Party politics and the maintenance of a well-disciplined machine were important considerations for the industrialists in West Virginia. It was preferable to them to retain pro-industry leaders, however, even if it meant yielding a governmental seat to the opposing party.

“They sought a government sympathetic to their economic interests. Which party led it was less important to them.”2

The point was never clearer than in the run-up to the 1888 presidential election. Though Davis had retired from the senate in 1883 to tend to his burgeoning coal, timber, banking and railroad interests, he had remained active in politics and regularly led the West Virginia delegation to the Democratic national convention.3

But Davis was a capitalist first and a Democrat second. And in 1887, as his party aligned with those seeking tariff reform, Davis determined that his coal business would “be better served … by a liberal Republican [senator] than by a free-trade anti-improvement Democrat.”4 As his subsequent actions showed, Davis felt the same about the incumbent Democratic president, Grover Cleveland.

Davis was close friends with Harrison, a former Indiana senator and prospective Republican challenger to Cleveland. When Davis failed to dissuade the president from pursuing tariff reform, he invited Harrison to join Elkins and him at Davis’ summer home at Deer Park, Maryland. There, the host “advised his guest to encourage any presidential boom that might develop and hinted at his own willingness to support him … At no time did Davis openly oppose candidates of his own party …. ”5

Though Cleveland would carry West Virginia — by a mere 506 votes — Harrison won a close election. Three years later, he named Elkins war secretary.

Elkins and Davis had active political lives following the election of 1888. In 1895, Elkins, by then the West Virginia GOP’s unquestioned leader, became the state’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction.6

Davis would eventually make U.S. political history. In 1904, he was nominated for vice president on the Democratic ticket headed by retired New York judge Alton B. Parker. At 80, Davis became (and remains) the oldest candidate ever nominated for president or vice president by a major party.7

Parker and Davis captured just 38 percent of the popular vote and 140 of 476 electoral votes, however, and lost to the Republican ticket of Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks. A key plank of the Republican platform was preserving the protective tariff.8

No one ever doubted that Davis and Elkins, political rivals on the surface only, held each other in high esteem and were strong allies.

As Davis’ biographer wrote, “When Senator Elkins died … Mr. Davis, in his journal entry, put in a single striking sentence his estimate of his son-in-law, ‘Elkins was a noble, generous, brainy, and talented man.’”9

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Henry Gassaway Davis, a lifelong politician, served as a U.S. senator from 1871 to 1883. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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Davis’ son-in-law Stephen Elkins served as a Republican senator but successfully partnered with Davis for many philanthropic and business ventures. Photo Credit: Library of Congress