Congressman Ewin L. Davis

From the author’s personal collection Former Congressman Ewin L. Davis  as a member of the Federal Trade Commission in 1934.
From the author’s personal collection
Former Congressman Ewin L. Davis as a member of the Federal Trade Commission in 1934.

By Ray Hill

 

Someone once said. “Write what should not be forgotten” and ironically, I have forgotten who said it.

Ewin Lamar Davis is little remembered today, but during his time he was an interesting figure and led a productive life.

Born in Bedford County, Tennessee on February 5, 1876, Davis, one of several successful brothers, all of whom would make their mark in the field of business, politics and diplomacy.  Their father, McLin H. Davis, headed the Cascade distillery and supposedly successfully tinkered with the recipe for a whiskey that is still popular today, George Dickel.  One of the Davis brothers, Norman, ran the Cascade distillery until majority stockholders bought out the Davis family interest.

Norman Davis, Ewin’s younger brother, made a sizable fortune in conjunction with the giant German Krupp manufacturing firm, as well as another fortune in Cuba.  Eventually, Norman Davis became a respected diplomat, serving as an Ambassador At Large under the administrations of both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Another younger brother, Paul, headed a Nashville bank and was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Ewin Davis went to the prestigious Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, the forerunner of our own Webb School.  In 1898, Ewin L. Davis married Carolyn Windsor and together they had five children.  One year later, Davis graduated from what eventually became the George Washington School of Law.

The young attorney was quickly attracted to politics and was an active Democrat.  Davis attended the Democratic State Convention in 1900 and would regularly attend every such convention for the next decade until his election as a judge of the Seventh Circuit Court in 1910.

Ewin L. Davis was not one to glad handle, slap folks on the back, or tell jokes.  Davis was not one to even waste time with small talk.  He spoke with a pronounced Southern drawl, speaking slowly and carefully.  Davis was known for making his point forcefully and oftentimes his painstaking sentences, while drawn out, ended with a bit of a barb, making the sting all the more painful.

Davis had a sterling record while sitting on the bench, hearing more than twelve thousand cases, only eighteen of which were overturned by higher courts.  Judge Davis was fearless in administering the law, which came as a distinct surprise to a couple of wealthy men who had been charged with having violated Tennessee’s prohibition laws.  The gentlemen indiscreetly bragged there was not a judge in Tennessee who would dare jail them.  They had not reckoned with Judge Ewin L. Davis.  Davis imprisoned the both of them.

On another occasion, Judge Davis had been awakened in the middle of the night and told a mob was headed towards the local jail.  The mob was hell-bent upon lynching a hapless Negro who was accused of having spoken indecently to a white woman.  The judge, still wearing his white night shirt, hurried to find his trousers.  Davis stuffed the tail of his night shirt into his trousers and rushed to the jail where the intended victim sat terrified.  Judge Davis reached the jail just in time to confront the angry mob.

“I can recognize the faces of everyone here,” Judge Davis snapped, “and if you don’t get out of here, I’ll jail every mother’s son of you for contempt of court!”

The crowd quickly dispersed.

Most knew Judge Davis meant exactly what he said.  Another mob had once gathered, intending to lynch another unfortunate and Davis had promptly identified the ring-leader and had the fellow jailed for contempt.

Ewin L. Davis was highly respected in his home city of Tullahoma and popular enough to win election to Congress in 1918.  Davis won his first election to the U. S. House of Representatives by winning more than twice as many votes as his two opponents combined.  Congressman Davis rose in seniority until he became Chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, a committee of dubious importance to his district and landlocked Tennessee.

In 1930, Tennessee went through redistricting and the Volunteer State went from ten congressmen to nine.  Davis’ district was combined with that of freshman Congressman J. Ridley Mitchell.  The two men were almost polar opposites.  Davis was plain spoken, serious, slow talking and a workhorse, while Mitchell was the quintessential Southern politician.  Ridley Mitchell excelled at meeting and greeting folks, a cigar in one hand and a voter’s in the other.  Mitchell was tall, bald and well dressed, while Ewin Davis was of average height, white headed and rather rumpled.  Mitchell was a very good public speaker, while Congressman Davis was not.  Still, most observers gave Ewin L. Davis the edge in the contest.  Mitchell, after all, had served but one term in Congress while Davis had been in Washington, D. C. fourteen years.  Southerners tended to reward seniority with longevity and keep congressmen and senators in office for decades.  Davis might have survived the 1932 Democratic primary had he been fortunate enough to draw an opponent less able than Ridley Mitchell.

Congressman Mitchell had latched on to nepotism as an issue during his first term in Congress.  If the practice was not common, it was practiced often enough.  Many  congressmen kept relatives on their payrolls and Mitchell had introduced a bill forbidding nepotism in Congressional offices.  Congressman Mitchell never for a moment believed his bill would pass; it languished in committee without ever seeing the light of day.  The bill did, however, give Ridley Mitchell a potent campaign issue as Ewin L. Davis had employed at least two of his daughters.

J. Ridley Mitchell campaigned hard, speaking on every stump in the Fourth District, loudly charging Congressman Ewin L. Davis with having kept his daughters on his payroll while they were in college.  Mitchell’s charges resounded with the voters, many of whom were suffering from the economic collapse caused by the Great Depression.

The issue of nepotism was not confined to Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District and several other congressmen across the country lost their primaries and general elections.  A few were wise enough to see the handwriting on the wall and opted to retire instead.

Congressman Davis remained on the defensive throughout the campaign and the final result came down to which of the two men had represented a particular county.  Davis had represented Bedford, Cannon, Coffee, DeKalb, Lincoln, Marshall, Moore and Rutherford Counties in his old district; he carried them all.  Mitchell had represented Clay, Cumberland, Fentress, Jackson,  Macon, Morgan, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Rhea, Smith, Sumner, Trousdale, and Wilson Counties.  Several of the counties Mitchell had formerly represented, including his home county of Cumberland, had been dropped from the newly constituted Fourth District.  Yet Ridley Mitchell carried every county he had represented during his single term in Congress.  The final total was 18,964 votes for Ewin L. Davis and 19,866 votes for J. Ridley Mitchell.  Davis lost by 902 votes.  Ridley Mitchell had managed to win greater majorities in those counties he had represented than had the veteran congressman.

It was the end of Ewin L. Davis’ electoral career.

After his defeat, Davis received a plum political appointment  from  President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Federal Trade Commission.  Davis’ appointment was not universally heralded, as some derided his selection as either a favor to his brother, Ambassador Norman Davis, or merely the fact FDR took pity on a former Congressman who could not find work elsewhere.

Senator Kenneth D. McKellar had strongly supported appointing Ewin L. Davis to the Federal Trade Commission, as did Secretary of State Cordell Hull.  The criticism and derision of Davis’ abilities was unfair.  It was not long before Ewin L. Davis confounded his critics.

Davis began an investigation into the milk industry, as he began to wonder why so little money was finding its way to the farmers whose cows produced the milk being sold.  One milk company executive was positively horrified when his $88,000 salary became public knowledge.  That same salary would be worth in excess of $1,500,000 in today’s currency.

Noting the furious milk executive’s objections, Commissioner Davis drawled, “My dear sir, if I were paid $88,000 a year and really earned it, I would be very proud to tell the world about it.”

Commissioner Davis was vigilant whenever he encountered monopoly or what he considered to be unfair business practices.  When he discovered some mail order houses selling products to retailers at prices much lower than they charged wholesalers, Commissioner Davis immediately asked for an opinion from the Federal Trade Commission’s legal counsel.  The counsel replied while the practice might be unsavory and even morally reprehensible, it was not illegal.

Ewin L. Davis chewed at a pencil for a few moments and said, “You say there’s nothing in the law which makes that illegal.  We’ll see about that.  You let me write the opinion on that point.

“The trouble with you boys is that you don’t know the law,” Davis concluded.

Commissioner Davis pushed for regulation of radio advertising, then the premier means of mass communication in the country.  Davis insisted that radio advertising meet the same standards set for newspapers; to help weed out false advertising, which he believed was harmful to unsuspecting customers.  Davis was also highly critical of private utility companies and was determined to help consumers by forcing out those companies who sold “watered down” stock, which would help to protect customers and reduce the rates paid for electricity.

With the myriad of New Deal agencies, many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s own appointees frequently squabbled amongst themselves.  FDR had problems enough with members of his own Cabinet feuding over turf wars.  Ewin L. Davis found himself at odds with another Tennessean, George L. Berry.  Berry was from Rogersville and the long-time president of the International Printer’s and Pressmen’s Union.  Berry had raised a significant amount of cash for Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign and was rewarded with an appointment as “Coordinator of National Recovery”.  Berry thought to revise one of the most disliked of the experimental New Deal agencies, the National Recovery Administration.  The blue eagle symbol of the NRA came to be loathed by millions of Americans.  Senator E. D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina groused about the “blue buzzard” of the NRA.  Tens of thousands of small and big businessmen fumed about and hated the NRA.

Commissioner Ewin L. Davis was not at all happy when Berry announced his plans to revive the National Recovery Administration, just as the FTC was preparing to release its own program to address the same problem.  Davis did all he could to thwart Berry and ultimately, Berry’s plans to revive the NRA came to nothing.

After having served on the Federal Trade Commission for a few years, even Ewin L. Davis’s critics had to concede he had done a very good job.  Davis liked his work and brought his usual methodical approach to his job.  President Roosevelt reappointed Davis to the FTC, as did Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry S. Truman.

By the mid-1940s, Commissioner Davis’ health began to fail.  He suffered a stroke in 1948 and despite being seventy-two years old, did not resign from the Federal Trade Commission.  Davis become progressively more ill and was in Bethesda Naval Hospital when he died on October 23, 1949 at the age of seventy-three.

Ostensibly, Ewin L. Davis’ home was in Tullahoma, Tennessee, but even after he had been defeated for reelection to Congress, he remained in Washington, D. C.  Davis did little more than visit Tullahoma for decades, but after his death, he returned home one last time.  Ewin L. Davis was interred in his native soil and sleeps there today.

Even those who are little more than footnotes in the pages of our history deserve to be remembered should they have accomplishments.  Ewin L. Davis certainly made many contributions to both Tennessee and our country.

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