Thomas Davis was born in Dublin, Ireland, on December 18, 1806. He attended private schools in Ireland and migrated to America in 1817, settling in Providence. Becoming a pioneer in Rhode Island’s jewelry industry, he amassed sufficient wealth to enable him to finance a variety of political, civic, and reform endeavors. Little is known about his first marriage. His wife, Eliza Jones Chace, died in December 1840 at the age of thirty.
Davis became a state senator from Providence, serving from 1845 to 1853, and he emerged as a leader of the reform wing of the Democratic Party led by Thomas Wilson Dorr. As a member of the General Assembly, Davis played a leading role in the passage of the 1852 act banning the death penalty in Rhode Island, and he was a strong advocate of constitutional reform. Though he was a Unitarian, he campaigned vigorously for removing the real estate requirement for voting and office holding required of naturalized citizens in the state, most of whom were Catholic Irish. As a humanitarian, he was an ardent abolitionist and a leader in Rhode Island’s relief effort during Ireland’s Great Famine.
In 1853, the Dorr Democrats sent Governor Philip Allen to the United States Senate and nominated Davis as their congressional candidate from the Eastern District. Davis defeated Whig candidate George G. King by a margin of 5,524 to 4,942, but although Davis was elected, the presence of a Free-Soil candidate in the race narrowed his required majority to 175 votes. In 1855, Davis was soundly defeated in his reelection bid by the American (Know-Nothing) Party candidate, Tiverton farmer Nathaniel B. Durfee, who then easily dispatched Democrat Ambrose E. Burnside of Bristol when Durfee ran for reelection in 1857 as a Republican.
Davis lost his run for reelection in part because he broke with his party by openly opposing Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, a measure that opened the U.S. territories to the possibility of slavery, but he was also a victim of the native American hysteria that swept the country in the mid-1850s. Despite the growing unpopularity of his reform views, he spoke out courageously. In an 1855 Newport address, immigrant Davis denounced the Know-Nothing Party’s “persecution of foreign-born citizens,” describing that party as “a conspiracy against the rights of man” and expressing his extreme displeasure with Durfee’s attacks on Roman Catholics. Undaunted by his 1855 defeat, Davis made four more attempts to regain his congressional seat in 1859, 1870, 1872, and 1878, all of which were unsuccessful.
By the late 1850s, the National Democratic Party’s tolerance of slavery prompted Davis to become a Republican. Still, his pro-Irish stance incurred the wrath of Republican leader Henry Bowen Anthony, a U.S. senator and editor of the Providence Journal. When Davis sought election to Congress as a Republican in 1859, he was defeated by Christopher Robinson, an American-Republican fusion candidate whom Anthony sponsored. This “treachery,” as Davis called it, together with the differences between Davis and Anthony regarding the real estate voting qualification for naturalized citizens, prompted a bitter feud. The most vitriolic example of this long-running mutual contempt was a thirty-three-page “open letter” from Davis to Anthony in 1866 entitled “Rhode Island Politics and Journalism,” where, among other insults, Davis referred to Anthony as a man of “baseness and treachery” and “an apostate politician of unscrupulous character.” By the time of his 1872 campaign for Congress, Davis had been prompted by Anthony’s leadership role in the Republican Party to return to the much more reform-oriented Democratic fold.
Despite his lack of success on the federal level, Davis again served in the state senate (1877–78), became a state representative (1887–90), and was a member of the Providence School Committee. In a supremely ironic twist, the naturalized Davis temporarily lost his right to vote and hold office in 1880 when his jewelry business failed. Needless to say, however, he became a leader in the statewide Equal Rights movement of the 1880s, a reform campaign that resulted in the abandonment of the real estate voting requirement via the Bourne Amendment of 1888.
Notwithstanding his several political positions, Congressman Davis’s principal legacies were as a reformer, a patron of the arts, and a philanthropist. In concert with his second wife, Paulina, he hosted cultural gatherings at each of his two Providence residences—a Greek revival house at 503–507 Chalkstone Avenue, dating from 1850, and then at a stately Gothic mansion built in 1869 on a hilltop near the junction of Chalkstone Avenue and Raymond Street in a thirty-four-acre parklike setting. At the salons hosted by Thomas and Paulina, intellectuals, artists, and reformers from around the region came to discuss the vital issues of the day. He died on July 26, 1895.
Thomas Davis was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2003.
For additional information:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Patrick T. Conley, History Press, Charleston, SC.