Biographical / Historical
James Harvey "Cyclone" Davis was a Democratic and Populist politician, judge, lawyer, newspaper publisher, and renowned orator who served as a Representative from Texas in the United States House of Representatives.
Davis was born on December 24, 1853, to William Barton and Salina (Moore) Davis near Walhalla, South Carolina. He and his family relocated to Texas in 1857, settling near Winnsboro in what later became Franklin County. His mother died in 1859, while his father made a living as a planter and briefly served in the Confederate States Army in 1865. Due to his family’s meager economic situation, Davis was only able to attend common (public) schools, and during his adolescent years he worked on farms and in sawmills. At age 16, he studied under attorney John D. Templeton and eventually earned a teaching certificate, allowing him to gain employment as a schoolteacher between 1875 and 1878.
On December 25, 1878, Davis married Belle Barton, a distant cousin, with whom he had five children, one of whom died in childhood. He was also elected judge of Franklin County in 1878 as a Democrat, becoming the youngest county judge in Texas. After successfully passing the bar exam following his election, enabling him to also practice law in Mount Vernon, Texas, he was reelected in 1880 but chose not to run again in 1882. That year, he instead campaigned for his mentor, John D. Templeton, during Templeton’s successful bid to be elected the attorney general of Texas. A natural talent as an orator, Davis was a lecturer for the Farmers’ Alliance in Texas from 1884 to 1887, and he campaigned for gubernatorial candidates John Ireland and James Stephen Hogg in 1884 and 1890, respectively. While he served as a delegate at the Democratic national convention in 1884, in 1888 he left the Democratic Party after Grover Cleveland, its presidential nominee, blamed the party’s support of free silver for his loss in the general election.
Among his favorite targets as an orator were banks and corporations. Due to his religious persuasion, imposing 6’3” height, and oratorical prowess, Davis was nicknamed “Methodist Jim” (although he was actually a member of the Disciples of Christ), “Texas Cyclone,” and simply “Cyclone.” Using a vocabulary largely informed by the Gospels and Psalms and frequently quoting the works of Thomas Jefferson during his speeches, he was highly critical of both the Democratic and Republican parties of his day, both of which he condemned as Hamiltonian.
Davis entered the newspaper business as a publisher by acquiring the Mount Vernon Franklin Herald in 1882. Between 1886 and 1888, he served as president of the Texas Press Association, which he also helped establish. He sold the Franklin Herald and founded the Sulphur Springs Alliance Vindicator in 1889.
Davis was influential in the formation and early development of the Populist (People’s) Party between 1892 and 1900, as both a committee member and an organizer. One of just five lawyers who participated in the party’s founding convention in Cincinnati in 1892, that year he also assisted in drafting its Omaha Platform, sometimes called the “Bible of Populism.” As a Populist, he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general of Texas in 1892, and was likewise unsuccessful in his 1894 bid for election to the United States House of Representative. Between 1892 and 1897, he gave over 1,000 speeches on Populist and prohibitionist causes in countless cities in the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and West. By 1896, he differed from most Texas Populists in his support of fusing the party with the Democrats, and at the Populist national convention that year he championed their endorsement of Democratic Party nominee William Jennings Bryan for president.
During the waning years of the Populist Party, Davis tried to rally his fellow populists around Bryan and his branch of the Democratic Party, although after the Democrats took a more conservative turn in 1904 Davis joined the Prohibition Party instead. In 1906, he returned to the Democratic Party, supporting its progressive wing and its standard bearers, including Thomas M. Campbell.
After campaigning for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Davis was appointed the Superintendent of Agriculture in the Philippines in 1914, a position he declined. Running as a Democrat, he won election that same year to the United States House of Representatives as a congressman-at-large from Texas, serving in Washington, DC, from March 1915 to March 1917 before unsuccessfully campaigning for reelection in 1916, narrowly losing the Democratic primary to Daniel Garrett. While a congressman, he amassed a voting record that was both pro-farmer and pro-labor, opposed American entry into World War I (perhaps costing him reelection), and even introduced a controversial bill that proposed “drafting” money from millionaires during times of war.
After effectively retiring from politics in 1917, Davis returned to his home in Sulphur Springs, Texas. In retirement, he largely focused his attention on causes related to agriculture, the Chautauqua adult education movement, and prohibition, and he also joined the second Ku Klux Klan. In 1932, he reentered the world of electoral politics to challenge Joseph Weldon Bailey, Jr., a strong critic and opponent of Populism during the 1890s; in a Democratic primary for congressman-at-large, he lost to Bailey in a runoff. Also in 1932, he legally changed his name to “James Harvey Cyclone Davis.” After the death of his wife Belle in 1934, he remarried and moved to Kaufman, Texas, in 1935. He died in Kaufman on January 31, 1940, and was buried in City Cemetery in Sulphur Springs.