Cushman K. Davis Biography

During his single term, Minnesota’s seventh governor, Cushman K. Davis, confronted a menace that threatened to ruin the state’s farm economy. A five-year-long grasshopper plague began in 1873, and Davis’s offer of aid to farmers whose crops had been devoured by invading locusts represented an early form of state-sponsored disaster relief.

A son of a Yankee farmer who moved to southern Wisconsin when Davis was an infant, he graduated from Waukesha’s Carroll College and, at age 19, from the University of Michigan’s law school. He practiced law in Waukesha before serving in the Civil War under General Willis A. Gorman, a former Minnesota territorial governor whose prestigious St. Paul law firm Davis later joined. His rapid political ascent began after the war, when he served in the 1867 legislature and as U.S. district attorney for five years.

Davis was a prolific writer on literary and historical subjects and a stirring orator. His frequent delivery of “Modern Feudalism,” a diatribe against the unchecked growth of railroads, helped secure his Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1873. Liberal Republicans hailed the election of their 36-year-old candidate; one pundit claimed that this young “prophet” would challenge the “Ramsey wing” of “old fogies.” Once in office, Governor Davis found it considerably more difficult to control the railroads effectively than to condemn them rhetorically.

Twelve years after returning to private law practice, Davis was elected U.S. senator in 1886. He died in 1900, during his third term in the Senate, where he had been influential as chairman of the Pensions and the Foreign Relations committees.