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Phillip Davis (1807-1884) is remembered by history as being a moderate Southern Unionist and a leading national figure of his day. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina to a Jewish family that had immigrated around 1800. The family was a member of the Beth Eliohim Congregation. His maternal grandfather was Marks Lazarus who had been a veteran in the siege of savannah and in the siege of Charleston during the American Revolution. His father was the first president of the Reformed Society of Israelites-harbingers of a reform movement among the Jews.
At Middleton Military Academy, he was a roommate to Thomas Hart Seymour who later became the governor of Connecticut and an ambassador to Russia. Phillips later studied law under District Attorney John Gadsden and gained an entry into the South Carolina bar in 1829. He joined a partnership with John Coit. He became one of the leaders opposing nullification in the Chesterfield County against the Union. In 1835, he set up practice in Alabama and a year later married Eugenia Levy. He was elected into the Alabama Legislature in 1844 and was Chairman of the Committee for Federal Relations. In 1849, he became Chairman of the State Convention formed to carry out internal improvements. From 1840 to 1846, he compiled in digest form the decisions of the Supreme Court of Alabama.
Phillips delivered a speech in favor of Franklin Pierce in the Democratic National Convention, Baltimore, Maryland in 1852 who subsequently won the nomination. The following year he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He is credited with the authorship the section of the Kansas Nebraska Act that nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820-something that he admitted brought on the Crisis of 1861. He did no try to get re-elected but continued practicing in Washington. Being a Unionist, he chose to remain there during the Civil War but his wife being a Southern sympathizer was alleged to be a Confederate spy. In 1861, soldiers entered his home and arrested his wife and daughters. His friendship with Edwin M. Stanton obtained parole and transportation to the South for the family. They escaped to New Orleans that in a few months was captured by Admiral David Farragut and General Benjamin Butler. Soon his wife was again taken into prison for three months for not displaying adequate respect to a soldier’s funeral cortege. After securing her release, the family bought a house in and lived out the remainder of the war there.
Following this, he again took up his legal practice in New Orleans and then took it up in 1862 in Washington. He became one of the leaders of the Bar and appeared in over 400 cases almost all in the Supreme Court. His solid reputation is comparable to the life of President Andrew Johnson though severely marred by his wife’s activities.
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