James Harvey (Methodist Jim, Cyclone) Davis, political figure and Populist orator, son of William Barton and Salina (Moore) Davis, was born near Walhalla, South Carolina, on December 24, 1854. The family moved to Texas in 1857 and settled near Winnsboro in Titus (now Franklin) County. Davis's mother died in 1859. His father was a small-time planter who served briefly in the Confederate Army during the "Old Man's Call" of 1865. The Davis family was too poor to provide more than a common-school education for the children. James spent most of his adolescence working on the farm or in a sawmill. He was able to study under the tutelage of attorney John D. Templeton during his sixteenth year. He strenuously applied his native talents to academics at night and soon qualified for a teaching certificate. He married Belle Barton, a distant cousin, on December 25, 1878. The couple had four children.
Davis was elected Franklin county judge in 1878 on the Democratic ticket. At the time he was the youngest county judge in Texas. He passed the bar exam in 1879, after taking his seat on the bench. He was reelected in 1880 but declined nomination in 1882. That year he took to the campaign trail on behalf of his mentor, John D. Templeton, the successful Democratic candidate for attorney general of Texas. Davis purchased the Mount Vernon Franklin Herald and in 1886 became president of the Texas Press Association.
Although he was a passable writer, his real talent lay in oratory. He campaigned for John Ireland, who was elected governor in 1884, and became a lecturer for the state Farmers' Alliance that same year. Davis became one of the foremost attractions on the alliance speakers' circuit through his verbal assaults upon such opponents as banks and corporations. During the 1880s he was tagged "Methodist Jim" for the fervency of his address. He was neither a Methodist nor a preacher, but a lifelong member of the Disciples of Christ.
When Grover Cleveland blamed the Democratic party's support of the coinage of silver for his failure to win the presidency in 1888, Davis left the party. He also sold the Franklin Herald and in 1889 founded the Sulphur Springs Alliance Vindicator. He campaigned for Democrat James Stephen Hogg in his gubernatorial bid in 1890 because the Farmers' Alliance endorsed him. Thereafter, Davis cast his fortunes with the People's (or Populist) party. He was one of only five lawyers to participate in the founding convention of the People's party in Cincinnati in 1892, where he served on both the executive and platform committees. He reached the zenith of his career in the next five years, during which he delivered more than a thousand speeches in every important town west of Pennsylvania and south of Maryland for the Populist and prohibition causes.
He was one of the most electrifying speakers of his day. Standing nearly 6'3" tall and attired in a long Prince Albert coat, he could ascend a speaker's platform with the presence of a Biblical prophet. He received the nickname Cyclone from an 1894 debate with Kentucky attorney general Watt Hardin. According to an Associated Press reporter, Davis so demolished his opponent that only one sweep of the "Texas Cyclone" was sufficient cause for Hardin to cancel the remaining scheduled debates. With a vocabulary "almost every other word of which seemed drawn from the Gospels or the denunciatory Psalms," as one contemporary put it, Davis could speak for hours. He was said to be able to make his voice heard for blocks without any visible effort. He frequently punctuated his arguments with selections from the works of Jefferson, which he carried with him to the podium. He condemned the Democratic and Republican parties of his day as Hamiltonian in spirit and contended that "the crowd that take their politics from Alexander Hamilton is the crowd we have got to beat."
Davis was a delegate to the Populist national convention of 1892 and served on the committee that drafted the party's Omaha platform, the Bible of Populism. He claimed that every plank of the platform was based on Jeffersonian principles. Davis spoke at the Omaha convention as well as at the Populists' 1892 state convention at Dallas, which nominated him for attorney general. He came in third on election day, with the rest of the Populist ticket. The Populists nominated him for the United States Congress in 1894. He lost a close decision and contested his defeat, along with another Populist congressional candidate, but to no effect. Unlike most Texas Populists Davis favored fusion with the Democrats by 1896. He served as something of a moderating force at the third party's national convention, which nominated Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president and Populist Thomas E. Watson for vice president.
Davis worked to reconcile Populists to Bryan democracy in the declining years of the third party's existence and then joined the Prohibition party when conservatives displaced Bryan as the Democratic leader in 1904. He returned to the Democratic party in 1906 to support such Progressive candidates as Thomas M. Campbell, the heir to James Stephen Hogg's agrarian wing of the party (see PROGRESSIVE ERA). Davis campaigned for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and was elected congressman-at-large from Texas in 1914. He built a profarmer and prolabor record in the United States Congress. He opposed America's entry into World War I and introduced a controversial bill to draft millionaires' money as well as men in time of war. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection in 1916.
Davis engaged in Chautauqua and prohibition work after 1916. He joined the second Ku Klux Klan in his later years. In 1932 he came out of political retirement to oppose Joseph W. Bailey, Jr., for congressman-at-large in the Democratic primaries. The elder Joseph W. Bailey had been a vehement foe of Populism in the 1890s. Davis lost in the runoff primary. He legally changed his name to James Harvey Cyclone Davis in 1932. He remarried in 1935, after his first wife died, and moved to Kaufman, Texas. As late as 1939 he could be found haranguing the people of Dallas on the need to control Wall Street and the necessity for White supremacy. He died on January 31, 1940, and was buried at Sulphur Springs.