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Charles Stewart Davison


Centurion, 1881–1942

Full Name Charles Stewart Morton Davison

Born 14 April 1855 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Died 23 November 1942 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Proposed by Charles Collins, George Cabot Ward, and John A. Weekes

Elected 7 May 1881 at age twenty-six

Archivist’s Note: Son of Edward F. Davison; brother of Edgar Mora Davison

Supporter of:

Century Memorial

In a club where tolerance is a commonplace, Charles Stewart Davison was at times refreshingly intolerant. A statesman (even if a Centurion) whom he distrusted, an entire race which he despised, a current magazine illustration which he disliked, received, when he went on the warpath, no more quarter than Tammany Hall when as a younger man he was battling the Tiger. But if one or more fellow members came to the rescue of the object of Davison’s assault, he was delighted—and a violent, good-humored battle of opinion was on. In discussions of fact it was dangerous to dispute him, for his memory was not only long but exact. One evening he mentioned having attended, at the age of about seven, a circus on a lot at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street. A member who thought he knew something of the American circus suggested that Mr. Davison might have in mind the circus at the corner of the square where the Madison Square Garden was afterwards built. “No,” Davison asserted, “it was diagonally opposite that site—it was where, later, the Fifth Avenue Hotel stood.” Subsequent research proved the correctness of Davison’s memory of an incident that had occurred nearly eighty years before. At the cocktail hour a Centurion once mentioned an ancestor who had served in the Army as an ensign. Someone said, “You mean the Navy, I suppose.” The old lawyer spoke up: “Just after the Franco-Prussian War, while on vacation from Cambridge, I visited in St. Petersburg our Minister to Russia who wangled a temporary commission for me in the Russian army as an ensign. It had seemed advisable,” he went on, “to hold maneuvers near the western frontier as a polite warning to a Prussian gentleman by the name of Bismarck. The Russians believed that he was looking in their direction. After the maneuvers, Bismarck stopped threatening, and I resigned.”

After a year’s study at Harvard, Davison received his bachelor’s degree in 1876 at Cambridge, England, his law degree at Columbia, and his master’s degree at Cambridge in 1914. Fourteen years later he became an honorary fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. In New York, the city of his birth, he hung out his shingle in 1877, and practiced here for sixty-five years. Although he specialized for the most part in commercial and constitutional law, he wrote several papers on points of international law.

Davison described his elaborately indexed collection of some 15,550 bookplates of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as the most important private collection of ex libris in the world. He never took old bookplates out of old books. His Samuel Pepys bookplate is where Pepys put it—in a book whose bad condition probably explains why it was not deposited in Magdalene College with the rest of Pepys’s library. Describing his collection, Davison said, “Albrecht Dürer is represented by all but one of the plates which he made: i.e., by four out of five.” The collector had three bookplates for his own use—see the first volume of “Centurions’ Bookplates” in the East Room—one engraved by J. W. Spenceley “for my angling library,” another engraved by George W. Eve “for other books,” and a printed label “for novels, and odds and ends of books.” Among Davison’s writings unrelated to the law were “The Alien in our Midst,” “The Founders of the Republic on Immigration,” and a small volume “Selling the Bear’s Hide and Other Tales,” which is “Dedicated to . . . [the purchaser].” A footnote points out that in five seconds the gentle purchaser, if he has a pencil, can attain the dignity of having a book dedicated to him. He himself attained the dignity of being the oldest living member of the Century, having been elected in 1881.

Geoffrey Parsons
1942 Century Memorials