Hiram Johnson

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Hiram Johnson
Hiram Johnson 2.jpg
Johnson in 1919
United States Senator
from California
In office
March 16, 1917 – August 6, 1945
Preceded by John D. Works
Succeeded by William Knowland
23rd Governor of California
In office
January 3, 1911 – March 15, 1917
Lieutenant A. J. Wallace
John Morton Eshleman
William Stephens
Preceded by James Gillett
Succeeded by William Stephens
Personal details
Born Hiram Warren Johnson
(1866-09-02)September 2, 1866
Sacramento, California, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Republican
Other political
Progressive (1912–1917)
Spouse(s) Minne L. McNeal
Children 2
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley
Profession Politician

Hiram Warren Johnson (September 2, 1866 – August 6, 1945) was an American attorney and politician who served as the 23rd governor of California from 1911 to 1917. Johnson achieved national prominence in the early 20th century. He was elected in 1916 by the state legislature as the United States Senator from California, where he was repeatedly re-elected and served until 1945.

As a governor, Johnson was a leading American progressive. He ran for vice president on Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive ticket in the 1912 presidential election. As a US senator, Johnson became a leading liberal isolationist, among those "Irreconcilables" who opposed the Treaty of Versailles and rejected the League of Nations. Later, Johnson was also a vocal opponent of the United Nations Charter.

After having worked as a stenographer and reporter, Johnson embarked on a legal career. He began his practice in his hometown of Sacramento, California. After he moved to San Francisco, he worked as an assistant district attorney. Gaining statewide renown for his prosecutions of public corruption, Johnson won the 1910 California gubernatorial election with the backing of the Lincoln–Roosevelt League. He instituted several progressive reforms, establishing a railroad commission and introducing aspects of direct democracy, such as the power to recall state officials. Having joined with Roosevelt and other progressives to form the Progressive Party, Johnson won the party's 1912 vice-presidential nomination. In one of the best third-party performances in U.S. history, the ticket finished second nationally in the popular and electoral votes.

Johnson won election by the state legislature to the US Senate in 1916 (this was before the amendment for popular vote of senators), becoming a leader of the chamber's Progressive Republicans. He made his biggest mark in the Senate as an early voice for isolationism, opposing U.S. entry into World War I and U.S. participation in the League of Nations. After World War I, he helped enact the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, and East Asian countries, through the use of racial quotas based on existing populations in the US.

He unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 and 1924. He supported Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. While Johnson initially supported many of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, he became more hostile to FDR after the latter was re-elected in 1936. He served in the Senate until his death in office in 1945.

Early years

Hiram Johnson was born in Sacramento on September 2, 1866. His father, Grove Lawrence Johnson, was a Republican U.S. Representative and a member of the California State Legislature whose career was marred by accusations of election fraud and graft. His mother, Annie De Montfredy, was a descendant of a family of French Huguenots who had emigrated to the American colonies in the early 18th century to escape religious persecution after the Edict of Fontainebleau. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution based on her descent from Pierre Van Cortlandt and Philip Van Cortlandt. Johnson had one brother and three sisters.[1]

After attending public schools and Heald College, Johnson worked as a shorthand reporter and stenographer in law offices. He eventually studied law at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. After his admission to the bar in 1888, Johnson set up a legal practice in Sacramento.

In 1902, Johnson moved to San Francisco. He was hired as an assistant district attorney and became active in reform politics. He attracted statewide attention in 1908 when he assisted DA Francis J. Heney in the prosecution of Abe Ruef and Mayor Eugene Schmitz for graft. After Heney was shot in the courtroom in an attempted assassination, Johnson took the lead for the prosecution and won the case. Only Ruef served prison time.

Governor of California (1911–17)

Johnson during his tenure as governor
Johnson and newly elected Lieutenant Governor A.J. Wallace, right, in the Los Angeles Herald, November 9, 1910

In 1910, Johnson won the gubernatorial election as a member of the Lincoln–Roosevelt League, a Progressive Republican movement running on a platform opposed to the Southern Pacific Railroad. During his campaign, he toured the state in an open automobile, covering thousands of miles and visiting small communities throughout California that were inaccessible by rail.[2] Johnson helped establish rules that made voting and the political process easier. For example, he established rules to facilitate recalls. This measure was used on Governor Gray Davis in 2003.[3]

In office, Johnson was a populist who promoted a number of democratic reforms: the election of U.S. Senators by direct popular vote rather than the state legislature (which was later ratified nationwide by a constitutional amendment), cross-filing, initiative, referendum, and recall elections. Johnson's reforms gave California a degree of direct democracy unmatched by any other U.S. state at the time.

Johnson was also instrumental in reining in the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad through the establishment of a state railroad commission. On taking office, Johnson paroled Chris Evans, convicted as the Southern Pacific train bandit, but required that he leave California.

Hiram Johnson at the 1913 California State Fair

Although initially opposed to the bill, Johnson gave in to political pressure and supported the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which prevented Asian immigrants from owning land in the state (they were already excluded from naturalized citizenship because of their race).[4]

1912 vice presidential campaign

In 1912, Johnson was a founder of the national Progressive Party and ran as the party's vice presidential candidate, sharing a ticket with former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt and Johnson narrowly carried California but finished second nationally behind the Democratic ticket of Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Marshall. Their second-place finish, ahead of incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, remains among the strongest for any third party in American history.

Johnson was re-elected governor of California in 1914, gaining nearly twice the votes of his opponent.[5]

U.S. Senator (1917–45)

Refusing to give the lady [Peace Treaty of Versailles] a seat --by Senators Borah, Lodge and Johnson
File:Rollin Kirby - 'Gainst the League, Aint' You, Warren?.jpg
'Gainst the League, Aint' You, Warren? July 26, 1920 political cartoon showing Johnson trying to force President Warren Harding against the League of Nations; Harding was already anti-League of Nations

In 1916, Johnson ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, defeating Democrat George S. Patton Sr.. He took office on March 16, 1917. Johnson was elected as a staunch opponent of American entry into World War I, and allegedly said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." However, this quote may be apocryphal.[6] As an isolationist, Johnson voted against the League of Nations during his first term.

During his Senate career, Johnson served as chairman of the Committees on Cuban Relations (Sixty-sixth Congress), Patents (Sixty-seventh Congress), Immigration (Sixty-eighth through Seventy-first Congresses), Territories and Insular Possessions (Sixty-eighth Congress), and Commerce (Seventy-first and Seventy-second Congresses).

In the Senate, Johnson helped push through the Immigration Act of 1924, having worked with Valentine S. McClatchy and other anti-Japanese lobbyists to prohibit Japanese and other East Asian immigrants from entering the United States.[4]

In the early 1920s, the motion picture industry sought to establish a self-regulatory process to fend off official censorship. Senator Johnson was among three candidates identified to head a new group, alongside Herbert Hoover and Will H. Hays. Hays, who had managed President Harding's 1920 campaign, was ultimately named to head the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in early 1922.[7]

As Senator, Johnson proved extremely popular. In 1934, he was re-elected with 94.5 percent of the popular vote; he was nominated by both the Republican and Democratic parties and his only opponent was Socialist George Ross Kirkpatrick.[8]

In 1943, a confidential analysis of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made by British scholar Isaiah Berlin for his Foreign Office, stated that Johnson:

is the Isolationists' elder statesman and the only surviving member of the [William E.] Borah-[Henry Cabot] Lodge-Johnson combination which led the fight against the League in 1919 and 1920. He is an implacable and uncompromising Isolationist with immense prestige in California, of which he has twice been Governor. His election to the Senate has not been opposed for many years by either party. He is acutely Pacific-conscious and is a champion of a more adequate defence of the West Coast. He is a member of the Farm Bloc and is au fond, against foreign affairs as such; his view of Europe as a sink of iniquity has not changed in any particular since 1912, when he founded a short-lived progressive party. His prestige in Congress is still great and his parliamentary skill should not be underestimated.[9]

In 1945, Johnson was absent when the vote took place for ratification of United Nations Charter, but made it known that he would have voted against this outcome.[citation needed] Senators Henrik Shipstead and William Langer were the only ones to cast votes opposing ratification.[10]

Presidential politics

Following Theodore Roosevelt's death in January 1919, Johnson was regarded as the natural leader of the Progressive Party. Johnson ran for President as a Republican. He was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination by conservative U.S. Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. Johnson did not get the support of Roosevelt's family, who instead supported Roosevelt's long-time friend Leonard Wood. At the convention, Johnson was asked to serve as Harding's running mate, but he declined.[11]

Johnson sought the 1924 Republican nomination against President Calvin Coolidge, but his campaign was derailed after he lost the California primary. Johnson declined to challenge Herbert Hoover for the 1928 presidential nomination, instead choosing to seek re-election to the Senate.[11]

In the 1932 presidential election, Johnson broke with President Hoover. He was one of the most prominent Republicans to support Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.[11] During Roosevelt's first term, Johnson supported the president's New Deal economic recovery package and frequently 'crossed the floor' to aid the Democrats. He endorsed FDR in the 1936 presidential election as well[citation needed], but he never switched party affiliation. Johnson became disenchanted with Roosevelt and the New Deal following FDR's unsuccessful attempt to increase the size of the Supreme Court.

Personal life

File:Hiram Johnson and son LCCN2014715773 (cropped).jpg
Hiram Johnson Sr. (left) with his oldest son, Hiram Johnson Jr. c. 1920–1925

He married Minne L. McNeal during his time as San Francisco Assistant District Attorney. The couple had two sons: Hiram W. Johnson, Jr., and Archibald McNeal Johnson.[12][13]

From 1917 to 1929, he and his family resided at the Riversdale Mansion in Riverdale Park, Maryland.


The front page of the Los Angeles Times for August 7, 1945, reporting the US atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima and the death of Johnson.

Having served in the Senate for almost thirty years, Johnson died in the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 6, 1945, the same day as the US conducted atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He was interred in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.


Johnson gained some recognition in the media and general public during the 2003 California recall election because he was the most important person behind the introduction of the law that allowed state officials to be recalled. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the eventual winner, referred to Johnson's progressive legacy in his campaign speeches.

On August 25, 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, announced that Johnson would be one of 13 inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Johnson held the record as California's longest-serving United States Senator for over 75 years, until it was broken by Dianne Feinstein on March 28, 2021.[14]

The Hiram Johnson papers reside at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.[15]

Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California is named in his honor.

See also


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  6. Wikiquote, Hiram Johnson
  7. "Will Hays: America's Morality Czar" Archived 2011-09-07 at the Wayback Machine, "Source: 'Will Hays.' Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 21. Gale Group, 2001." Retrieved 2011-09-12.
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  15. Hiram Johnson papers, 1895–1945

Further reading

  • Blackford, Mansel Griffiths. "Businessmen and the regulation of railroads and public utilities in California during the Progressive Era." Business History Review 44.03 (1970): 307–319.
  • Feinman, Ronald L. Twilight of progressivism: the western Republican senators and the New Deal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981)
  • Le Pore, Herbert P. "Prelude to Prejudice: Hiram Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, and the California Alien Land Law Controversy of 1913." Southern California Quarterly (1979): 99–110. in JSTOR
  • Lower, Richard Coke. A Bloc of One: The Political Career of Hiram W. Johnson (Stanford University Press, 1993)
  • McKee, Irving. "The Background and Early Career of Hiram Warren Johnson, 1866–1910." Pacific Historical Review (1950): 17–30. in JSTOR
  • Miller, Karen A.J. Populist nationalism: Republican insurgency and American foreign policy making, 1918–1925 (Greenwood, 1999)
  • Olin, Spencer C. California's prodigal sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911–1917 (U of California Press, 1968)
  • Olin, Spencer C. "Hiram Johnson, the California Progressives, and the Hughes Campaign of 1916." The Pacific Historical Review (1962): 403–412. in JSTOR
  • Olin, Spencer C. "Hiram Johnson, the Lincoln-Roosevelt League, and the Election of 1910." California Historical Society Quarterly (1966): 225–240. in JSTOR
  • Shover, John L. "The progressives and the working class vote in California." Labor History (1969) 10#4 pp: 584–601. online
  • Weatherson, Michael A., and Hal Bochin. Hiram Johnson: Political Revivalist (University Press of America, 1995)
  • Weatherson, Michael A., and Hal Bochin. Hiram Johnson: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1988)

Primary sources

  • Johnson, Hiram. The diary letters of Hiram Johnson, 1917–1945 (Vol. 1. Garland Publishing, 1983)

External links

JOHNSON, Hiram Warren at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress


  • [1] Robert E. Burke Collection at the Labor Archives of the University of Washington Libraries]
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of California
January 3, 1911 – March 15, 1917
Succeeded by
William Stephens
United States Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 1) from California
March 16, 1917 – August 6, 1945
Served alongside: James D. Phelan, Samuel M. Shortridge, William Gibbs McAdoo, Thomas M. Storke, Sheridan Downey
Succeeded by
William F. Knowland
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Committee on Cuban Relations
January 3, 1919 – January 3, 1921
Office abolished
Party political offices
Preceded by Republican nominee for Governor of California
Succeeded by
John D. Fredericks
Party created in 1912
Progressive (Bull Moose) nominee for
Vice President of the United States

Party dissolved
Party created in 1912
Progressive (Bull Moose) nominee for Governor of California
Party dissolved
after direct election of Senators
was adopted in 1913
Republican nominee for
U.S. Senator from California (Class 1)

1916, 1922, 1928, 1934, 1940
Succeeded by
William F. Knowland
Preceded by Democratic nominee for
U.S. Senator from California (Class 1)

1934, 1940
Succeeded by
Will Rogers, Jr.
Awards and achievements
Preceded by Cover of Time magazine
September 29, 1924
Succeeded by
William Allen White