Hiram Johnson

Hiram Warren Johnson (September 2, 1866  August 6, 1945) was initially a leading American progressive and then a Liberal Isolationist Republican politician from California. He served as the 23rd Governor of California from 1911 to 1917 and as a United States Senator from 1917 to 1945. He was also Theodore Roosevelt's running mate in the 1912 presidential election on the Progressive (also known as the "Bull Moose") ticket.

Hiram Johnson
United States Senator
from California
In office
March 16, 1917  August 6, 1945
Preceded byJohn D. Works
Succeeded byWilliam Knowland
23rd Governor of California
In office
January 3, 1911  March 15, 1917
LieutenantA. J. Wallace
John Morton Eshleman
William Stephens
Preceded byJames Gillett
Succeeded byWilliam Stephens
Personal details
Hiram Warren Johnson

(1866-09-02)September 2, 1866
Sacramento, California, U.S.
DiedAugust 6, 1945(1945-08-06) (aged 78)
Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Other political
Progressive (1912–1917)
Spouse(s)Minne L. McNeal
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley

After working as a stenographer and reporter, Johnson embarked on a legal career. He began his practice in his hometown of Sacramento, California, but moved to San Francisco, where he worked as an assistant district attorney. Gaining statewide notoriety 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. Johnson joined with Roosevelt and other progressives to form the Progressive Party and 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 vote.

Johnson won election to the Senate in 1916, becoming a leader of the chamber's Progressive Republicans. But he emerged as an early voice for Liberal Progressive isolationism, opposing U.S. entry into World War I and U.S. participation in the League of Nations. As a postwar Liberal Republican, he helped enact the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from East Asian countries. Johnson unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 and 1924 and supported Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. Johnson supported many of the New Deal programs but came to oppose Roosevelt as the latter's tenure continued. Johnson remained in the Senate until his death in 1945.

Early years

Johnson was born in Sacramento, California on September 2, 1866; his father was Grove Lawrence Johnson, a Republican Representative and a member of the California State Legislature who was accused of election irregularities and using his political offices to look after his personal financial interests. His mother was Annie De Montfredy, a descendant of a family of Huguenots who had left France to escape religious persecution after the Edict of Fontainebleau. Annie was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution as the result of her descent from Pierre Van Cortlandt and Philip Van Cortlandt. Johnson had a brother and three sisters.[1]

After attending public schools and Heald College, Johnson first worked as a shorthand reporter and stenographer in law offices. He eventually pursued a legal career, studying at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He was admitted to the bar in 1888 and commenced practice in his hometown. In 1902, he moved to San Francisco. He served as assistant district attorney and became active in reform politics, taking up an anti-corruption mantle. He attracted statewide attention in 1908 when he assisted Francis J. Heney in the graft prosecution of Abe Ruef and Mayor Eugene Schmitz. His success was due in large measure to the fact that after Heney was gunned down in the courtroom, he took the lead for the prosecution and won the case. He married Minne L. McNeal; the couple had two sons.


In 1910, Johnson won the gubernatorial election as a member of the Lincoln–Roosevelt League, a Progressive Republican movement running on an anti-Southern Pacific Railroad platform. He toured the state in an open automobile. In office, Johnson was a populist who implemented many important reforms. Among them was the popular election of U.S. senators, which stripped away the sole franchise of the California State Legislature to vote for federal senators. Johnson's administration also pushed for the ability of candidates to register in more than one political party, a reform that he believed would cripple the influence of what he viewed as a monolithic political establishment. In 1911, Johnson and the Progressives added initiative, referendum, and recall to the state government, giving California a degree of direct democracy unmatched by any other U.S. state.

Johnson was instrumental in the establishment of a railroad commission to regulate the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad. On taking office, Johnson soon paroled the convicted Southern Pacific train bandit Chris Evans but required that he leave California.

Although initially opposed to the bill, Johnson eventually gave in to political pressure and supported the California Alien Land Law of 1913 as a fledgling Liberal Progressive, legislation which prevented Asian immigrants (excluded from naturalized citizenship because of their race) from owning land in the state.[2]

Nationally, Johnson was a founder of the Progressive Party in 1912. That same year, he was the party's vice presidential candidate, sharing a ticket with former President Theodore Roosevelt; his selection helped Roosevelt to carry California by 0.2 percent of the votes. The Progressives finished second nationally ahead of the incumbent Republican, President William Howard Taft, but still lost the election to the Democrats and their candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

Johnson was re-elected governor of California in 1914, almost doubling his opponent's vote total.[3][4]


In 1916, Johnson ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, defeating Democrat George S. Patton Sr., and assuming office on March 16, 1917. It is alleged that was the year that he spoke the words for which he is best remembered today: "The first casualty when war comes is truth" about United States entry into World War I. However, the source of the famous quote has yet to be determined.[5] From 1917 to 1929, he resided at Riversdale in Riverdale Park, Maryland.

Following Theodore Roosevelt's death in January 1919, Johnson was regarded as the natural leader of the Progressive Party. In 1920, however, he did not attempt to revive the Progressive Party, but ran for President as a liberal Republican. He was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination by conservative U.S. Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. Johnson also 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.[6]

As a Liberal Republican, 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.[2]

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.[6]

When the motion picture industry sought someone to establish a self-regulatory process and to help the industry fend off official censorship, three candidates were identified: Herbert Hoover, Johnson and Will H. Hays. Hays, who had campaigned actively for Harding among industry leaders, was ultimately named to head the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in early 1922.[7]

As a senator, Johnson proved extremely popular. In 1934, he was re-elected with 94.5 percent of the popular vote because he was nominated by both Republicans and Democrats and his only opponent was Socialist George Ross Kirkpatrick.[8]

In the 1932 presidential election, Johnson broke with President Hoover, and was one of the most prominent Republicans in the country to support Franklin D. Roosevelt.[6] During the early presidency of Roosevelt, Johnson supported the president's economic recovery package, the New Deal, and frequently crossed the floor to aid the Democrats. He even endorsed FDR in the 1932 and 1936 presidential elections, although he never switched party affiliation. He became disenchanted with Roosevelt and the New Deal following FDR's unsuccessful attempt to increase the size of the Supreme Court. As a staunch isolationist, Johnson voted against the League of Nations. He was not present when the Senate voted to ratify the treaty to create a similar organization, the United Nations, but he made it known that he would have voted against ratification; only senators Henrik Shipstead and William Langer actually cast votes against the United Nations Charter.[9]

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.[10]

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).

He was California's longest-serving senator.[11]


Having served in the Senate for almost thirty years, Johnson died in the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 6, 1945, ironically (for a staunch isolationist) on the date of the first deployment of nuclear weapons in warfare, by the United States on the Japanese city 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. Also, then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger 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.

The Hiram Johnson papers reside at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.[12]

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

See also


  1. "HON. HIRAM WARREN JOHNSON". freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 18 August 2017.
  2. Niiya, Brian. "Hiram Johnson". Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 29, 2014.
  3. California gubernatorial election, 1914
  4. "The only successful progressive leader". The Independent. Nov 16, 1914. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
  5. Wikiquote, Hiram Johnson
  6. Hamilton, Marty (September 1962). "Bull Moose Plays an Encore: Hiram Johnson and the Presidential Campaign of 1932". California Historical Society Quarterly. 41 (3): 211–221. JSTOR 25155490.
  7. "Will Hays: America's Morality Czar", "Source: 'Will Hays.' Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 21. Gale Group, 2001." Retrieved 2011-09-12.
  8. "HarpWeek – Elections – 1912 Biographies". elections.harpweek.com. Retrieved 18 August 2017.
  9. "Congressional Record" (PDF). Retrieved 18 August 2017.
  10. Hachey, Thomas E. (Winter 1973–1974). "American Profiles on Capitol Hill: A Confidential Study for the British Foreign Office in 1943" (PDF). Wisconsin Magazine of History. 57 (2): 141–153. JSTOR 4634869. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 21, 2013.
  11. "Who were California's longest-serving senators?". LA Times. 2014-11-16. Retrieved 2018-01-03.
  12. 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)

United States Congress. "JOHNSON, Hiram Warren (id: J000140)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.


  • Robert E. Burke Collection at the Labor Archives of the University of Washington Libraries]
Political offices
Preceded by
James Gillett
Governor of California
January 3, 1911 – March 15, 1917
Succeeded by
William Stephens
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
John D. Works
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
Oscar Underwood
Chair of the Senate Committee on Cuban Relations
January 3, 1919 – January 3, 1921
Office abolished
Party political offices
Preceded by
James Gillett
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
Minor Moore
Democratic nominee for
U.S. Senator from California (Class 1)

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