Hiram Johnson was the 1912 vice-presidential nominee of the Progressive Party, a Republican governor of California (1911-1917), and a U.S. senator (1917-1945). He was born in Sacramento, California, on September 2, 1866, to Ann Williamson de Montfredy Johnson and Grove L. Johnson. His father was a corporate attorney who left New York for California to avoid being indicted on charges of forging signatures on promissory notes (which he later repaid). Young Hiram attended public schools and the University of California at Berkeley before leaving it to marry Minerva “Minnie” McNeal in 1887. The couple later had two sons.
Johnson read law at his father’s office and was admitted to the state bar in 1888. He and his brother, Albert, practiced law with their father and assisted his successful campaigns for the California Assembly in 1878 and 1879, the State Senate in 1880, and Congress in 1895. Two years later, the brothers started their own practice and Hiram privately criticized his father’s support of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. In 1902, the brothers moved to San Francisco, where Albert died in 1907. Hiram earned a reputation as a talented litigator while serving as assistant district attorney in 1906-1907. When the special prosecutor in a labor corruption case was shot in court in 1908, Johnson took over as chief prosecutor and won conviction of Abraham Ruef, boss of the Labor Union Party, for bribing city officials.
The case brought Johnson to the attention of the California’s progressive Republican organization, the Lincoln-Roosevelt League, which persuaded him to run for governor in 1910. A gifted speaker, Johnson embarked on an energetic campaign to “kick the Southern Pacific [Railroad Company] out of politics.” He won the first of two consecutive gubernatorial terms. In 1911, the Republican legislative majority enacted Johnson’s agenda of an independent, rate-setting railroad commission; a Board of Control to eliminate graft, favoritism, and inefficiency in state agencies; the initiative, referendum, and recall; worker’s compensation, employers’ liability for industrial accidents, and an eight-hour day for women; women’s suffrage (becoming only the sixth state to allow it), environmental conservation, and other reforms. Former president Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson’s legislative success “the greatest advance ever made by any state for the benefit of its people.” Other reform laws were enacted in 1913, including a minimum wage for women and children.
In early 1912, Johnson was one of eight Republican governors who publicly requested that Roosevelt challenge President William Howard Taft, whom they considered too conservative, for the GOP nomination. When Taft won renomination and Roosevelt bolted the GOP, Johnson was the only one of the eight governors and one of few incumbent politicians to join him. The California governor helped created the Progressive Party, which nominated him for vice president and Roosevelt for president. Both men campaigned energetically and outpolled Taft and Vice President James Sherman, but the Republican split allowed the Democratic ticket of Woodrow Wilson and Thomas R. Marshall to be elected with an Electoral College majority of 435 to Roosevelt-Johnson’s 88 and Taft-Sherman’s 8. The popular vote was 42% for the Democrats, 27% for the Progressives, 23% for the Republicans, and 6% for the Socialists.
Johnson had long supported the exclusion of Asian immigrants, and in 1913 he endorsed a California law that banned them from owning land. The next year he was reelected governor as a Progressive against Democratic and Republican opponents. The national Progressive Party soon ceased to exist, but Johnson won both the California Progressive and Republican nominations for U.S. senator in 1916. With substantial support from organized labor, he won the election in a two-to-one landslide. His first vote in the Senate was in favor of the declaration of war on Germany, but he criticized the Wilson administration’s Sedition Act of 1918, sponsored an unsuccessful resolution for the withdrawal of American troops from Russia, and in 1919 became one of the Senate’s “irreconcilables” who opposed any type of American membership in the League of Nations. In fact, when Wilson went on a national speaking tour to gain public support for League membership, Johnson followed him at each stop to condemn the plan. Throughout his Senate career, he remained committed to non-intervention in foreign entanglements. He was on the left wing in domestic policy, supporting federal government ownership of railroads and high income taxes on higher incomes.
In 1920, Johnson was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and entered 12 of 20 primaries, winning seven. However, his campaign lacked money and was disorganized, and the field of candidates was crowded. At the national convention he placed third on the first ballot, and his previous attacks on conservatives prevented his managers from building a winning combination. The nomination went to Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio on the tenth ballot.
During the 1920s, Johnson concentrated on foreign policy, opposing the Four Powers Treaty between the U.S., Britain, France, and Japan, and criticizing American involvement in the World Court. He opposed the nomination as chief justice of William Howard Taft in 1921 and Charles Evans Hughes in 1930. Johnson supported the traditional Republican policy of high protective tariffs, making sure that California’s agricultural products were included. Despite a serious primary challenge, he won reelection to the Senate in 1922, and then ran a lackluster campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1924, losing to President Calvin Coolidge. In the general election, he refused to endorse either Coolidge or Progressive Robert La Follette. Since the early 1920s, Johnson had sponsored a bill for the construction of a dam along the Colorado River to help prevent flood damage and generate inexpensive electricity. The bill for the Boulder Dam (later, the Hoover Dam) was finally passed in 1928.
In 1928, Johnson was reelected to his third term. He vocally opposed the policies of the presidential administration of Republican Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). Although the senator rejected advice to challenge Hoover for the GOP nomination in 1932, he endorsed and campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Johnson turned down the new Democratic president’s offer of the post of interior secretary, but he supported most of the early New Deal legislation. In gaining his fourth Senate term in 1934, the Californian was nominated by both the Republican and Democratic state parties. As the situation in Europe became more ominous, he won passage of the Johnson Act (1934), which barred loans to nations that defaulted on their World War I debt to the U.S. The next year, he successfully lobbied to oppose U.S. membership in the World Court.
In June 1936, Johnson suffered a serious stroke that prevented him from campaigning for Roosevelt, but he did vote for the president’s reelection. However, he bitterly denounced Roosevelt’s attempt in 1937 to “pack the Supreme Court” by adding seats (and, therefore, sympathetic justices) as a “sinister grasp of power.” Johnson thereafter opposed the president’s domestic agenda. In 1939, Johnson and Senator William Borah of Idaho led opposition to Roosevelt’s request for the repeal of the arms embargo, but Congress approved the measure after war began in Europe. Johnson did vote for increased military expenditures, but against the military draft law of 1940.
In 1940, Johnson was again nominated for another term by both major parties, and endorsed Republican Wendell Willkie for president, warning that Roosevelt’s attempt at a third consecutive term was a threat to democracy. In 1941, Johnson failed to stop the president’s lend-lease policy from gaining Congressional approval, and thereafter exerted little influence in the Senate. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he voted for war. In 1943, Johnson suffered a second stroke, which severely limited his participation in the Senate. In 1945, his last vote was against U.S. membership in the United Nations. Shortly afterward, on August 6, he died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
Sources consulted: American National Biography (online); Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (online); “Progressives in Power,” California History Online, California History Society; Sacramento Bee (online “Our Century” archive).