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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,189

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This is the grave of Hiram Johnson.

Born in 1866 in Sacramento, California, Johnson grew up in politics. His father was a leading California Republican who spent a term in Congress but was a long time leading state legislator. They were well off, Johnson got to go to good schools, and went to college at Heald, which was once a good California mining and engineering school that then fell on hard times, got bought by the Corinthian College for-profit scam, and eventually closed in 2015. Mining and engineer didn’t interest Johnson though. He started working in law firms, eventually read for the bar, and passed it in 1888. He then set up his own shop in Sacramento. He did that until 1902, when he moved to San Francisco.

In 1908, Johnson started getting attention for his work. Now in his early 40s, there wasn’t much about him that suggested he would be some political star. But he was a good government Progressive and was interesting in busting up corrupt political machines. He worked on the law team that went after the corrupt leadership of San Francisco, including the mayor. This was a crazy case in which the lead on it, the district attorney Frank Heney, was shot in the head by a prospective juror by a guy who was ineligible for the jury because he had been a felon. Heney falsely believed the political machine had placed him in the jury pool as a trick and then humiliated the guy to get at them. The guy then pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, nearly killing him. In any case, Johnson took over the case when Heney was in the hospital, got the main political boss found guilty (though not the mayor) and became a rising star in California reform politics.

Johnson was very happy to take advantage of his newfound fame by running for governor in 1910. He was part of an insurgent Republican Progressive movement called the Lincoln-Roosevelt League that took on the old corrupt party and its ultimate political boss, the Southern Pacific Railroad. Johnson won that election and spent his time in office opening new routes for politician accountability, including the recall, which in recent decades has been a real pain in California politics since it can be used by right-wingers for any purpose they want. He established a state railroad commission to regulate the Southern Pacific, a major step forward in California politics. He pushed for the state to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment for direct election of senators. He also signed the Alien Land Law, which was the bill that banned the Japanese from owning land directly, part of California’s immense racist past. Johnson was not particularly a big supporter of that bill, but he wasn’t going to let defending the rights of Japanese immigrants get in the way of his political ambitions so he acquiesced to it. Profiles in courage.

In 1912, he was a big Bull Mooser and Theodore Roosevelt chose him as his VP candidate. It made sense; Johnson had after all come to office on a very similar set of ideas that you could split the Republican Party and actually win elections. But the Democrats had different ideas in 1912 and weren’t going to get behind TR when they had Woodrow Wilson ready to go. So that didn’t work. It didn’t hurt Johnson though, who was reelected in a landslide in 1914.

In 1916, Johnson decided to run for the Senate and as California’s most popular politician, he disposed of his Democratic opponent without any great difficulty. What this did was place Johnson in office as the nation was choosing whether to go into World War I. Johnson was a committed isolationist and this position is what we know him for in terms of his long Senate career. For someone who was as big a star as Johnson was at the state level, his senatorial career is not so great. That he opposed U.S. entry into World War I is not surprising of course, many did and for good reasons. It’s more disappointing that he would then go on to oppose the League of Nations, but again, that’s not so shocking. It’s more that Johnson stayed in the Senate until 1945 and continued to hold these positions into World War II. He was for instance deeply opposed to the United Nations in 1945 and while he did not show up to vote against it because he was dying, he would have been one of only 3 senators to oppose it. Naturally, he opposed anything to do with World War II as well, at least until December 7, 1941.

Johnson really wanted to be president and actively sought the 1920 Republican nomination. But by that time, Republican leaders were regaining power in the party and isolating Progressives. So they chose Warren Harding instead. Johnson actively sought the endorsement of Roosevelt’s widow and sons, but they were all-in for Leonard Wood. Republicans sought to throw Johnson a sop by asking him to be Harding’s VP but he wasn’t’ going to leave the Senate for that. Too bad really given how much better he would have been that the vile Calvin Coolidge. Regretting that, he tried to take on Coolidge in 1924 but that wasn’t going to happen either.

Johnson did initially support FDR. But he was a Progressive and a lot of these guys turned on Roosevelt, even though he pushed forward policies you’d think they’d support. By 1936, Johnson had joined those other ex-Progressives, outraged by the use of federal power to promote wide-spread change. These good government types are usually quite naive when it comes to politics (see for instance people who think ranked-choice voting is a panacea for many of our problems today) and it was fine if the government nudged people into doing the right thing, but having big government programs seemed like totalitarianism to these voluntarists. It was the Supreme Court packing idea that really turned Johnson off in the end. He was already quite uncomfortable by 1936 and that pushed him over the edge.

Johnson died on August 6, 1945, the same day that the U.S. used the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Kind of fitting for a man really not prepared mentally for what that world would look like. He was 78 years old.

Hiram Johnson is buried in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1916, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Josiah Wolcott is in Dover, Delaware and Claude Swanson is in Richmond, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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