About Henry S. Johnston, Governor
Henry Simpson Johnston (December 30, 1867 – January 7, 1965) was an American lawyer and politician who served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, the first President pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and the seventh Governor of Oklahoma. He would become the second governor in Oklahoma history to be impeached and removed from office.
Born in a log cabin on December 30, 1867, Henry Simpson Johnston was a native of Evansville, Indiana. At age twenty-four, Johnston would move to Colorado where he studied law and passed the bar exam in 1891. After a few years in Colorado, Johnston would move to Perry in Oklahoma Territory where he would become a powerful and popular figure throughout the area of Noble County.
Upon announcement that Oklahoma and Indian Territories were to combine into one state, Johnston was elected in 1906 to represent Noble and the surrounding counties at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. During the Convention, Johnston would be elected to serve in the body's number-two office as the President Pro Tempore of the Convention. During the session, Johnston met many of the Convention’s prominent figures, including future governors Charles N. Haskell, William H. Murray and Robert L. Williams. All of these men would work together to write one of the most progressive Constitutions of any US State, as well as the longest governing document in the world at the time.
On November 16, 1907, the United States Congress accepted the Oklahoma Constitution. On the same day, Charles N. Haskell was inaugurated as the state’s first Governor. Before the Constitution was approved, Johnston ran and was elected to the Oklahoma Senate to serve in the First Legislative Session of the Oklahoma Legislature. Extremely popular, Johnston was selected to serve as the Senate’s first President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, the Senate’s highest official behind the President of the Oklahoma Senate.
Johnston was popular among the masses of Oklahoma. Among his most powerful supporters were prohibitionists, Protestant churchmen, and Freemasons. Johnston himself would serve as the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of Oklahoma. So popular was Johnston that he placed his name in the Democratic primary in 1926 to run for Governor of Oklahoma to replace outgoing Governor Martin E. Trapp. Winning the general election, Johnston was inaugurated as the seventh Governor of Oklahoma.
Governor of Oklahoma
On January 10, 1927, Johnston was inaugurated as the seventh Governor of Oklahoma with all the hopes of a successful administration. Immediately, the Legislature approved Johnston’s appropriation proposals to establish a crippled children’s hospital and increased school aid funds to over $1,500,000 a year. As one observer cited, it was the “highest public school subsidy in state history at the time.”
However, problems would haunt Johnston's governorship from the beginning. Before the Legislature adjourned in May 1927, complaints were raised against Johnston’s private secretary, Mrs. O. O. Hammonds. The Legislative leaders believed Mrs. Hammonds held too much power over the Governor. It was even believed that Mrs. Hammonds went so far to make executive decisions and appointments in her own right. Believing that Johnston was neglecting his duties, the Legislature's leaders demanded that she be immediately discharged from the Governor’s services.
Determined to impeach Johnston for neglect of his duties by the end of 1927, the Legislative leaders met in special session under a newly adopted initiative proposition. This measure was introduced to deal with Governor Walton’s impeachment four years earlier. In this special session, the Legislature announced its plans to investigate the Governor. Before the Legislature could act, the Oklahoma Supreme Court intervened to the benefit of Johnston. The Court ruled in the case Simpson v. Hill that the Legislature’s actions were unconstitutional and that they could only meet during regular sessions or at the call of the Governor in special session. Following the Supreme Court’s example, Oklahoma City’s district court issued an injunction against the Legislature, preventing state lawmakers from convening.
Ignoring both courts, the Legislature proceeded with its plans and headed for the Oklahoma State Capitol to continue with impeachment charges. The Legislature was only stopped when Oklahoma National Guard troops, under the orders of Johnston, prevented them from entering the Capitol. This did not stop the Legislature from acting. The Legislature convened on December 13, 1927 in the Huckins Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. There, the Oklahoma House of Representatives raised charges, which the Oklahoma Senate as the Court of Impeachment agreed to, against Governor Johnston and many members of his administration. However, realizing that the Judicial branch sided with the Executive branch on this matter and that the courts were concerned over the legality of their session, the Senate dismissed the issues and the Legislature adjourned. The whole event only made Johnston more popular and powerful. The people loved him for using the courts to decide the issue, rather than martial law.
Johnston returned to serve some months without any harassment from the Legislature. However, everything changed toward the end of 1928. That year, the Democrats had selected Alfred Smith as their Presidential nominee to challenge the Republican Herbert Hoover. Supporting his Democratic ally, Johnston campaigned in the state on Smith’s behalf. Smith, a Catholic, supported the end of Prohibition and he spoke out against “religious bigots.” Hoover won the presidency in an overwhelming national landslide with 58% of the popular vote. In Oklahoma Hoover did even better and trounced Smith with 63.7% of the vote and many Oklahoma Republicans won state offices due to his coattails, including seats on the Oklahoma Supreme Court, a near majority in the Oklahoma House, and considerable gains in the Oklahoma Senate. Johnston was left alone as the only strong Democratic figure in the state.
When the Legislature met in regular session in 1929, both Democrats and Republicans crafted a second wave of impeachment charges. Of the thirteen charges presented by the House, the Senate accepted eleven. On January 21, Johnston was officially suspended from office and Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma William J. Holloway became acting Governor. Johnston’s impeachment trial began on February 6 and would last over six weeks. The trial came to an end on March 20 with the Senate removing Johnston from office on the eleventh charge: general incompetence. All other charges were dismissed. The same day, Lt. Governor Holloway became the eighth Governor of Oklahoma. He was the second Lt. Governor to succeed to the Governorship in state history—both during the 1920s.
Late Life and Legacy
Following impeachment, Johnston returned to practice law in Perry. Four years later, he would win a term in the state Senate, serving from 1933 to 1937. After leaving the Senate, he would once again return to practice law in Perry, where he died at the age of 97 on January 7, 1965. He was the longest-lived governor in Oklahoma history, before or since. Johnston is buried in Perry.
The removal of Johnston proved to be the Legislature's apex of dominance against the other two branches of state government. Over the first two decades of Oklahoma's state existence, the Legislature had brought impeachment charges against four Governors and had removed two of those. Only Governors Charles N. Haskell and Robert L. Williams would wield great executive power during this time. With the state Legislature's power diminished in reaction to its impeachment ambitions, the body would never again come close to impeaching and removing another Oklahoma governor from office.
Nationwide, it would be nearly 60 years before another U.S. governor was impeached—Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona in 1988.