Hiram W. Johnson, Governor, U.S. Senator

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Hiram Warren Johnson

Birthdate: (78)
Birthplace: Sacramento, Sacramento County, California, United States
Death: August 6, 1945 (78)
Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Montgomery County, Maryland, United States
Place of Burial: Colma, San Mateo County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Grove L. Johnson, US Congress and Ann Williamson Johnson
Husband of Minnie Johnson
Brother of Albert M. Johnson; Josephene Fink; Mary O'Neal and Mable Dray

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Hiram W. Johnson, Governor, U.S. Senator



Hiram Warren Johnson (September 2, 1866 – August 6, 1945) was a leading American progressive and later isolationist politician from California; he served as the 23rd governor from 1911 to 1917, and as a United States Senator from 1917 to 1945. He was Theodore Roosevelt's running mate in the 1912 presidential election on the Progressive ticket.

Life and career

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 famous for his support of personal interests. His mother was Annie DeMontfredy, partially descended of a family of Huguenots who had left France to escape religious persecution there. Annie was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, claiming descent from a general of the Continental Army. Johnson had a brother and three sisters.

After attending public schools and Heald College, Johnson first worked as a shorthand reporter and stenographer in law offices. He eventually decided on 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 due in large measure to the fact that after Heney had been 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 liberal 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 women's suffrage and 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.

Johnson supported the California Alien Land Law of 1913.

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.


In 1916 Johnson ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, 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," referring to the United States's entry into World War I. However, the source of the famous quote has yet to be determined. 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 Republican. He was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination by 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.

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 Hays. Hays, who had campaigned actively for Harding amongst industry leaders, was ultimately named to head the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in early 1922.

Johnson received ten votes for the Republican nomination against Calvin Coolidge in 1924. As a senator, Johnson proved extremely popular. In 1934, he was re-elected with 94.5 percent of the popular vote.

During the early presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson supported the president's economic recovery package, the New Deal, frequently crossing the floor to aid the Democrats and even backing 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 did not vote against its successor organization, the United Nations, however; only senators Henrik Shipstead and William Langer cast votes against the United Nations Charter.

Johnson achieved Senate seniority as Chairman of the Committee on Cuban Relations in the Sixty-sixth Congress; he was also a member of the Patents, Immigration, Territories and Insular Possessions and Commerce committees.

Johnson died shortly after the Senate ratified the United Nations treaty.

Death and legacy

Having served in the Senate for almost thirty years, Johnson died in the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 6, 1945. News of his death, however, was overshadowed by the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan, which occurred that same day. 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 Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, announced that Johnson would be one of 13 California Hall of Fame inductees in The California Museum's yearlong exhibit. The induction ceremony was on December 1, 2009 in Sacramento.

Johnson's papers reside at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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


Hiram Johnson was on the cover of Time magazine September 29, 1924.

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Hiram W. Johnson, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline

September 2, 1866
Sacramento, Sacramento County, California, United States
August 6, 1945
Age 78
Bethesda, Montgomery County, Maryland, United States
Colma, San Mateo County, California, United States