About J. Neely Johnson, Governor
John Neely Johnson (August 2, 1825 – August 31, 1872) was an American lawyer and politician. He was elected as the fourth governor of California from 1856 to 1858, and later appointed justice to the Nevada Supreme Court from 1867 to 1871. As a member of the American Party, Johnson remains one of only two members of a third party to be elected to the California governorship (the other is Frederick Low of the National Union Party).
Born in rural Gibson County, Indiana, Johnson never attended University; while born to a prominent family, his plans for his studies were foiled by economic effects of the Panic of 1837. He apprenticed a printer before moving to Iowa to work with a lawyer, and was admitted to the Iowa Bar. In July 1849, Johnson left Iowa for the Gold Rush in California, where he briefly employed himself as a gold prospector, and later as a mule train driver. Johnson restarted his law career in Sacramento, California by founding a law practice with Ferris Forman, and was elected as Sacramento City Attorney in 1850. After two years in the City Attorney's office, Johnson began his political career by running as a Democrat in the 1852 election, in which Johnson was elected to the California State Assembly as one of four members representing Sacramento.
During his time in the Assembly, Johnson nearly broke a local editor's nose after accusing the editor of writing an insulting article about him. The editor aimed a pistol at Johnson, but was tackled by onlookers before he could fire.
In 1854, both the state and federal wings of the Democratic Party were increasingly split into Lecompton and Anti-Lecompton camps over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Frustrated with frequent party splits, Johnson joined the Nativist American Party, known popularly as the Know Nothings.
In the 1855 general elections, the American Party hoped to capitalize on the disintegration of the Whig party, Democratic divisions and growing anti-Catholic sentiment. They nominated Assemblyman Johnson as its candidate for Governor of California. Johnson ran against incumbent Governor John Bigler, and Johnson secured the governorship by a comfortable margin. Johnson was described as "the most startled man in the state" upon hearing of his election. Along with the governorship, Know Nothings also received considerable gains in the California State Legislature, as well as elections to every other major executive post in the state, including the offices of Lieutenant Governor (Robert M. Anderson), Attorney General (William T. Wallace), Treasurer (Henry Bates), and Controller (George W. Whitman).
Johnson was sworn in as the fourth governor of California on January 9, 1856. At 30, Johnson is the youngest governor in California history. Johnson inherited a growing state debt from the Bigler administration, and planned to reduce government expenditures to cut the debt.
The Vigilante Committee
Since the early 1850s, tensions within San Francisco political circles had sometimes erupted in open violence. In 1851 armed citizens took formed the San Francisco Vigilance Movement to correct wrongs they saw being committed or protected by the municipal government. The vigilantes lynched two criminals being held in city jails. Governor John McDougall, condemned the actions of the vigilantes, but was not able to stop them because state law enforcement was too weak.
Distrust of city authorities again reached the surface on May 14, 1856, when James King of William, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin and a vocal critic of corrupt officials, was mortally wounded by James P. Casey, a purported ballot-box stuffer and city politician. When Casey was in the custody of San Francisco law enforcement, William T. Coleman, a ringleader in the 1851 Vigilance Committee and another vocal critic of municipal authorities, called for the formation of another Vigilante Committee. Vigilantes erected a barricade along Sacramento Street to repel city officers from removing them. After a week, the Vigilantes marched on the city jail and overpowered its guards to arrest Casey, along with another criminal: Charles Cora, who had fatally shot a U.S. Marshal the previous year.
Johnson, along traveled to San Francisco from Sacramento with his brother William and the newly commissioned chief of the California Militia, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman to meet the Vigilante Committee ringleaders. Sherman recalled in his 1875 Memoirs Johnson angrily confronting Coleman and other Vigilante ringleaders in their makeshift headquarters and exclaiming, "Coleman, what the devil is the matter here?" Coleman replied that the San Franciscans "were tired of it, and had no faith in the officers of the law.” After personal negotiations between Governor Johnson and the Vigilantes over transferring the criminals to state law enforcement failed, Johnson watched helplessly as both Casey and Cora were hanged by the Vigilantes on May 20.
Johnson returned to Sacramento, and the Vigilantes refused to disperse, claiming they were San Francisco's rightful law enforcement. San Francisco Mayor James Van Ness, with the municipal police and sheriff departments continued to maintain an armed presence in the city's streets, and pleaded to the Governor for military assistance. Johnson instructed General Sherman to call the California Militia to San Francisco on June 2, and issued a gubernatorial proclamation declaring San Francisco in a state of insurrection the following day. Johnson's proclamation, like McDougall's, was difficult to enforce. Johnson had instructed the California Militia to impose martial law, but without proper arms, the Militia needed more equipment to be provided by federal forces. Johnson ordered John E. Wool of the U.S. Army's Department of the Pacific based in Benicia to dispatch weapons to the state militia. General Wool declined, claiming that the Governor did not have the authority to use arms from federal soldiers because that right laid exclusively with the President. Both Johnson and Sherman were furious about General Wool's refusal to lend arms for state militia forces: Sherman resigned from his military commission, vowing never to return to California politics. Meanwhile, the California Militia, under the command of Major General Volney E. Howard continued to gather arms, but suffered a major setback on June 21, 1856 when Vigilantes seized the arms schooner Julia.
The Vigilantes remained San Francisco's de facto law enforcement until August 1856. Vigilantes arrested Chief Justice David S. Terry of the Supreme Court of California for stabbing a Vigilante member, and hanged two more individuals. Governor Johnson revoked his proclamation on San Francisco's insurrection on November 3. Despite denouncing the Vigilantes and their rebellion against city authorities, Johnson did agree to unite the city and county of San Francisco into a single entity to minimize corruption. The result was the passage and signing of the Consolidation Act of 1856, uniting county and municipal authorities.
Rest of term
The Vigilante Crisis in the summer of 1856 overshadowed the rest of Johnson's term. Despite the fact that a large portion of the State Legislature were Know Nothing party members, Johnson vetoed a bill due to its "bad spelling, improper punctuation and erasures." Johnson also approved funds to build the future California State Capitol. By 1857, Know-Nothings were frustrated with Johnson's inability to deal with the San Francisco Vigilantes. During the American Party's convention in 1857, Johnson lost the party's nomination for the governorship to George W. Bowie. Bowie would be defeated by Lecompton Democrat John Weller. Shortly after, the Know-Nothings ceased to be a major political force in California, and were absorbed by the Republican Party and sections of the Democratic Party.
Frustrated by his tenure in the California governorship and anxious for a new political start, Johnson moved to the Utah Territory, which included the Nevada Territory at that time before the formation of the Nevada Territory from the Western part of the Utah Territory in 1861. In 1863, Johnson was elected to the Nevada Constitutional Convention in Carson City. The following year, the former governor was elected as Convention President. Nevada was admitted as a U.S. state on October 31, 1864.
In 1867, Nevada governor Henry G. Blasdel appointed Johnson to the Nevada Supreme Court. Johnson would serve until 1871. After leaving the high court in 1871, Johnson's health declined. He died in Salt Lake City on August 31, 1872.