Hiram Johnson, California governor for over six years and U.S. Senator from California for twenty-eight years, was a progressive reformer with enough political influence in his home state to sway elections. It is said, and with good reason, that his personal influence once changed the outcome of a presidential election.
Johnson’s introduction to politics came from his father, a one-term Congressman from California. His father’s political reputation was far from the best. At one point, his father pleaded no contest to charges of adding names of non-existent people to the voter list. He was also charged with having ballots printed with his name and his popular opponent’s name printed with special ink that would disappear after a period of time (long enough for the ballots to be marked by the voters). After the ink vanished, the names of the candidates would appear reversed from the original order in which they appeared on the ballot.
After being admitted to the bar, Hiram joined his brother in his father’s law office. When his father, Grove, ran for Congress in 1894, Hiram acted as his campaign manager. Hiram gained much political experience in this campaign, which he put to good use later. Grove quickly rejected the reform program. Given that rejection and Grove’s unscrupulous political conduct, Hiram and his brother left Grove’s law office and political campaign. Grove was defeated for re-election. Hiram’s rise in Republican politics began after his separation from his father’s organization.
In 1892, Hiram was selected as President of the county Republican Party. In 1895, he became City Attorney of Sacramento, after supporting the reform candidate for mayor. In 1902, after splitting with his father and the loss of his candidate for mayor, Hiram and his brother moved to San Francisco and opened a law office there. Two years later, Hiram opened his own office. (He had trouble working with his alcoholic brother.)
Hiram participated in two notable and highly publicized prosecutions of political corruption. One was the mayor of San Francisco, Eugene Schmitz, and the other was San Francisco’s political boss, Abraham Ruef. These established his image as a tough, independent, and honest lawyer. That image got him elected governor of California in 1910. He ran on a promise to eliminate the influence of the railroads in state politics.
Governor Johnson, backed by a strongly progressive legislature, carried out his reform program. Bills were signed into law involving recall, initiative and referendum, direct primary for U.S. Senators (still elected by the state legislatures until 1913), a state civil service system, eight-hour works days for women, and strong guidelines for child labor. But it was his success in limiting the power of the railroads that gained him national attention. A new State Utilities Act gave the state railroad commission sweeping powers.
As governor, Johnson got to know many national figures, including Teddy Roosevelt. The two men became close friends, with TR being almost a father figure to Johnson. Early in their friendship, Johnson began encouraging TR to run against Taft in 1912. When TR lost the nomination, Johnson was a leader in forming the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party and became its chairman. After TR got the Progressive nomination for President, Johnson was named as the Vice-Presidential nominee. They lost, but Roosevelt already had Johnson in mind as his choice for the Presidential nomination in 1916.
In 1916, Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate. His popularity was still very high, and his election was considered all-but-certain. Johnson was disappointed that a conservative, Charles Evans Hughes, had won the Republican nomination for President rather than a more progressive candidate.
When Hughes campaigned in California, he was escorted by conservative political enemies of Johnson in the Republican Party. During the campaign, Johnson and Hughes stayed at the same hotel. Hughes was not aware Governor Johnson was there, and Johnson made no move to see the Presidential candidate of his party. The mutual snub was picked up in the papers. Although Hughes later sent a very gracious letter to Johnson, it didn’t help. Word went through the progressive faction of the party to support Johnson for the Senate, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson for President. Johnson won his Senate race by more than 300,000, but Hughes lost California by four thousand votes. Losing California cost Hughes the election. Had Hughes carried California, he would have been President. There is no doubt that with the support of Johnson, Hughes would have taken California and the White House.
New York Congressman John Dwight later said Hughes could have won the election with a single dollar. He said that Hughes could have carried the state and the election if “a man of sense, with a dollar, would have invited Hughes and Johnson to his hotel room when they were both in the same hotel in California. He could have ordered three Scotch whiskies, which would have been seventy-five cents, and that would have left a tip of twenty-five cents for the waiter…That little Scotch would have brought those men together; there would have been mutual understanding and respect and Hughes would have carried California and been elected.”
In the Senate, Johnson became immediately identified with the staunch isolationists. He only reluctantly agreed to vote for American entry into World War I, and regretted the decision later. He fought against the Versailles Treaty and U.S. membership in the League of Nations. When President Wilson went on his cross-country trip to campaign for the League of Nations, Johnson was one of the Senators who followed, campaigning against the League.
Johnson tried for the 1920 Republican Presidential nomination, but did not win, although he did win the primary in every state that had one. He was offered the Vice-Presidency by almost every major candidate in return for his support. After learning that he was to be the candidate, Warren Harding supposedly went to Johnson’s room to offer him the second place on the ticket. Johnson, probably feeling Harding to be unfit and not wanting to spend four years in a powerless position, declined. Of course, had he accepted, he would have been president. Interestingly, every candidate who offered Johnson the second place on the ticket died within the next four years, meaning that Johnson would have been President no matter who had won.
Johnson’s greatest contribution as a Senator was his leadership in creating the first large flood control and power generation project, Boulder Dam. He helped overcome the opposition of states not concerned with the west, and the often bitter fights between Senators of the states involved. This dam was later renamed the Hoover Dam. Johnson also helped keep Muscle Shoals as a governmental power project, rather than a private one.
Regardless of who was in power, Johnson remained a critic. But Johnson liked and supported progressive Franklin Roosevelt, although he did not like some of FDR’s positions. That dislike eventually became bitter opposition by the end of Roosevelt’s first term. But at the start of that term, Johnson was offered the post of Secretary of the Interior, which he declined. He said, “I have lived so long in absolute independence that it is a very difficult thing for me to see myself a member of any group where I would discipline myself to the view of any one, or any few men.”
For four years, Johnson voted for every New Deal program. But he feared these programs were giving the federal government, and the President, too much power. The final break came as a result of the Court Packing Plan in 1937. He also opposed FDR’s foreign policy. Although he realized the evils of Hitler and Mussolini, he warned that in “fighting a European dictator, we would create one of our own.”
After Pearl Harbor, even Johnson realized that isolationism was no longer possible. He loyally supported the American war effort. But he still opposed any organization of nations after the war. He was one of only six Senators to vote against a resolution calling for a post-war organization of nations. He was the only member of the Foreign Relations committee to cast a vote against the United Nations, and one of only three in the full Senate.
Johnson’s health had been poor for some time. He had a stroke in 1936, and another in 1943. On the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Johnson died.
Johnson is remembered, if at all, for two events early in his career. He was the running mate of Teddy Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket, and his opposition to Charles Evans Hughes is credited with causing his fellow Republican to lose the White House.
In the Senate, he was “rarely a constructive force.” He is remembered mainly for opposition to ideas and programs. He opposed every President, both Republicans and Democrats, during his tenure in the Senate. But this colorful, powerful politician definitely had a large effect on the issues of his times.