Happy Birthday Governor Johnson!

Although at times it can seem a more common occurrence, the “Know-Nothings” only held California’s statehouse form 1856 to 1858.

The Know-Nothings – officially the American Party — rose from the ashes of the Whigs and the growing division in the Democratic Party between what were known as the Lecomptons and Anti-Lecomptons after a proposed constitution for the new state of Kansas drafted in that city to allow slavery.

In 1855, the top of the American Party’s ticket in California was J. Neely Johnson, a lawyer born in Gibson County Indiana who came to California in 1849.

Much of Johnson’s two years as governor were overshadowed by his clash in 1856 with a resurgent Vigilance Committee that imposed armed law on San Francisco, including hanging four men and driving another 27 from the city.

Johnson and the state militia, led by William Tecumseh Sherman, failed to best the popular committee, costing the governor much of his political cache and leading Sherman to resign as the militia’s commander.

California’s fourth governor did, however, approve the initial funds to begin construction of the state capitol, which wasn’t completed until 1874.

Johnson unseated popular incumbent John Bigler who sought a third two-year term. Johnson campaigned on a platform calling for no more “Biglerism.” When elected, however, he continued several of the former governor’s policies – a practice routinely repeated by future governors.

It’s claimed that after his victory, Johnson was “the most startled man in the state.”

Know-Nothings, staunchly anti-immigration, won their nickname from their secretive meetings and their response when asked if a member of the American Party: “I know nothing.”

In California’s 1855 elections, the Know-Nothings grabbed seats in the Legislature and also won the statewide offices of Attorney General, Treasurer, Lieutenant Governor and Controller.

Their reign would be short-lived. 

When he was sworn in January 9, 1856 Johnson was 30 years old. He’s still the youngest California governor to take office. Johnson died 17 years later in Salt Lake City — 29 days after his August 2nd birthday.

While the research isn’t complete, Johnson’s inaugural address also appears to hold the record for longest inaugural sentence, clocking in at 341 words:

“To this end, the abolition of all sinecures and needless offices — especially refusing to create more of like kind —a just and discriminating reduction of the fees and emoluments of office, and withal (if such detestable heresy has ever in our State found its votaries, that there can honestly exist such things as constructive perquisites in salaried offices,) teaching the official incumbent of every degree, that he must look solely to the legitimate salary or fees, as defined by law, for compensation; the adoption of such needful amendments to our code, criminal and civil, as will tend to promote the impartial and speedy administration of justice, simplify legal proceedings, and give force and efficacy to laws framed for beneficent purposes, but which have proven so defective as to render them absolutely nugatory; that the blessings of a Republican Government may be successfully enjoyed, and the noblest boon of the American citizen not ruthlessly overridden by perjury and fraud, the enactment of election laws and regulations, such as will tend to secure the legal voter, whether native or naturalized, the right of voting in security and safety; the exercise of such constitutional legislation as will be calculated to adjust, on equitable terms, controversies in relation to lands, in adverse possession to those claiming under Mexican grants, that stability and certainty of title may tend to augment population and improvement, and enhance the public revenue; the adoption of biennial sessions of the Legislature, and by assiduity and laborious industry in the work of legislation, bring the sessions within the shortest possible limit; these, gentlemen of the Legislature, constitute some of the undertakings now before us; and, entertaining as I do, the most exalted confidence in the purity of your motives, wisdom of your counsels, and regard for the public weal, I doubt not we will be found alike coworkers in the noble task of reform now to be begun, and prosecuted with a zeal and ardor that knows no abatement, that the sincerity of our declarations may be vindicated, and public expectation realized.”

(That’s only one of the three sentences in the paragraph.)

Battling the Vigilance Committee

A Vigilance Committee first arose in San Francisco in 1851 when armed men took to the streets meting out justice, including the lynching of four men, one for burglary.

Then Gov. John McDougall condemned the vigilantes but proved ineffectual in stopping them with the state’s nascent law enforcement personnel.

After a nearly five-year hiatus, the vigilantes roared back to life on May 14, 1856 after the shooting of James King of William, the muck-raking editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. His killer was James Casey, a city politician with a poor reputation.

At the time, a poor reputation wasn’t uncommon among the city’s public servants.

“Politics had become a regular and profitable business and politicians were more than suspected of being corrupt,” writes Sherman in his 1875 Memoirs.

“In the election, all sorts of dishonesty were charged and believed, especially of ‘ballot-box stuffing’ and too generally the better classes avoided the elections and dodged jury-duty so that the affairs of the city government necessarily passed into the hands of a low set of professional politicians. Among them was a man named James Casey.”

Sherman recounts that the building which housed the bank he worked for had upper floor offices. One of the offices was occupied by Casey. Sherman helped oversee construction of the structure at 800 Montgomery, which still stands and is known as “Sherman’s Bank.”

After Casey wrote an article critical of the bank, Sherman threatened Casey, saying that if he did so again he and his printing press would be thrown out the window. Casey moved elsewhere.

“The city was wide open to all sorts of crime from murder to petty theft,” writes Lell Hawley Woolley, a Vigilance Committee member, from The Rambling Sketches and Experiences of 64-Years’ Residence in the State.

 “Here was the poise of the scales: Corruption and murder on one side, with honesty and good government on the other. Which shall be the balance of power, the first or the last?”

The Vigilance Committee considered itself to be the last.

King published documents in his paper showing Casey had spent time in New York’s Sing Sing Prison.

Outraged, Casey threatened King that he would shoot him on sight, which Casey did as King left his newspaper office and headed home.

After King died of his wounds, the Vigilance Committee stormed the jail on May 18, seized Casey and Charles Cora who had shot down William Richardson, a popular U.S Marshal, the previous November.

San Francisco Mayor James Van Ness begged the governor to come to the city and meet personally with the committee’s head, William Coleman, a veteran of the original 1851 committee.

Sherman met Johnson and his brother William at the city wharf. Near midnight they went to Turnverein Hall, at Bush and Stockton, where the committee was meeting.

“We were shown into a bar-room to the right, when the governor asked to see Coleman,” writes Sherman in his Memoirs.

“After shaking hands all round, the governor said, ‘Coleman, what the devil is the matter here? Coleman said, ‘Governor, it is time this shooting on our streets should stop.’ The governor replied, ‘I agree with you perfectly and have come down from Sacramento to assist.’ Coleman rejoined that ‘the people were tired of it and had no faith in the officers of the law.’

“A general conversation then followed, in which it was admitted that …  Casey must be executed but the manner of execution was the thing to be settled, Coleman contending that the people would do it without trusting the courts or the sheriff.”

Johnson told Coleman there was no longer room for mob rule in California. If Coleman and his committee supported the law, Johnson said he would seek an indictment of Casey and a swift trial.

Coleman said the governor’s offer was fair and it would be considered.

The following day Coleman dodged Johnson and another committee member told the governor his offer was rejected.

“The governor openly accused him of treachery and falsehood,” writes Sherman.

Casey and Cora were subsequently tried by the committee, convicted and hanged from a platform extended from the second floor windows of the committee’s headquarters, “Fort Gunnybags,” at 41 Sacramento Street.

“Casey and Cora, who had their arms tied behind them, were brought to the platform and with firm steps stepped out upon them,” writes Woolley.

“Casey addressed a few remarks, declaring that he was no murderer, and weakened at the thought of his dear old mother. He almost fainted as the noose was placed around his neck. Cora, to the contrary, said nothing, and stood unmoved while Casey was talking.

“The signal was given at 20 minutes past one o’clock and the cord cut, letting the bodies drop six feet. They hung for 55 minutes and were cut down and turned over to the coroner.”

After the hangings, the vigilantes did not disperse. Van Ness pleaded for state military intervention.

On June 3, Johnson ordered his newly appointed commander – Sherman – to call out the militia after issuing a proclamation declaring San Francisco to be in a state of insurgency and placing it under martial law.

To enforce the edict, the militia needed more firepower. Johnson believed additional weapons would be lent by Gen. John Wool, head of the US Army’s District of the Pacific in Benicia.

Wool initially pledged the weapons then reneged, saying he required presidential authorization.

An appeal by Johnson to President Franklin Pierce was rebuffed.

Militia members began to drift off, some joining the vigilantes.

Sherman resigned his commission in disgust.

The battle with the committee sapped the governor’s political power – and that of the Know-Nothings – although Johnson achieved some subsequent successes.

Acknowledging the fallout from his response to the vigilantes, Johnson told lawmakers in his first annual message in 1857 (Page 22 of the Journal) his duty as governor was to “leave unemployed no honorable means of securing submission to the law.”


“In all that I have done or sought to do, I heeded not the plaudits of the populace, nor feared their threats. I know no higher law than the Constitution of my country; and as a rule of action, alike incessant and inflexible, the observance of the duties it enjoins, will ever be paramount in my regard as a public officer and private citizen.”

In a June 17, 1856 letter first released in the 1891-1892 edition of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Sherman says:

“Governor Johnson is a young man elected by the Know-Nothing Party and of a high personal character. When, however, this storm burst upon him his old friends left him and he was found to ally himself with men who had private griefs to avenge or who acted from extreme notions.

“Few about him were governed by his high, pure principles. He felt as though the honor of his office might be stained whilst in his hands and he strove to arrest it but he miscalculated the strength of his adversaries. He is now powerless for the militia, his only reliance to coerce obedience to his orders, has deserted him in mass, leaving him the naked, unsupported position of governor.

‘Fort Gunnybags,’ the Vigilance Committee Headquarters

“Though I was accused in the newspapers of threatening to lay the city in ashes, nobody believed it and the most rabid had to admit that from no act of my life could I be classed as a rowdy or friend of the ballot-box stuffers.

“What is to be the end of this no one can tell. I fear no violence, but expect the Vigilance Committee will force away their present list of culprits and then drop back into their business, for the expense of their organization must be heavy and will as usual fall on a few of the most zealous, who, as soon as their zeal evaporates, will give in.”

Interestingly, Johnson signed legislation sought by the Vigilance Committee consolidating the city and county of San Francisco, making it the only local subdivision of its kind in the state. The committee said the change would reduce corruption.

Early Career

Johnson entered politics in 1850 when he was elected Sacramento City Attorney. President Millard Fillmore appointed him the same year to conduct the first census of the soon-to-be state.

While city attorney, Johnson was named a lieutenant colonel in the state militia by Gov. McDougall. He was charged with helping quell Indian uprisings in Mariposa County. The most lasting impact of the assignment was the discovery of Yosemite Valley

In 1851, Johnson also married Mary Zabriskie of Sacramento. They had two children, William and Bessie. After Johnson’s death, she remarried, dying in Carson City in 1887.

Initially a Whig, Johnson was elected one of four Assemblymen representing Sacramento in 1852 but failed to win the party’s nomination for attorney general the following year.

As a legislator, he was a leading advocate of moving the capitol from Vallejo to Benicia. Bigler moved it from Benicia to Sacramento in 1854.

In the gubernatorial campaign, the American Party said its goal, as quoted in the August 29, 1855 edition of the Southern Califorinan, was to end the “dynasty of mis-rule and corrpution that is sought to be again fixed upon the people”  if Decmoratic incumbent John Bigler were elected to a third term.

“Biglerism,” the publication said, had become “a by-word and a synonym of official prostitution and vacillating weakness.” 

The “dynasty of mis-rule and corruption” ended when Johnson received 49,078 votes to Bigler’s 44,370. Democrats had held the governorship since statehood. 

Governor Johnson

Taking office as governor, Johnson called for enactment of several of Bigler’s proposals, including more economy in state government. (See the top third of California’s longest inaugural sentence.)

He faced the same grim financial straits as his three predecessors. In 1856, Johnson and the Legislature consolidated the state’s debt into one fund to more easily pay it down as revenue came to the state. Bigler first recommended the idea.

Less than one year later, Johnson told lawmakers the state faced bankruptcy unless escalating expenditures were reined in.

In addition, personal and property taxes should be doubled, he said, and a stamp tax imposed on bonds and other financial notes. Lawmakers passed the stamp tax.

As he left office in January 1858, Johnson told the Legislature in his last annual message that:

“At no period since the formation of our government has the affairs of the state treasury exhibited such flattering evidence of ability to pay the demands which are constantly being made against it than at the present time; and, indeed, only during the past year has the state ever been able to liquidate at the treasury, the necessary expenses of  government as soon as they accrued. In fact, in all respects, relative to our financial condition, a most cheering state of affairs is now exhibited.

“The effort which had so long been unsnccessfally made has at length been attained ; that is, our ability, as a state, to  ‘pay as we go;’ and, in addition to this, we have ample means to discharge all obligations which are now due, and abundant resources provided for future expenditures, with a large surplus remaining in the state treasury.”

Perhaps the new Legislature should approve a tax cut given the state’s anticipated $4,000 surplus, Johnson allowed.

Like Bigler before him, Johnson had trouble managing the state prison. To counter rising costs he created a state prison commission authorized to lease the prison operation to a private contractor.

That contractor’s performance plagued Johnson’s successor, John Weller, who forcibly wrested control of the prison from the hands of the company running it. Johnson was something of a stickler when it came to legislation.

He vetoed an 1856 measure creating Del Norte County because of “bad spelling, improper punctuation and numerous erasures in the bill which made it impossible to determine the bill’s intent,” write H. Brett Melendy and Benjamin Gilbert in The Governors of California.

Johnson reprimanded the enrollment committee for allowing the errors. The veto was not overridden.

Although he signed a bill to incorporate Marysville, Johnson complained of the “flagrant and inexcusable errors which so frequently occur in the Assembly enrolled bills,” Melendy and Gilbert quote Johnson as saying.

Among Johnson’s cost saving moves was reducing the governor’s salary from $10,000 to $8,000 a year.

By the turn of the century, the salary had fallen to $6,000 plus $2,500 for expenses causing Gov. George Pardee to complain he couldn’t live on the wage. 

Johnson’s party repudiated him in 1857, giving the nomination to George Bowie who was beaten by Weller, a Lecompton Democrat.

The Know-Nothings ceased to be a political force in California.

Later Life

Johnson moved to the Utah Territory. When it was split, Johnson stayed in the part that became Nevada. He chaired the state’s constitutional convention in 1864 and aided in the state’s admission to the union on October 31, 1864. 

Johnson House

In 1867, Johnson was named to the Nevada Supreme Court where he remained a justice until 1871 – the longest job he held in his life.

He suffered sunstroke in July 1872 and died by the end of the following month.

The J. Neely Johnson House, where he lived prior to becoming governor, is located at 1029 F St. in Sacramento. He gave a brief speech from its balcony before being escorted to the Capitol for his inauguration.

A Sacramento park named for Johnson is located at 516 11 St.


Filed under: California History

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