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J. Neely Johnson

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Dec 16, 2021

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.[1] As a member of the American Party, Johnson remains one of only three members of a third party to be elected to the California governorship (the others are Frederick Low of the National Union Party and Hiram Johnson of the Progressive Party).

American judge
J. Neely Johnson
4th Governor of California
In office
January 9, 1856  January 8, 1858
Lieutenant Robert M. Anderson
Preceded by John Bigler
Succeeded by John B. Weller
Personal details
Born (1825-08-02)August 2, 1825
Gibson County, Indiana
Died August 31, 1872(1872-08-31) (aged 47)
Salt Lake City, Utah Territory
Political party Whig Party, American Party
Spouse(s) Mary Zabriskie
Children
  • William
  • Bessie
Profession Jurist, lawyer, politician

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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.[2] 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.[3] After two years in the City Attorney’s office, Johnson began his political career by running as a Whig in the 1852 election, in which Johnson was elected to the California State Assembly as one of four members representing Sacramento.[4]

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.[5]

In 1854, both the state and federal wings of the Whig Party were on the verge on collapse due to party splits over the Kansas–Nebraska Act. In the wake of this split, Johnson joined the nativist American Party, known popularly as the Know Nothings.

In the 1855 general election, the American Party hoped to capitalize on the disintegration of the Whig party, internal Democratic divisions, and growing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment. The party nominated Assemblyman Johnson as its candidate for governor. Johnson ran against incumbent John Bigler, with Johnson securing the governorship by a comfortable margin. Johnson was described as “the most startled man in the state” upon hearing of his election.[5] 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).[6]

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. . . J. Neely Johnson . . .