Frank A Day.

Life of John Albert Johnson : three times governor of Minnesota online

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LIFE OF JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON




Copyright by Sweet
GOVERNOR JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON



LIFE OF
JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON



THREE TIMES GOVERNOR
OF MINNESOTA



BY

FRANK A. D,AY

AND

THEODORE M. KNAPPEN




CHICAGO

FORBES & COMPANY

1910



Copyright, 1910, by
Forbes and Company



PREFACE

IT has been a labor of love to prepare this perma-
nent record of the life of our dear friend. We
were so near to him, knew him so well, were so
profoundly influenced by his lovable personality and
his simple greatness, that we may well be accused
of bias. His passing is still so recent that a biog-
raphy of him prepared at this time could hardly be
expected to be critical and exact. Nevertheless, the
demand for an authoritative account of the life of a
man who so profoundly influenced public thought,
who so strongly appealed to the popular and patri-
otic conception of what a public man should be,
made it imperative that some account of his work
be published while recollection of his personality is
still fresh.

We believe that it is our duty to the public to ex-
tend as widely and as soon as possible through this
biography the influence that Governor Johnson
would have continued to exert in person had he
lived. We hope in a measure thus to compensate
for his loss so early, so unexpected — a loss that
those who knew him well realize was nothing less
than a national calamity.

3



PREFACE

We have been assisted by so many persons in
collecting data and have had the cooperation of the
good will and moral help of so many others that
it is in nowise possible to make complete acknowl-
edgment here. We are especially indebted to Mr.
John Talman for his part in preparing and writing
chapters seventeen and nineteen, and to Mr. C. L.
Wagner for his assistance on chapter fifteen.

We shall feel amply repaid for our labor if those
who read this volume, pardoning its imperfections
in view of its purpose, shall be made to feel in some
measure how great and good a man has gone to
his reward.

The Authors.



CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

INTRODUCTION ii

I. MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT . 13
The Minnesota frontier in the sixties.
The Indian uprisings. The early
settlements. Social conditions.

Transportation. Men taken at
their worth,

II. THE RACIAL INHERITANCE . . 26
The Scandinavian peoples. First set-
tlement in America. The Great
Migration. Concentration in the
Northwestern States. Remarkable
blending of races. Scandinavian
contribution to America.

III. THE IMMIGRANTS 3$

The father and mother. The old
home in Sweden. The struggle in
America. Sorrow and hardship.
Settle at St. Peter. Starting a new
home. Birth of the future gov-
ernor.

IV. THE BOY'S STRUGGLES ... 52

Delivers washing for mother. Good
record in school. Goes to work in
a grocery store. Becomes drug
clerk and general store clerk.
Works for railway contractors.
Head of the family. Ends mother's
washing work. A youthful orator
and omnivorous reader.

5



CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

V. THE JOURNALIST 71

Johnson seizes the first great oppor-
tunity. No funds but assisted by
friends. Pubhshes a good paper.
Pays debt. Becomes a power in
the community. " It's a Fact "
column attracts attention.

VI. A WIDER CIRCLE . . . . . . 94

Newspaper work widens acquaint-
ance and activities. Secretary and
president Minnesota Editors and
PubHshers Association. Courtship
and Marriage. Rebuilds old home.

VII. ENTERS POLITICS 104

Country editor becomes state senator.
Makes a political sensation. De-
feated for reelection. First con-
sidered for governor in 1902.
Ideas as to country press.

VIII. FIRST GUBERNATORIAL CAM-
PAIGN 119

How the nomination came. John-
son's characteristic indifference.
Devotion of traveling-men. Dra-
matic episode of attack on Johnson
on account of father's weakness.
Features of the campaign.

IX. GOVERNOR — SUBSEQUENT

CAMPAIGNS 130

Campaign of 1906. Campaign of
1908. Desperate effort to escape
nomination. Popularity greater
than ever. Last triumph.

X. POLITICAL METHODS .... 143
Tolerance and the open mind. Win-
6



CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

ning personality. Secrets of John-
son's great influence. Cooperation
with legislature.

XL ACHIEVEMENTS IN OFFICE . . 156
Railway legislation. Insurance re-
form. Strike of iron miners. Tax
reforms. U. S. Steel Corporation.
Royalty and tonnage tax. A na-
tional figure.

XII. THE FAMOUS GRIDIRON DIN-
NER 165

An occasion that made the Governor

famous. Central figure of a great

gathering.

XIII. CANDIDATE FOR THE PRESI-

DENCY 176

An vmwilling candidate. Not am-
bitious for the office. Forced into
the race. Loyal friends. No re- '
grets over outcome. Cordial ac-
quiescence in result.

XIV. PRIVATE LIFE 189

Religion. Wife. Friends. Amuse-
ments. Habits. Interests. Con-
versation. Story telling. Personal
anecdotes.

XV. AS A PUBLIC SPEAKER ... 199
Oratorical method. Most successful
when speaking extemporaneously.
In great demand on the lecture plat-
form.

XVL JOHNSON AND THE TIMES . . 227
Attitude toward the problems of the
day. The tariff. Relations with
Canada. Radical or conservative?

7



CONTENTS

CHAP. PAGE

XVH. PERSONALITY 239

Physical characteristics. A man of
strong sympathies. Active but
even temperament. Great in his
simplicity.

XVIII. ILLNESS AND DEATH . . . .248
Of great vitality and vigor but long
a sufferer. The last hours. Meet-
ing death bravely. Public grief.
The funeral.

XIX. GOVERNOR JOHNSON'S INFLU-
ENCE 259

What it was and might have been.



APPENDIX

PUBLIC ADDRESSES, PROCLAMATIONS AND WRITINGS
TRIBUTES

Fourth of July Address 273

Commercial and Political Integrity .... 279

The Norsemen 302

Railway and Other Corporation Problems . . 308

At Vicksburg Battlefield 319

University of Pennsylvania Commencement Ad-
dress 324

At Shiloh Battlefield 359

Proclamations 373

Message Vetoing the Tonnage Tax .... 382

The Country Editor 389

Editorial Contributions 399

Tributes 405



ILLUSTRATIONS

FACING PAGE

John A. Johnson Frontispiece

Birthplace near St. Peter 14

Mother of Governor Johnson 30

Johnson When a Youth 46

Schoolhouse in St. Peter 62

Where Johnson Toiled When a Boy .... 70

Governor Johnson at Different Ages .... 78

" The Herald " Office at St. Peter 94

St. Peter Scenes no

Governor Johnson's St, Peter Home . . , .126

The Capitol, St. Paul 136

At Home with Relatives and Friends .... 142

Mother's Home in St. Peter 158

In the Country with Friends 174

Political Cartoons 181

Mrs. John Albert Johnson 190

Governor Johnson and Private Secretary Day in

Consultation 206

Portraits of Governor Johnson . . . . ' . . 222

9



ILLUSTRATIONS

Governor Johnson at Fort Snelling .... 238

Funeral Procession in St. Paul 254

The Cemetery at St. Peter ....... 258

Memorial Cartoons . . 406



10



INTRODUCTION

THE Biography of Governor John A. Johnson,
prepared by Frank A. Day, the Governor's
secretary and confidential friend, and by Theodore
M, Knappen, also a close friend, is a work of great
interest and value. The career of Governor John-
son was remarkable ; and the story of his early pov-
erty and hardship, of his manly struggle to support
himself and his mother, of his education and train-
ing for life, of his elevation three successive times
to the governorship in a state strongly opposed to his
political party, of his national reputation which
indicated that he might some day be called to the
presidency of the United States, is a story which
carries with it many a lesson for the boys and young
men of America. He was a man of strong con-
victions and of unswerving fidelity to what he be-
lieved to be right. His delightful personality and
his charming manners — his frank cordiality, his
outspoken maintenance of his opinions while he was
markedly tolerant of the opinions of others, all com-
bined to win for him the devoted attachment of a
multitude of people of all parties, and the mourning

II



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

over his untimely death has hardly been equaled
by the mourning for any other citizen except Abra-
ham Lincoln. His life is a noble examp/e of self-
reliance, industry, honesty, and high purpose.

Cyrus Northrop.
President's Ofhce,

The University of Minnesota^
Nov. 15, 1909.



12



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON



CHAPTER I

THE MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT OF THE
SIXTIES

JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON was born and bred
on the frontier. At the time of his birth, July
28, 1861, Minnesota had been a state but three years,
and the entire population of the large county in
which his parents lived was only three thousand.
Ten years before it had been without any settled
white inhabitants except missionaries and traders,
and one of the great gathering places of the Sioux
Nation was at the crossing of the Minnesota River,
known as Traverse des Sioux, only three miles
from St. Peter.

It was there that in 185 1 Governor Alexander
Ramsey, of the territory of Minnesota, and Luke
Lea, commissioners representing the United States
Government, negotiated with the Dakotah Indian
bands the treaty which ceded a large part of Min-
nesota, west of the Mississippi River, some twenty-

13



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

one million acres, to the whites. Immediately fol-
lowing the ratification of this treaty, there was a
rush of settlers into the ceded lands, and the Indians
were reduced to a reservation strip extending along
the Minnesota River for about one hundred miles.
The confinement to the reservation, however, in no
way subdued the savage character of the tribes,
and in 1862, when the infant Johnson was only a
year old, Little Crow and his painted warriors
suddenly rushed forth from their reservation, and
with fire and the tomahawk laid waste all western
Minnesota, and attacked and besieged New Ulm,
only twenty-five miles west of St. Peter. Within
a few days over eight hundred men, women and
children were slaughtered by the savages, and
hundreds were taken into captivity. The parents
of the future governor, with their children, fled
in panic from their location in the country to the
little village of St. Peter, then but a few years old.

Johnson's boyhood was passed among men and
women who had suffered from this Indian outbreak,
and from the first the lad was filled w4th love of
danger, courage and adventure.

The boy was affected and moulded by other con-
ditions of the frontier as well as those arising from
savage ferocity. Into the region just vacated by
the Dakotahs, poured emigrants from New Eng-

14




,_; y



MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT

land, the Middle West and the Old World. Life
was hard and crude. Society was unorganized.
The state was politically in a formative period.
Civil War had stirred up political passions, and
many thousands of the best young men of the new
state had gone to the front, leaving their work at
home unfinished. When the future governor was
born, there was not a mile of railway in the state
of Minnesota. St. Peter and other towns in the
Minnesota Valley received their supplies and com-
municated with the outside world by means of
steamboats on the Minnesota River, stage, ox-carts
and wagons. There were no telegraphs, and only
by letter and an occasional newspaper was intelli-
gence received from the great world to the east and
south.

Those who have seen the unharnessed West will
understand the effect on an impressionable and im-
aginative youth of the physical environment in
which Governor Johnson's boyhood was passed.
Eastward of St. Peter were the big woods, a noble
forest largely of hardwood, notable in the local
annals of Minnesota. Westward were those rolling
prairies which constituted then a part of what was
known as the great American Desert. These
prairies were still covered with their native wild
grass, underneath the sod of which was the accumu-

15



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

lated fertility of a million decades. In spring they
were green and flower bedecked; in fall brown
and waving with tall grass. Game was plentiful.
The buffalo and the elk had not yet receded beyond
the western limits of the state. Indian hunting
and war parties crossed and recrossed the prairies.
Bands of traders and trappers came and went.
Trains of Red River carts filed by in the long jour-
ney from St. Paul to Fort Garry in Prince Rupert's
Land, but the great characteristic of the prairie was
its quiet and loneliness, rarely, if ever, disturbed
by man. Lakes and streams were alive with water-
fowl, the prairie chicken abounded in the grass
lands, and in the spring and fall myriad thousands
of swans, cranes, geese, brants and ducks passed
on their aerial journeys with stirring clamour.
Truly, the prairie has its charms no less than the
forest.

As early as the last year of the seventeenth cen-
tury, Le Sueur, representing the Governor of Loui-
siana, had entered the St. Peter (St. Pierre) or Min-
nesota River from the Mississippi at St. Paul, and
had ascended it to the Blue Earth River just beyond
the point where nearly two hundred years later the
village of St. Peter was to be established, and there
erected the fort styled L'Huillier; but in that long
interval civilization had not come to change its

i6



MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT

aspect. The Indians were still there in numbers as
large as ever. They had concentrated a little to
the west of their favorite haunts of a few years
before. Dakotah and Ojibway still fought out their
ancient feud. The land was untilled, and intermit-
tent fur trade, French, British and American, for
upwards of one hundred and fifty years, had pro-
duced no permanent settlements.

Neill, in his history of Minnesota, gives an
account of a trip up the Minnesota River in 1850,
on one of the first steamers to ascend that river.
" The scenery," he writes, " the further we
advanced became more varied and beautiful. Here
there was an extensive prairie, ' stretching in grace-
ful undulations far away ;' there a wide amphithea-
tre encircled by cone-shaped hills, and inviting the
agriculturist to seek shelter for himself and his cat-
tle. Owing to the high tide of water, we passed
quite early in the morning some rapids without any
difficulty. During the day we met with little to ex-
cite us. Now and then we would pass an Indian in
his canoe, who, frightened by the puffing and novel
appearance of the boat, had crouched behind the
overhanging boughs of the weeping willow. . .
In the evening we passed a bluff of sand and
limestone, similar to those so frequent on the Upper
Mississippi, which is called White Rock. About

17



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

twelve miles beyond this we came to Traverse des
Sioux, where we did not stop as we were anxious
to ascend as far as possible by sunset. The wood
we had taken with us began to grow scarce, and a
little distance above this point the boat stopped, and
the crew and many of the passengers began to chop
wood. While engaged in this occupation, some two
or three Dakotah Indians, painted and plumed and
covered with perspiration, galloped up on their
Indian ponies. To pacify them and pay for the
wood, which it was necessary to take from their
lands, the party presented them with some sacks of
corn and treated them to a glass of fire-water, which
was entirely unnecessary. At dusk the boat tied up
in front of a beautiful prairie, elevated some sev-
enty feet above the river; and there those whose
tastes and principles permitted, danced until the heat
and mosquitoes forced them back to the boat. The
view from this prairie was intensely interesting. It
was bounded by a belt of woodland, and upon the
opposite side were slopes most beautifully rounded.
Upon its surface, jutting from the green sward,
were boulders of every size and shape, looking in
the dark as if the cattle had come down from a
thousand hills and were in repose."

Speaking of the return journey, Neill tells of a
stop at Traverse des Sioux, where Mrs. Hopkins,

i8



MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT

wife of Rev. Mr. Hopkins, a missionary of the
American Board, in charge of that station, told him
that the Indians could not conceive of the object
that led the white men to navigate a stream which
was not theirs, and that the children had been in
through the day to tell how terribly frightened
they had been by the steam whistle, and to inquire
whether it was a human being or the boat which
had made such an unearthly noise. . . . "In
the middle of the afternoon we stopped at Six
Village, the largest village of the Dakotahs, about
three hundred warriors, squaws and children were
on the bank eager to see the wonder. As the steam
whistle screeched, it was amusing to see the boys
and girls tumbling over each other in their haste to
escape. The chief soon stepped on board and
demanded a present for the privilege of navigating
the river; he also contended that a canoe had been
broken, but as he did not give the company ocular
evidence of the fact, they did not pay him, but pre-
sented him with some pieces of calico, provisions,
and a box of Spanish green. ... It had
been demonstrated that steamboats of light draught
could navigate the Minnesota, by the removal of a
few obstructions, at all stages of the water, to
Traverse des Sioux, and even to the Blue Earth
River. In a year or more the Dakotahs will make

19



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

a treaty and leave the land to their ancestors, and
then in an incredibly short period, the war whoop,
the scalp dance, the skin lodge, and the canoe of the
redman, will give place to the lowing of cattle, the
hum of children conning their lessons in the school-
house, the neat village church with its spire point-
ing heavenward, and a frugal and industrious
American husbandry."

All this was the condition of the Minnesota fron-
tier only eleven years before the birth of John Albert
Johnson, and so much was it still the unsubdued
frontier that one year afterwards, Little Crow
and his painted warriors scourged the Minnesota
valley as no other white settlement had been
scourged by Indians since the earliest days of the
settlement of French and English in America.

This rough and crude environment was as dif-
ferent as could be imagined from that of some old
community in the East. The men and women of
the little village in which Johnson spent his boyhood
were invaders, strugglers and conquerors. They
had helped in wresting the land from the Indians,
and they were now engaged in conquering it with
plow and axe. The native Americans in the com-
munity were strong and aggressive men and women,
with individuality well developed. Those who
came from foreign lands, though lacking in the

20



MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT

rough and ready adaptability of the American fron-
tiersman, were, nevertheless, brave and strong to risk
the perils of the frontier when so recently from
the peace and security of their old homes.

Life was not humdrum or monotonous. It was
full of incident and action. Men did not stagnate
in the new community or become petty because of
lack of connection with great things. Veterans of
the Indian and the Civil War fired the boys with
tales of martial glory, perilous adventure and hard-
ship bravely borne. The settlers felt that they were
building an empire and playing a great and essen-
tial part in American expansion and development.
Come but lately into a land long thought too cold
and northern for agriculture, they already were
confident they were laying the foundations of one of
the greatest of the republic's commonwealths.
" Our brief though energetic past," said Governor
Ramsey in 1853, " foreshadows but faintly the
more glorious and brilliant destiny in store for us;
nor is prophetic inspiration necessary to foretell it.
. . . In ten years a state — in ten years more
half a million people, are not extravagant predic-
tions. In our visions of the coming time rise up in
magnificent proportions or]£ or more capitals of the
North, Stockholms and St. Petersburgs, with many
a town besides only secondary to these in their

21



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

trade, wealth and enterprise." St. Peter felt that
its chance to become one of the " Capitals of the
North " was as good as St. Paul's. Indeed in 1857
a bill changing the location of the territorial capital
from St. Paul to St. Peter passed the House and
would have passed the Council, but for the abstrac-
tion of the bill and the adjournment of the legis-
lature while it was still missing.

Those men of the early day saw life in large
outlines, they toiled masterfully because they knew
they were making history. Life was good to them,
full of big and stirring events.

The boy who was to be governor of the Imperial
State forty years later was thus inevitably moulded
and bent by western conditions. He was a western
boy, and so became a western man. The American
type is really the western type, and that was John-
son's type. A child of the West, loving the western
land and western characteristics all his life, it is
noteworthy that Governor Johnson's last address of
public importance, that at Seattle in August, 1909,
was a sort of battle cry to western men to rally to
the standard of true Americanism.

The old West was essentially democratic in the
broad sense. It took men for what they were
rather than what their forebears and social stand-
ing had been. The man of action and accomplish-

22



MINNESOTA ENVIRONMENT

ment was the only aristocrat the West respected or
tolerated. It was the land of the men who did
things. There was no place in it for the unem-
ployed, rich or poor. This fact was especially fa-
vorable to the development of Johnson the boy. In
an old community with its fixed social distinctions,
its prejudices against newcomers and aliens, John-
son would never have had the chance he had in the
formative St. Peter. He would have been made
to feel that he was not to the manor born — that
he was without the fold of the elect. But in St.
Peter, John Johnson, the child of Swedish immi-
grants, poverty-stricken and miserable, always felt
at home — that he was among his own people. The
community had no ancient scores against him.
It was glad to take him just as it took everybody
else — for just what he was worth. He, at least,
found what his parents came to America to find —
opportunity and a square deal. Thus, there was
no social condition to embitter the boy or fill him
with prejudice. His poverty and troubled boyhood
were the incidents of the kaleidoscope of human
life. Fate might be unkind to him, but men were
ready to help him as he earned and required help.
Johnson never lacked for help or friends. These
facts account for his unfailing optimism, just as
much as the grimness of his early life and the dis-

23



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

asters that overtook father and mother account for
those Hnes of sadness in his countenance that were
always noticeable when his face was in repose.

The great w'orld dawned upon the dreams of the
boy as a free-for-all contest, and with the good fel-
lowship and unconventionality of the West he
played the game with joy, abandon and unconcern.
The free and easy ways of the western community
in which he was born and reared left an indelible
brand upon Johnson. To the last he was open,
unaffected, unpretentious. Externals meant little to
him, and he was ever undismayed by titles and
pomp of office. The American West had taken him
at his worth, and he in turn took everybody else at
their worth. Human life was precious in the early
days of Minnesota. Every man had a distinct value
to the community. There was hardly anyone who
could be dispensed with. This importance of the
human being was always large with Johnson. The
increasing numbers of people in his widening circle
of acquaintance and influence never dwarfed the
importance of the individual to him. Human life,
no matter how disguised, deformed, disgraced or
degraded was sacred and of supreme importance to
this man. The West conferred on him that price-
less gift of appreciation of men, and he repaid it by
making all men with whom he came in contact feel

24



JOHN ALBERT JOHNSON

that they were, however humble and obscure, of
some real intrinsic value.



25



CHAPTER II

THE RACIAL INHERITANCE

GOVERNOR JOHNSON was the product of
the western American environment acting
upon and being acted upon by the Scandinavian im-
migrants from whom he sprang. It is not neces-
sary to seek out some legendary ancestor to account


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Online LibraryFrank A DayLife of John Albert Johnson : three times governor of Minnesota → online text (page 1 of 21)