The Inaugural Address of California Governor J. Neely Johnson, 9 January 1856

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Democrat Gavin Newsom was sworn in Monday as the 40th governor of California and his inaugural address honed in on progressive, liberal ideas in a state that is about as blue as it can be.  In fact, his election in November marks the first time there have been consecutive Democratic administration in the state since 1887, though the party’s platform has changed considerably in 130 years.

There is a remarkable contrast in ideology between Newsom and the fourth governor who delivered his inaugural address, the published version of which is tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, on 9 January 1856.

J. Neely Johnson, who was only 30 years old, making him, by far, the youngest chief executive in state history (and likely to keep that distinction), rose to the position on the crest of a wave of anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism and a powerful strain of nativism in his American Party (called “Know Nothings” because its adherents would publicly claim ignorance of their connection to the party), which briefly enjoyed much support in a transforming America.

Born in August 1825 in rural Indiana, in the southwestern part of the state adjoining Illinois and near Kentucky, Johnson came from a well-to-do family and was a printer before reading law with an attorney in Iowa, where he was admitted to the bar.  Like so many, he caught gold fever and migrated to California during the great Gold Rush.

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After stints prospecting and being a mule driver, he opened a law practice in boomtown Sacramento and served as city attorney for two years.  As a Whig in that national party’s last election in 1852 before the party disintegrated, he won election to the state assembly.

Two years later, he joined the American Party and took the opportunity to exploit both the rhetoric of its platform and divisions among Democrats to win the gubernatorial race in 1855, defeating two-term incumbent John Bigler with over 51,000 votes to Bigler’s 46,000.  The party also took control of the state legislature and tripled their numbers in the Assembly.  Still, the party actually courted Catholics and some foreigners and primarily coalesced around a coalition of those opposed to Bigler and his allies as well as expressing hatred of the Chinese and Latinos in the gold regions.

It was said that Johnson was “the most startled man in the state” when he was apprised of his upset victory.  Still, his inaugural address evinces great confidence generally, with the expected humility in its opening statements: “I find much to impress me with a sense of the onerous responsibilities attached to the gubernatorial office—the most exalted position a State can bestow.”

His first topic was actually the matter of the state’s debt, suggesting that the issue “elicits more general interest and inquiry, than all other matters connected with the administration of the public business.”  Johnson especially noted the matter of “those checks and restrictions which secure the people against prodigal and wasteful expenditure of the public money by legislative sanction.” He pointed out the article of the state constitution, enacted in 1849, prohibiting the amassing of a debt larger than $300,000 (by comparison, the state has about $75 billion of outstanding bonds).

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Johnson also spent some time addressing the question of the governor’s veto power and stated that the leeway given to the chief executive could “contribute much to relieve the embarrassments under which our beloved State has so long labored.”  Much work was needed in terms of “the most rigid economy in all its departments, scrupulous fidelity to the discharge of public trusts, and an earnest zeal in promoting the present and future well-being of the State.”  He recommended eliminating unnecessary government positions, reducing fees and salaries, streamlining the legal system to maximize justice by simplifying legal proceedings (which could read as an incentive to reducing the burden of the state’s burden of proof for criminal matters), and others.

The new governor also referenced a major area of concern in terms of “controversies in relation to lands in adverse possession to those claiming under Mexican grants” with the goal “that stability and certainty of title may tend to augment population and improvement, and enhance the public revenue.”  This seemed to imply favoring the rejection of most of the pre-American land grants to free up land for new settlers, whose use of these properties would be more productive and generate more tax receipts.

After calling for biennial sessions of the legislature and employing “assiduity and laborious industry” that would “bring the sessions within the shortest possible limit,” Johnson then employed the other part of a passive-aggressive model of persuasion by praising legislators for “the purity of your motives, wisdom of your counsels, and regard to the public weal.”  This in mind, he proclaimed that he and lawmakers

will be found alike co-workers 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.

As Johnson moved to the conclusion of his oration, he thought it important to point out that, while California “would evince a due spirit of resistance toward any encroachment on her well-recognized rights as a sovereign State, she yields to none in the alacrity displayed in the performance of her duties toward the General Government,” meaning the federal government.

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He went on to state that, even though California was long denied admission to the Union, even while paying taxes, “struggling with a self-constitute government,” which wrote that constitution in 1849, and with a population “sorely perplexed with the apparent indifference” toward her status, statehood when finally granted was greeted “with the universal joy of the people” in a “loyal attachment and devotion to the Union.”

Even “if ever disorganizers shall plot the destruction of this nobles fabric of human government,” Californians would be there to ensure “its defense and preservation.”  It wasn’t entirely clear what Johnson meant with all this, except that talk of secession and civil war was growing in this difficult decade before the American Civil War erupted five years later.

Johnson closed by returning to humility.  He observed that California required strong administrative ability and a good deal of experience, but was “conscious that these attributes of character are denied me.”  Still, with “the watchful and protecting care of that Ruler who is supreme over all,” the governor expressed the hope that, having “avowed my course of policy, its observance shall be strictly regarded.”  The result would be “an impartial, honest and conscientious course [that] shall illustrate my own action” and be derived from “determined and constant effort on the part of your Executive.”

There were no references to race, religion, and nativist rhetoric, and none was to be expected, in the address.  Johnson found, as many politicians do when elected to high office, that what worked well as campaign rhetoric did not translate well in actual governance.  For example, he approved an appropriation to build a new state capitol, despite his stance on wasteful expenditures.

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He also vetoed bills passed by his party and this put him into disfavor with many Know-Nothings.  A good deal of his fellow party members were also dismayed by the governor’s inability to stem the tide of the Vigilance Committee that dominated San Francisco’s governance for much of 1856.  Even when he issued a proclamation declaring the vigilantes in a state of insurrection, he was unable to put much teeth into enforcement.

Johnson asked a United States Army general to supply arms to the state militia tasked with uprooting the vigilantes, but he refused the comply.  This led the militia’s commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, later the Union Army general who led the infamous march to the sea during the Civil War, to resign.  His successor, Volney E. Howard, a San Francisco lawyer, tried to act aggressively but was thwarted and fled to Los Angeles, where he became a prominent attorney and judge.

When Johnson sought renomination for the election of 1857 (terms were then two years) he lost, a sign of the complete fall of his status among the American Party, which lost that race and collapsed, as was the case through the rest of the nation for the Know-Nothings.  Many of its adherents joined the new Republican Party, formed in 1856, though some became members of factions of the Democratic Party.

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