John A. Johnson Biography

Even if he had not been the first Minnesota-born governor, the first to serve a full term in the present state capitol, and the first to die in office, John Johnson would still be remembered as one of the state’s most courageous and charismatic leaders. He also was the first Minnesota governor to bask, fleetingly, in the national spotlight when he sought the 1908 Democratic presidential nomination but lost to William Jennings Bryan.

The eldest child of an impoverished Swedish family abandoned by an alcoholic father, Johnson left school at thirteen to support his mother and siblings. Local Democrats, impressed with the enterprising young store clerk, asked him to join their party and edit the strongly Democratic St. Peter Herald. His journalistic success attracted statewide attention and fostered his political aspirations.

He failed in early campaigns for state office from his heavily Republican home county but finally was elected to the state Senate in 1898, indicating his growing bipartisan appeal. He was elected governor three times—in 1904, 1906, and 1908. Johnson’s ability to reason and work with legislators of both parties resulted in such reform legislation as reorganization of the state’s insurance department to the benefit of policyholders, reduction of railroad passenger and freight rates, and removal of constitutional restraints on the legislature’s power to tax.

Johnson began his third term with reservations. His health was precarious, and he wanted to pursue a promising sideline as a public orator. When he died suddenly following surgery at age forty-eight, the state’s citizens—whom he had served and charmed—were grief-stricken.