Virginia Governor Joseph Johnson (December 19, 1785-February 27, 1877) was born in Orange County, New York. He later lived in New Jersey and traveled with his mother and younger brother to Winchester, Virginia, in 1800. Leaving Winchester in the spring of 1801, they journeyed west and settled in Harrison County.
There Johnson began working for Ephraim Smith as his farm manager. Shortly after Smith’s death, Johnson married Sarah (Sally), one of Smith’s daughters, on May 16, 1804, and settled on the Smith farm. There they lived and raised 13 children. In 1807, Joseph acquired additional acreage on Simpson Creek, where four years later he built a water-powered mill that he owned and operated until January 18, 1854. He continued to manage the farm and mill and became a land speculator.
Early in his political career Johnson allied himself with the party of Thomas Jefferson, then known as Republicans and later as Democrats. In 1811, he was appointed a constable, and during the War of 1812 he became captain of the Harrison Riflemen and marched his company to Norfolk in 1814. In 1815, Johnson successfully ran for the House of Delegates and secured the passage of an act establishing the town of Bridgeport on 15 acres of his land at Simpsons Creek Bridge. Between 1815 and 1821, he served five terms in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1822. Between 1823 and 1847 he served 13 years in Congress. Interested as many westerners were in internal improvements, he served on the Committee on the Cumberland Road and supported road, canal, railroad, and navigation bills. On the tariff issue Johnson frequently voted to protect domestic industries. Closer to home, he fought to extend postal routes into the western counties and opposed proposals to close post offices in his district.
In 1847, he again ran for the House of Delegates and represented Harrison and Doddridge counties for one term. In August 1850, Johnson was one of four delegates elected to represent the six counties in his district in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850–51. As the oldest member, he called the convention to order on October 15, 1850. Johnson chaired the suffrage committee, which recommended universal white adult male suffrage with residency requirements. He vigorously defended the report against all efforts to add payment of a tax as a requirement to vote. Western Virginia won important reforms at the convention.
In March 1851, Johnson was elected governor of Virginia by the General Assembly, to take office January 1, 1852. Meanwhile, the new constitution, which called for the popular election of the governor, was under consideration by Virginia voters. The popular election rule would prevail if the constitution was ratified. After the convention adjourned on August 1, 1851, the Democratic convention met in Staunton, and Johnson was nominated to run for governor by his party.
The new constitution was adopted, and Johnson won the election and became the first popularly elected governor in Virginia history. He assumed the governor’s office on January 1, 1852, by right of his election by the General Assembly. On January 15, 1852, he was declared the winner of the popular election and accepted the office on that basis on January 16. Johnson spent his four-year term implementing the new constitution, promoting internal improvements, and encouraging development of Virginia’s natural resources, and manufacturing and agricultural interests through a statewide railroad system. Although a states rights, slave-owning Democrat, Johnson vigorously condemned the fugitive slave laws and championed the right of blacks to receive equal protection under Virginia’s laws.
After leaving office on January 1, 1856, Johnson returned to Bridgeport. In 1860, he served as a member of the electoral college. While opposing secession generally he nonetheless supported Virginia’s decision to secede, espoused the Confederate cause, and then served as a presidential elector for Jefferson Davis. When Union forces occupied the Bridgeport area, he left and spent the war years near Staunton. Returning to Bridgeport and the new state of West Virginia after the war, Johnson spent his remaining years there. A Baptist by faith, he was baptized into Simpson Creek Baptist Church on June 2, 1866. He died in Bridgeport and was buried in the old Brick Church Cemetery next to his wife, who had died in 1853.
This Article was written by Louis H. Manarin
Last Revised on December 07, 2015
Atkinson, George W. & Alvaro F. Gibbins. Prominent Men of West Virginia. Wheeling: W. L. Callin, 1890.
Clark, Catherine J. P. Governor Joseph Johnson. Southern Magazine 2, (1936).
Kester, Bart Earl. "Joseph Johnson, Governor of Virginia." M.A. thesis, West Virginia University, 1939.
Cite This Article
Manarin, Louis H. "Joseph Johnson." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 07 December 2015. Web. 26 February 2017.