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The “diary” Of Hiram Johnson
The cantankerous Californian’s utterly candid opinions, aver thirty years, of the Presidents he knew, the senators with whom he served, and the (to him) alarming changes in the America he loved
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
During the presidential election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson, the new Progressive party’s candidates for President and Vice President, stood—as Roosevelt delighted in putting it—at Armageddon and battled for the Lord. Their defeat destined Roosevelt to years of frustrating political exile and impotence. For Johnson, now free to turn his attention back to the progressive politics of California, Armageddon was to last a bit longer.
Born in California in 1866, the son of an influential politician, Johnson broke with the conservatism of his father in the early years of the new century and joined the Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican League in its assault upon the corrupt and self-serving hold which the Southern Pacific Railroad had upon state and local politics.
Elected governor in 1910 and again in 1914, the independent and irascible Johnson led one of the most successful statewide reform movements in the nation. His administration introduced the initiative, referendum, and recall; it curbed the political and economic excesses of the Southern Pacific by sponsoring a regulatory commission with significant powers; it undertook important conservation measures and distributed free school textbooks; it established commissions to regulate corporate abuses, government expenditures, and the wages, hours, and working conditions of women and children; it greatly strengthened the civil service, gave pensions to the aged, reformed criminal court procedures, and extended reform into many other areas of the state’s social, political, and economic fabric.
By 1914 Johnson’s reformism had reached its limits. He had taken the state almost as far as he dared in combating the forces and problems spawned by a new urban, industrial order. Johnson and that wing of progressivism he represented were always deeply ambivalent about change. They appreciated the fruits and the possibilities of an industrial society and were adept at modifying many of its worst abuses. Yet they feared profoundly the alterations that “progress” and industrialism were making in the individualistic values and life style they held dear.
In 1916 Johnson was elected to the United States Senate as a Republican. Apparently sensing that in leaving the scene of his progressive triumphs he was abandoning a part of his life that he would never be able to recapture, Johnson delayed taking his Senate seat until March, 1917, when President Wilson called the special session of Congress that was to declare war on Germany. Johnson voted for war reluctantly and watched with increasing disquiet the centralization of authority in Washington and the curtailment of civil liberties. Almost every act of the government caused him to look back nostalgically to a past from which America was departing too rapidly.
The war cast Johnson into a position on the periphery of power that was to characterize his long tenure in the Senate. Although he remained in the center of events, it was largely to oppose or alter the plans of others and rarely to implement ideas of his own or to lead America forward into the complexities of the twentieth century. As the country continued to change, Johnson looked on in relative helplessness, not understanding how to control the new forces that seemed to engulf his nation. He remained a progressive, but his Armageddon lay permanently behind him.
During his nearly three decades of service in the Senate, from March, 1917, to his death in August, 1945, Johnson recorded his experiences, his reactions, and his anguish in a series of long letters to his children; because of their absolute candor and characteristic earthmess, these letters were often referred to by the family as “the diary.” Some time after the Senator’s death, his son, Hiram W. Johnson, Jr., presented the “diary” to the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, with the stipulation that it not be opened to public scrutiny for a decade. When AMERICAN HERITAGE learned that this moratorium was about to expire, we asked Professor Levine, a member of the university‘s history department, to select and annotate the most significant of these historic documents. They appear here for the first time in a national publication, with the permission of the library and the kind cooperation of its assistant director, Robert H. Becker. Our excerpts—occasionally reparagraphed for easier reading—begin at the old America’s point of no return: April 6, 1917, the day on which President Wilson signed the joint congressional resolution declaring war.
April 6, 1917. I intended to write to you yesterday my impression of what has perhaps been the most important and momentous session of the United States Senate since the Civil War but I was so depressed and disillusioned, so filled with disgust and pessimism that I was unable then to do it. I postponed the task until today in the hope that I might write you in a judicial strain rather than in the hopeless spirit which has been mine since I listened to the great of our nation decide our country’s fate on Wednesday.…