John W. Johnston bigraphy, stories - 19th century American lawyer and politician

John W. Johnston : biography

September 9, 1818 - February 27, 1889

John Warfield Johnston (September 9, 1818February 27, 1889) was an American lawyer and politician from Abingdon, Virginia. He served in the Virginia State Senate, and represented Virginia in the United States Senate when the state was readmitted after the American Civil War. He was United States Senator for thirteen years; in national politics, he was a Democrat.

Johnston had been ineligible to serve in Congress because of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbade anyone from holding public office who had sworn allegiance to the United States and subsequently sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War. However, his restrictions were removed at the suggestion of the Freedman's Bureau when he aided a sick and dying former slave after the War. He was the first person who had sided with the Confederacy to serve in the United States Senate.Johnston, Reminiscences of Thirteen Years in the Senate, 11–14

Several issues marked Johnston's senatorial career. He was caught in the middle during the debate over the Arlington Memorial. The initial proposal to relocate the dead was distasteful to Johnston, yet the ensuing debate caused him to want to defend the memory of Robert E. Lee; the need to stay quiet for the sake of the Democratic Party, however, proved decisive. Johnston was an outspoken opponent of the Texas-Pacific Bill, a sectional struggle for control of railroads in the South, which figured in the Compromise of 1877. He was also an outspoken Funder during Virginia's heated debate as to how much of its pre-War debt the state ought to have been obliged to pay back. The controversy culminated in the formation of Readjuster Party and the appointment of William Mahone as its leader; this marked the end of Johnston's career in the Senate.

Senatorial career


Initial restrictions

In 1869, modern-day Virginia was essentially a military zone. Gilbert C. Walker was elected as governor in this year and ushered in a moderate conservatism, with Whiggish roots. The new General Assembly ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to end Reconstruction and also elected two people as representatives for the U. S. Senate, including Johnston. He was to serve the unexpired portion of a six-year term that started in March 1865.Senate Journal, January 28, 1870. Johnston received a letter from William Mahone, sent on October 18, 1869, that he must go to Richmond "without fail, by the first train. You are Senator."William Mahone to John W. Johnston, October 18, 1869, LS, John W. Johnston Papers, Special Collections, Duke University.

Johnston was one of the few Virginia men eligible to hold office: at the time, anyone who had fought for, or served, the former Confederacy was ineligible to hold office under the Fourteenth Amendment until their "political disabilities" were removed by Congress by a two-thirds vote. Johnston's were removed because word had reached the local Abingdon Freedman's Bureau officer that he had helped care for an elderly former slave, Peter, who had passed through Abingdon on his way to Charlotte County, Virginia from Mississippi.Johnston, "Hunting for His People", 6Maddex, The Virginia Conservatives, 87.

The Norfolk and Western Railroad passed from Johnston's house, and former slaves used the tracks as a guide to return home from where they had been sold. In the summer of 1865 Johnston aided many with food and shelter, and in August of that year he found Peter near death in a stable near the railroad; Johnston carried him to the house, where he stayed at least a month.Johnston, "Hunting for His People", 6–13.

When Peter regained enough strength he told his story, which Johnston later wrote down and is now kept with his papers at Duke University. Peter had been a slave of a Mr. Read in Charlotte County, a neighbor of John Randolph. He had been sold (apparently because of Read's debts) to a trader, leaving behind a wife and young daughter to work a cotton field for thirty-five years in Mississippi. When he was freed, Peter walked from Mississippi until he reached Abingdon in his quest to return home.Stevenson, "Editor's Foreword", 4 Johnston wrote: "It was evident to me and my wife that all our care could not rebuild that worn-out body, and that death was near at hand. He weakened rapidly ... His life was weary, toilsome, and full of trouble. But surely the Lord has rewards for such as he, and will give him rest in all eternity, and permit him to see Susy and his Mammy and Daddy."Johnston, "Hunting for His People", 12 Peter died of tuberculosis.Johnston, Reminiscences of Thirteen Years in the Senate, 4.

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