Alabama Governors

Joseph Forney Johnston

photo of Ala. Governor Joseph Forney Johnston





Joseph Forney Johnston was born on March 23, 1843, in Lincoln County, North Carolina, where he was educated in public schools. He moved to Talladega, Alabama, when he was seventeen. He was attending high school there when the Civil War began. Johnston enlisted in the 11th Alabama Infantry Regiment but was serving as captain of 12th NC Infantry at the close of the war. He was wounded in battles at Chickamauga, Spottsylvania, New Market, and Petersburg.


After the war Johnston settled in Jacksonville, Alabama, where he studied law under General W.H. Forney. In 1866 he was admitted to the bar and relocated to Selma where he practiced law for seventeen years. The growing iron and steel industry in north Alabama lured Johnston to Birmingham. In 1884 he became the president of the Alabama State Bank, a position he held until 1894. The NC native became president of the Sloss Iron and Steel Company in 1887.


Johnston's first attempt at public office came in 1890 when he lost the nomination to William C. Oates but succeeded in gaining control of the Democratic Executive Committee. Johnston encouraged many disillusioned Populists to return to the party. He secured the party nomination in 1896, was elected governor, and was re-elected in 1898.


In some ways Governor Johnston served as a bridge between his conservative predecessors and the progressive Braxton Bragg Comer. Several Populist issues were addressed by his administration. A tax commission was created to equalize county tax assessments. The Department of Insurance was established to administer all laws relating to insurance companies doing business in the state. The office of State Mine Inspector was created to enforce safety regulations and a law was passed prohibiting children under 14 years of age and women from working on dangerous jobs. Minor reforms were made to the state's election laws. Johnston sponsored a bill to abolish the convict leasing system that was defeated. He tried, also unsuccessfully, to get legislation passed creating a Railway Commission, comparable to Georgia's, to regulate rates.


Education was one area in which Johnston achieved significant reforms. The general appropriation was raised considerably and a one mill tax was designated specifically for education. The administrative system was improved also. In 1898 the Alabama Industrial School was established to reform and care for white orphaned and wayward children.


Industry in Alabama continued to grow during the Johnston administration. The first rail mill was established in Birmingham and the first open-hearth steel was manufactured. Economic conditions improved in Alabama with this industrial growth and as a result of the Spanish-American War. Alabama contributed men and supplies to this 1898 war.


Johnston played a major role in the call for a constitutional convention. He supported, then called for the repeal of, the 1898 act setting up a convention. A new governor was elected in 1900 and Johnston attempted to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. John T. Morgan defeated him in the senate election. In 1901, Johnston lead the opposition to ratification of the new state constitution. The next year incumbent Governor William D. Jelks defeated Johnston's attempt to win the governorship for a third time.. Scandals concerning sales of University of Alabama land to the Sloss Steel and Iron Company and the revelation of corrupt practices in the prison system hurt Johnston's campaign and contributed to his defeat.


Johnston attained political, office again in 1907 when he was elected to complete the U.S. Senate term of Edmund Pettus upon the latter's death in August, 1907. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1909 and held the office until his death in 1913.


Johnston married Theresa Virginia Hooper of South Carolina on August 12, 1869. They had three sons: William Hooper, Edward Douglas, and Forney. Joseph Forney Johnston died from pneumonia in Washington, DC, on August 8, 1913.


Acts of Alabama, 1898. Act 817.
Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama, 1969.
National Cyclopedia of American Biography.
Owen, Thomas M. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, 1921.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.
Summersell, Charles G. Alabama: A State History, 1955.