A Higher Calling
In a place and time when seeking and holding high public office was seen more as a duty than a way to line one's pockets or further one's own personal goals, Herschel Vespian Johnson, of Jefferson County, Georgia, did it all. In his nearly four-decade-long political career, Johnson served as a United States Senator, Governor of Georgia, Confederate States Senator, and Superior Court Judge. One of the few people in the history of Georgia to have a county named for them while they were alive, Herschel V. Johnson is the only person in the history of our state to sit on bench of the Superior Court of the very county which was named for the judge.
Herschel Johnson was born on September 18, 1812 in Burke County, Georgia. Johnson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1834 with classmates, Howell Cobb and Henry Benning. While a practicing attorney, Johnson appeared in the Laurens County Superior Court in 1843 on behalf of the Central Bank of Georgia. That same year, Johnson successfully defended Jacob T. Linder in a suit by Dr. Nathan Tucker to recover damages for taking a slave woman, Celia. The case continued in the courts for several years. Johnson also represented John L. Martin in minor contract cases.
After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress later that year, Johnson moved from Louisville, Georgia, which had formerly been the state's capital, some twenty-five miles to the west to the capital city of Milledgeville to better position himself for high political office. He jumped right in and served as a Presidential Elector in 1844, committed to James K. Polk, a close relative of his wife, Mary Ann Polk.
Johnson positioned himself as a strong opponent to Mexican War. When he called Alexander Hamilton Stephens a liar, the little political giant challenged Johnson to a dual. Although the men would later become friends and political allies, the feud between them lasted nearly an entire decade.
Johnson lost his first campaign for governor in 1847, but in the process, earned the favor of Gov. George W. Towns, who appointed him to fill the remaining term of United States Senator, Walter T. Colquitt, who had resigned from office in early 1848. It was in those days when Georgia was politically divided, when Towns, the victorious Democratic candidate, won the election by a mere 1278 votes over Duncan Clinch, the Whig candidate, who was more highly favored by the voters of East-Central Georgia, especially in Laurens where the Democratic candidate received less than five percent of the vote. Senator Johnson served the remaining term of thirteen months. While in Washington, the Senator served with political icons, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Sam Houston of Texas and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.
On November 13, 1849, Herschel Johnson became Judge Johnson, presiding on the bench of the Ocmulgee Superior Court Circuit, centered in Baldwin County. He served in that position in 1853 when he launched another political campaign.
As the rift over the issue of slavery, state rights and secession paralyzed the country in the early 1850s, so did it divide the state of Georgia. In the gubernatorial election of 1853, Johnson was chosen by the State Rights Party to run against Charles J. Jenkins, of the Constitutional Union Party, which was in favor of remaining in the Union, although it was not opposed to slavery itself.
Johnson won the election by 510 votes and a scant one half percent of the total votes cast. In Laurens, the strongest bastion of the Constitutional Union Party, in the state, Johnson received only 51 of 569 votes cast. Most of the other counties in East Central Georgia also supported the Union party. Two years later, the vote tabulation was substantially the same with Johnson winning the election despite the overwhelming support from Laurens and East Central Georgia counties for American party candidate Garnett Andrews.
As a salute to their party leader, the Democrats honored Johnson by naming Georgia's newest County in his honor on December 11, 1858.
As war became more eminent in the latter years of the decade, Johnson modified his position and became an opponent of secession. At the 1860 Democratic Convention in Baltimore, Johnson accepted the invitation of his former senate colleague, Stephen Douglas as his vice-president. In that divisive election, the fractured Democratic party could not defeat the solid Republican party led by Abraham Lincoln. In Laurens County, Johnson's place on the ticket drew little support from local voters.
In the 1861 Secession Convention in Milledgeville, Johnson vehemently opposed secession along with his former enemy Alexander Hamilton Stephens and former court opponent, Dr. Nathan Tucker of Laurens County. Like many of those Georgia leaders opposed to secession, Johnson relented and vowed to support his state when Georgia officially voted to leave the Union.
Johnson served as a Senator from Georgia in the Second Confederate Congress, from 1862 to 1865. Senator Johnson, still not in favor of prosecuting the war, opposed Governor Brown's plan of conscription and the suspension of the sacred right of habeas corpus.
When the war was over, Johnson along his friend and fellow Unionist, Alexander Hamilton Stephens were elected by the Reconstruction government to represent Georgia in the United State Senate. The Republican dominated senate declined to seat Johnson and Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, because of their roles in the Confederate government during the war.
No longer a factor in Georgia politics, Johnson, then sixty years old, returned to the bench of the Superior Court as Judge of the Middle District of Georgia. His most celebrated case came in the summer of 1875, when he presided over the trials of several Negro defendants charged with insurrection. The former slaves allegedly plan to reek havoc between Sandersville, Wrightsville, Irwinton and Dublin by pillaging the farms of white landowners. Interestingly, the defendants were acquitted or the charges were dismissed in a still racially volatile atmosphere.
Two of Johnson's children would call Dublin home. In 1878 in Jefferson County, his daughter Gertrude married Col. John M. Stubbs, attorney and businessman with ardent interest in transportation, journalism and agriculture. His son, Dr. Herschel V. Johnson, Jr., who bore a striking resemblance to his father, practiced medicine in Dublin in the late 1880s until his death there in 1891.
Johnson remained on the bench until his death on August 18, 1880 in his home in Jefferson County. He is buried in the Old Cemetery in Louisville beside his wife.
On this 200th anniversary of his birth, Senator, Governor and Judge Herschel Johnson was a man who sought out a higher calling, a man who strived to serve his state with honor and a man who helped shaped our state and our nation. Had his change of beliefs been successful and his desire to keep Georgia in the Union had held firm, the face of our country would have changed forever.