Sometimes the most important people can be those without titles or names well-known to the public or known to many outside their own community. Cone Johnson never held many high-ranking positions, but he played a vital role in the development of Texas government as a legislator and for the nation in the critical years before World War I as an attorney.
Cone Johnson was born in Georgia in 1860. His father, Samuel Caraway Johnson, was a respected attorney in Georgia and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and as a prosecutor after the war until his death in 1870.
When Johnson was older, he enrolled at Emory College in Georgia and finished his degree at Peabody Normal College in Tennessee in 1880 before moving to East Texas. After he arrived, he taught at East Texas University for two years. He studied the law with a Tyler attorney and became a licensed attorney in 1883. He eventually became a Methodist lay preacher. Increasingly, he was asked to speak at churches and political rallies across the state.
Johnson was elected to the state legislature in 1886, representing the Tyler area. In 1888, he was elected to the State Senate. In 1891, he sponsored the bill creating the Railroad Commission, the elected regulatory body initially designed to oversee fairness in railroad hauling rates and business practices – an issue vital to farmers at the time. The popular bill was quickly enacted. He declined to run for re-election in 1892.
Johnson ran in the 1910 Democratic Primary for governor on a platform opposing monopolies and now favoring the increasingly popular Prohibition. He finished a distant third with 21% of the vote in the six-man race, losing out to Railroad Commissioner Oscar B. Colquitt. His own Smith County was one of the few that he carried in the contest.
In 1912, he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. At this point, the major political parties only held a handful of primaries. The real contest for the nomination would not begin until the summer conventions. Delegates at both party conventions routinely switched their allegiances back-and-forth between candidates at the conventions, what was often called a “brokered convention.” Democrats required a two-thirds majority by delegates to gain the nomination. Johnson arrived firmly behind New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson. He steadily convinced other delegates to support Wilson, ultimately gaining the nomination after 46 rounds of voting.
Wilson won the presidency, and in 1914, Johnson was named as solicitor for the state department, acting as the lawyer for the state department and legal advisor for Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. When World War I erupted that August, Americans were caught in the middle. Some were stranded in the war zone, others saw property destroyed, and many died on the high seas in the battles between the Allies and Germany.
The administration’s drive to keep America out of the war faced daily tests as attacks on shipping grew and American civilians were injured or killed on the high seas. Wilson attempted to broker an end to the war, with no success. Johnson’s position meant that he had to navigate through foreign courts on behalf of Americans affected by the war and also to advise Bryan and Wilson on the legal paths available to the nation as it pledged to be neutral in the war. His advice helped keep the nation neutral until 1917 until German provocations forced the nation into the fight.
Johnson still had many admirers in Texas. In 1916, several people wrote to him, urging him to run for governor again. Johnson declined. He helped guide the negotiations between the United States and Haiti on a treaty regarding Haitian security and finances. He also helped navigate the difficult situation with the continuing civil war in Mexico. He assisted with the negotiations regarding the American purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 and the transition process for asserting American control of the islands.
Though his duties were often monumental in a time of global conflict, he still stopped to listen to the smallest of voices. He worked to help Civil War widows secure pensions and corresponded with his law partner in Tyler on cases their firm still represented. And he was often a guest preacher at churches around Washington.
Johnson decided against serving a second term in the Wilson administration. He bore no ill will against Wilson and happily attended his inauguration for his second term. Johnson returned to Tyler in March 1917, resumed his law practice, and helped raise money for the war effort.
He continued to be active in politics, campaigning for various candidates. In 1927, he was appointed to head the Texas Highway Department. He continued to serve until his death in March 1933 at age 72.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.