Governor William Freame Johnston



July 26, 1848 - January 20, 1852




November 29, 1808


October 25, 1872


Photograph of Governor William Freame Johnston
Photo courtesy of Capitol Preservation
Committee and John Rudy Photography


Becoming governor, not by an election, but by constitutional succession, William Freame Johnston had already proposed a successful idea that guided Pennsylvania through the quagmire of unpaid state debts. Johnston was born November 29, 1808, in Greensburg, Westmoreland County. His father, Alexander Johnston, a sheriff and an iron manufacturing proprietor in Western Pennsylvania, was of Scots-Irish heritage. When Alexander died at age one hundred in 1872, the same year as his son, he was reported to be the oldest Freemason in America. The governor's mother, Elizabeth Freame, was the daughter of an English army private who stayed in Pennsylvania after the war between Great Britain and France. A family of eight sons and two daughters, Johnston's two oldest brothers were graduates of West Point, and two other brothers served as officers in the Mexican War where the youngest brother, Richard, was killed.

Although Governor Johnston had little common school education, he advanced by reading and observation. He studied law under J. B. Alexander and was admitted to the Westmoreland County bar in 1829 at the age of twenty-one. That same year, he became the district attorney of Armstrong County and three years later married Mary Montieth, with whom there were five sons and two daughters. He was elected as to the General Assembly in 1835 and again in 1838 and 1841. It was during this time when Johnston, despite being in the minority party, proposed a bold plan credited with helping Pennsylvania survive a burdensome deficit of $40 million and a national financial crisis that hit the state hard. Investment in Philadelphia's stock market went from 65 million shares invested in 1838 to just three and a half million in 1841, with 1842 and 1843 regarded as depression years. Paying state debts with guaranteed relief notes worked so well that Johnston was vaulted into higher esteem among politicians and the public.

Although a Democrat, he joined the Whig Party prior to being elected to the Pennsylvania senate in 1847 for the counties of Armstrong, Clearfield, Indiana, and Cambria. This positioned Johnston to become Senate Speaker in 1848, but not for long. Governor Francis Shunk had been elected to a second term that same year, but tuberculosis forced him to resign on July 9, just eleven days before his death. Under the state constitution of 1838, there was no lieutenant governor, so succession went to the Speaker of the senate. By law, Johnston took over on the last day that the state constitution would require a new election that fall. However, Johnston was in Erie at the time and was not officially notified until six days after Shunk died. The constitutional question was not clear whether to consider Shunk's death before the deadline, or notification of the new governor after the deadline. Concerned about appearances of selfish political motives, the governor, who easily could have opted to delay the election a year, ordered an October election. Less than three months later, renominated by the Whigs, he defeated Democratic candidate Morris Longstreth by just 297 votes, the closest gubernatorial margin in state history.

Once in the governor's office, Johnston continued his Democratic predecessors' policy of reducing debts and spending. He created the first sinking fund to systematically pay off the debt, although he continued to support the expensive State Works, important to railroad and canal construction projects. In addition, the Johnston administration is credited with saving the priceless single copy records of colonial Pennsylvania. Until that time, these documents, including the Pennsylvania Charter given to William Penn, were chaotically stored and quite vulnerable to perishable conditions. Governor Johnston appointed Samuel Hazard who organized preservation of these irreplaceable documents into twenty-eight volumes of the Colonial Records, a project continued as the published holdings of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

By 1851, Johnston had joined the Whig "Free-soil" faction that was philosophically opposed to slavery. The Whig Party's enthusiasm for the higher federal tariffs to protect domestic industries gave the party an edge among Pennsylvania voters. However, the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Christiana, Lancaster County, riots, in September 1851, against its enforcement proved to be events that hurt Johnston's chances of being reelected. The Fugitive Slave Act required that states assist in the apprehension and return of slaves. Just before the riots, Johnston had refused to sign a bill repealing the Pennsylvania 1847 statute that forbid the use of state jails for holding federally-pursued fugitive slaves. Johnston spoke out against the Slave Act as an infraction of human rights, saying that state officers would not help with what he considered to be a federal responsibility. The riots in Lancaster County damaged public opinion of Johnston and he lost his 1851 reelection bid to William Bigler by a margin of less than two percent of the vote.

Johnston's re-entered private life in Kittanning in successful businesses of iron manufacturing, salt boring, extracting oil from bituminous shales, refining petroleum, and as president of Allegheny Valley Railroad built between Kittanning and Pittsburgh. In 1856, he was nominated by the North American Party to run for vice president on a ticket with John Fremont, but decided to withdraw. He was appointed collector of the Port of Philadelphia, but due to hostility toward President Andrew Johnson, the U.S. Senate refused to confirm the former governor. Johnston then practiced law in Philadelphia before retiring to Kittanning.

William Freame Johnston died in Pittsburgh on October 25, 1872, and is buried there in Allegheny Cemetery.