James Johnson was appointed Georgia’s first provisional governor following the conclusion of the Civil War (1861-65). In addition, he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. customs collector, and a superior court judge.
Education and Early Career
Johnson was born on February 12, 1811, to Nancy McNeil and Peter Johnson in Robeson County, North Carolina. He attended the University of Georgia with a scholarship from the Presbyterian Society of Athens. After graduating with high honors, he began studying law. In 1834 he married Ann Harris of Jones County.
Following a brief stint working as a teacher to pay for his legal training, Johnson was admitted to the bar in 1835. He then moved to Columbus to start a law practice. An ardent Whig, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851 but lost his reelection bid to future Georgia governor Alfred H. Colquitt in 1853. From there, Johnson’s political career continued to veer away from mainstream Georgia politics, as he supported the American (or Know-Nothing) Party instead of the growing Democratic Party within the state. This independent streak served him well in the difficult days of secession and Civil War.
When Georgia seceded from the Union at the secession convention in January 1861, Johnson was not among the politicians of the state celebrating this momentous act. He opposed secession and remained loyal to the United States throughout the Confederate period, and during the war he continued to practice law in Columbus. The Confederacy fell in early 1865, and with the reestablishment of Union authority in Georgia and the subsequent arrest and resignation of Governor Joseph E. Brown, Georgia’s future was subject to the whims of those in Washington, D.C. The decision to appoint a provisional governor fell to U.S. president Andrew Johnson, who looked to James Johnson (the two men were unrelated), his old friend from Congress.
Through executive order, Johnson assumed the governorship in June 1865 and began the process of initiating the directives assigned to him by the president. These duties included the calling of a state convention and the implementation of President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Meeting in October 1865 at the state capitol in Milledgeville, delegates quickly set about repealing the Ordinance of Secession, abolishing slavery, and repudiating Georgia’s war debts. In addition, the convention adopted a new state constitution, which incorporated the policies of Reconstruction, limited governors to two successive terms, and empowered the legislature to appoint judges to the state supreme court. The convention adjourned on November 7, 1865, and was soon followed by the election of Charles Jones Jenkins as governor on November 15. Johnson vacated the office on December 19.
For the remainder of his life, Johnson served in a variety of appointed government positions. From 1866 to 1869 he was the customs collector for Savannah, and later he served as a judge of the superior court in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. He then returned to Columbus, where he reestablished his law firm and served as a respected member of his community as both lawyer and judge. Johnson died on November 20, 1891, and is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus.