Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Tom L. Johnson

At the time of the Civil war Tom L. Johnson was just old enough to begin to realize the significance of events; he could remember his family's former affluence, and this memory served as a spur to urge him to the rehabilitation of broken fortunes. At the outbreak of the conflict his father, A. W. Johnson, had joined the Confederate army as a colonel, removing his wife and children, from the Kentucky homestead near Georgetown, to the south, and finally to Staunton, Virginia, for greater safety. There the boy Tom, who was born in 1854, spent four of the most impressionable years of his life, and there he earned his first dollar.


"I am glad I was old enough to remember my home before the war," he said, in speaking of his early life. "Rightly or wrongly, I attach great importance to this fact as a constant incentive in my career. The thought of regaining the position which we had previously held was always with me."

The five weeks immediately following Lee's surrender were a golden time to Tom financially; in that period, he earned eighty-eight dollars, enough to carry the family (which consisted of his parents and two younger brothers), back to Kentucky. This was the way he did it: There was, of course, great thirst for news in Staunton, as all over the country, but only once a day was Staunton in railway communication with the outside world.

The boy saw his chance for a monopoly in newspapers and periodicals, and he straightway cornered the market. This he was enabled to do through the friendship of the conductor of Staunton's unique train, who refused to furnish papers to anyone else. For five weeks he held his monopoly, selling dailies at fifteen cents and illustrated periodicals at twenty-five cents each.

When Johnson ceased to enjoy these exclusive privileges, he was already a small capitalist, besides having learned a lesson that was not without profit in after life. He had eighty-eight dollars in silver.

"I tell you, that seemed like a lot of sure 'nough money," he said, with a smile, "to us who had been paying one hundred dollars in Confederate notes for a hat."


Three years after he went to work in Louisville as clerk in an iron rolling mill, on a very small salary. In the same office with him was another lad, Arthur Moxham, who later became his business partner. For economical reasons, the managers of the mill decided that the services of one of the boys could be dispensed with, and it then came to a choice between them. Moxham was the one retained, and Johnson was turned out to commence over again. At the time, this looked like a misfortune, but it was really the best thing that could have happened. Before long, an opening with Louisville's ramshackle, broken-down-old-mule street railway presented itself, and the discharged mill clerk started on the career which was to lead to fortune.


"The decision which retained Moxham in the mill and turned me adrift," he said, "was both a wise and a fortunate one. Moxham was better suited to the position than I was, and, moreover, I was thus thrown into the work for which I was adapted."

Quickly, the boy, who was then nearing manhood, passed from one place to another in the company's service until, after a few years, he became superintendent. Then he set about building up the railway and putting it on a paying basis. By a wise system of improving the accommodations and reducing the expenses, he was successful in this effort, and he forthwith began to look around for fresh fields for his ambition. But, in the meantime, like most men who are conscious of their strength and ability to cope with the world, and like many who are not, he had entered upon matrimony. His bride was his cousin, Miss Margaret J. Johnson, of Louisville, Kentucky.

At the time of his marriage, Tom L. Johnson was but twenty, and was just beginning to get a secure footing in business. But he was not content with his limited scope of action. Moreover, his employers wanted to help him forward, recognizing his ability. Of his own initiative, Biderman Du Pont, one of the owners of the railway, offered to his protege a loan of $30,000, with which to try his fortune. The possibility of security was, of course, out of the question.

"Take it, Tom," he said, "and if you live, I know you'll pay it back; if you die, why, I'll be out just so much. But I'm gambling on your living."

"And later," remarked Mr. Johnson, "I had the pleasure of associating two of Mr. Du Pont's sons with me in business matters, and thus enjoyed the satisfaction of partially repaying his kindness. With the generous loan, the young financier organized a triumvirate for the purchase of the street railways of Indianapolis, thus taking the first step in the course which led him in turn to absorb the lines of Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Brooklyn and other cities. In Indianapolis, he pursued, with benefit to himself, the system which had been successful in Louisville, —cheap fares and good accommodations, with increased transfer privileges.

From that time on his career is an illustration of the benefits of expansion. The days of the cable and electrie cars came, and the new inventions were immediately extended to the Hnes under his control. By that time he had become strong enough to conduct his operations independently in his own behalf, or in conjunction with Moxham, —whose retention in the mill, by the way, had been but of temporary benefit to him, owing to the failure of the concern.

Like other practical men who have risen from the bottom of the ladder, Mr. Johnson familiarized himself with every detail of his business, even to the mechanical difficulties involved. This he proved by inventing a brake for cable-cars, which came into extensive use. "progress and poverty"' changed his whole life.

One day, while traveling, Mr. Johnson came across a book which was destined to influence his career vitally. This book was Henry George's "Progress and Poverty." There, he thought, was the solution of the great social questions of the age, and from that moment he was an ardent "single-taxer." Indeed, the desire to benefit his fellowmen by opening their eyes to what he considered the truth, had become his first consideration in life, more important even than his business. Forthwith he set about to convert his father and partner, and when, soon thereafter, the chance for action on a larger stage presented itself, he was himself irresistibly impelled to seize it, despite distrust in his own ability. Owing to his uniform plan of considering the comfort of the public in the operation of his railway lines, he had earned for himself unsought popularity in the city of Cleveland, where rival companies had practiced a reactionary system of needless frugality and indifference. The reward came not only in financial prosperity, but also in the form of an unexpected nomination to congress.


News of this honor reached Mr. Johnson while fishing, and his first impulse was to decline to run. But further thought led to a change of decision. Having decided, he acted. From that time until the election, he delivered a succession of public speeches, and the man who had distrusted his ability to address an audience suddenly found that he was an orator.

At every one of his tent meetings was to be seen a stout old German, who always occupied a front seat, and who evidently felt a proprietary interest in the speaker, which he manifested by liberal and loud interjections of "Bully Boy!" On one occasion, after a meeting, the German happened to be sitting next to Miss Johnson in the trolley car on the return trip. "Do you see that stout man down there?" he said, addressing her; "well, that's my friend, Tom Johnson. He's a great man ; I know him well. And that lady next to him, that's his wife."

"Indeed," replied Miss Johnson, "and I happen to be his daughter."

The old German was not one whit abashed. Springing to his feet, he held out his hand. "And I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Johnson!" he cried, at the top of his voice; "I'm delighted to meet any one belonging to Tom Johnson. Bully boy!"

Like his German admirer, the people stood by Mr. Johnson, and he was elected a member of the Fifty-second and Fifty-third Congresses, in which he distinguished himself by his frank criticism of the administration.


Mrs. Johnson's account of her husband's first speech in Congress is as dramatic and vivid as Baudet's description of the trial in the "Nabob." Like the Nabob's mother, she was in attendance unknown to the principal actor; but, in her case, this was due to intention, not accident.

"I was alone in the stall of the gallery," she said, "save for one other woman, who was there evidently merely from curiosity. I was choking, trembling from excitement. There was a great, inarticulate noise in the chamber, the banging of desk-lids, the calling of members to pages, the murmur of voices in conversation. Groups were scattered about the room; members were reading; no one was paying the slightest attention to the proceedings. Then Mr. Johnson arose, and I felt my heart stand still. Surely they would stop the noise, if only from common courtesy. But there was not an instant's cessation in the hubbub; everything continued exactly as before. He began to speak, but I could hardly catch the sound of his voice. I leaned forward and gripped the rail ; the confusion would distract him; he would break down. Oh, how I hated those men who had no consideration for anyone but themselves. I felt the eyes of the other woman on me, sympathetically, pitying. Suddenly, someone cried 'S-sh !' and there was an instant's cessation in the noise. But only for an instant. I was bending forward over the rail, my eyes fixed on the speaker, hoping, praying for his success. Suddenly, W. C. Breckenridge, who was sitting directly in front of him, lifted his eyes and caught sight of me, and started to rise to come up into the gallery. I raised my hand and motioned him back, for I feared Mr. Johnson might look up and see me. Mr. Breckenridge sank back in his seat again, and I breathed a sigh of relief."


"Then a wonderful thing happened A great, massive figure arose on the Republican side of the house and came over and took a seat directly in front of the speaker. He had come over to hear what Mr. Johnson was saying, and when Tom Reed came across to listen to a Democrat, everyone else listened, you may be sure. A hush fell on the house that remained unbroken until the speaker sat down in a burst of applause. That was the happiest day of my life."


Mr. Johnson is short and stout, with clear-cut, strong features. His face is that of an orator, the eye clear and direct, the forehead high and commanding. The broad nose-bridge indicates physical strength, and the firm mouth and chin, strength of character. In face, he resembles William Jennings Bryan, but a strong sense of humor belies deeper resemblance. Unlike most rich men, he knows when he has enough, and to this conclusion, it seems, he has now arrived.

"At the age of forty-five," he said to me, in his apartments at the Waldorf-Astoria, "I am fortunate enough to be able to retire from business and to devote myself to other pursuits. Except for two small matters, I may be said to be already out of business, and I have no intention of going into anything new. From now on I shall give all my energies to spreading the single tax theory, either here or in England, where it seems to be making rapid progress. Exactly how this will be done, I don't know. I have always been a Democrat, and am one still, and I believe in organization; but whether or not I shall work within party lines, I am not yet prepared to say. Still, I have my own ideas, although it is rather my custom to act than to talk in advance."

Those who know Mr. Johnson will agree with him, I think.

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