Johnson, Albert (1869-1957)

  • By Aaron Goings
  • Posted 9/03/2008
  • Essay 8721

Albert Johnson rose from his position as editor of the Daily Washingtonian, based in Hoquiam, Washington, to become one of the most powerful congressional leaders in the United States. In 1913 he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican and served in nine succeeding congresses (March 4, 1913-March 3, 1933) until his defeat in the 1932 election when Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats were swept into power. Johnson's congressional career spanned 20 years, climaxing in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which applied a stringent quota system to American immigration policies, and is widely regarded as the most important piece of immigration legislation in United States history.

Youth in the Midwest

Albert Johnson was born on March 25, 1869, in Springfield, Illinois. He attended high schools in Atchison and Hiawatha, Kansas. He learned the printers' trade before embarking on his long career in journalism.

During his youth he worked at a variety of newspapers around the United States, including the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the New Haven Register, and the Morning Post in Washington, D.C. Lured from a job at the Washington Post to Tacoma in 1898 with the promise of a job as managing editor of the Tacoma News, Johnson left Washington, D.C., where he would return 15 years later as a congressman from Washington state.  Albert Johnson married Jennie (Smith) Johnson and they had one child, Dorothy.

Pro-Suffrage, Anti-Labor/Immigrant

According to historian Alfred J. Hillier, the future congressman used his 11 years on Puget Sound to "study" Japanese immigrants. As future events bore out, his "study" was actually the development of his intense hatred for all non-Northern European peoples, a hatred that, through his growing political power, Johnson turned into the official immigration policy of the United States during the 1920s.

After working for the Tacoma News and The Seattle Times, Johnson moved to Hoquiam, Washington, in 1909. There he purchased and became editor of the Daily Washingtonian. A loyal Republican, Johnson always stuck close to the Taft Administration, supporting the president in his political feud with Theodore Roosevelt through glowing editorials and favorable news stories. Johnson's political interests varied widely from his support of woman suffrage and editorial assaults on monopolies. But, the two defining characteristics of both his life in Hoquiam and his service as congressman were his militant opposition to radical labor unions and his hatred of immigrants.

Urging Mob Rule

Both the future congressman's chief planks were clearly on display during his days as a Hoquiam newspaper man. When William Gohl, the militant agent for the Aberdeen local of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, was arrested on murder charges, Johnson urged vigilante action from his "respectable" fellow citizens, asking Gohl:

"Do you imagine that you hear the roar of the mob in pursuit of a human being? A mob swayed by passion! William Gohl, can you hear it? The yelp of the wolf, the horrid laugh of the hyena, the growl of the bear, the howl of the dog, all combining to make the wild cry of the mob, seeking in vengeance the blood of a fellow man? ("Listen, William Gohl!").

Less than two years later, the editor joined a citizens' committee, a vigilante group composed of Grays Harbor businessmen who physically assaulted Wobblies, socialists, and their family members, and drove large numbers of them out of Hoquiam and out of nearby Aberdeen.

The 1912 Election

The growth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often called "Wobblies") in Grays Harbor proved portentous for the editor, for it gave him a popular plank on which to both launch his political career and expand his publishing empire. Johnson declared himself a candidate for the House of Representatives in early 1912, and received immediate support from numerous parties, including the entire Grays Harbor press corps, the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, the Hoquiam Commercial Club, and the dominant regional lumber interests.

The election coincided with the 1912 IWW lumber workers' strike, the first of many mass strikes pulled by the Wobblies in Washington's lumber industry. In the general election held that November, Johnson defeated his Democratic, Socialist, and Progressive Party opponents in each of the 13 counties in the district, and drew nearly double the vote of his nearest competition in Chehalis County.

Against Immigrants, Reformers, Divorce

In response to his need to more fully express his anti-radical and anti-immigrant attitudes, Johnson established a second newspaper, the Home Defender, in May 1912. The opening issue of the monthly newspaper described its purpose as: "to take an active part against the spread of radical, revolutionary socialism" (Walmsley, "The Home Defender"). Certainly, Johnson was never shy in articulating his hatred of his left-wing rivals in the Washingtonian, but the Home Defender carried "news" and opinions that would have shocked the more subdued Washingtonian subscribers.

A sample of his vituperative editorializing came out during the campaign when he uttered: "The greatest menace to the Republic today is the open door it affords to the ignorant hordes from Eastern and Southern Europe, whose lawlessness flourishes and civilization is ebbing into barbarism" (Willis, "Henry McCleary").

Johnson also attacked public officials with reformist sympathies, including J. E. Sinclair, principal of the Lincoln School in Hoquiam, who was labeled a supporter of sabotage by Johnson's new paper. Of course, no attack on socialism could be complete without raising the specter of "free love," which Johnson frequently scored, writing at one point that a socialist couple "has gained admission to the free-love Hall of Fame," for their decision to pursue a divorce ("Socialist Couples," Home Defender).

Defining Patriotism 

When Johnson, after his election to Congress, re-settled in Washington, D.C., he brought the Home Defender along. There, while working within the minority Republican Party in Congress, he worked to establish the paper as the "A National Newspaper Opposed to Revolutionary Socialism" (Home Defender, March 1914). A standard attack against immigrants, particularly those from Southern and Eastern Europe, focused on their allegedly inassimilable and undesirable characteristics, traits that any "patriotic" American should seek to prevent from entering his or her country. In one harangue, Johnson suggested that the United States "Put Up the Bars" against immigration:

"The character of immigration has changed and the newcomers are imbued with lawless, restless sentiments of anarchy and collectivism. They arrive to find their hopes too high, the land almost gone and themselves driven to drown into the cities and struggle for a living. Then anarchy becomes rife among them" (Johnson, "Put Up the Bars").

Like many of his congressional colleagues, Johnson vigorously supported the deportation of immigrant radicals, especially anarchists and anyone who advocated "sabotage" as a means for achieving social change.

Between 1913 and 1918, Johnson served as a minority member of the House Immigration Committee, where he pursued the study of various racist ideologies, including eugenics (the idea, now repudiated by science, that among Homo sapiens there were superior and inferior genetic types). He served as the chief advocate of these beliefs among his congressional colleagues. He formed friendships with committee members on both sides of the aisle, a fact that certainly aided his crusade against immigrants and radicals when he was appointed chair of the committee in 1919. Although the Hoquiam congressman took every opportunity to excoriate radicals, his legislative activities aimed mostly toward substantive, long-term reform of American immigration policies.

The Quota System and Beyond

These policies centered on the principle of annual quota restrictions on the number of immigrants able to enter the country. On April 11, 1921, Johnson introduced a bill setting up a quota system limiting any nationality to only 3 percent of the number counted during the 1910 census. After two weeks it passed both houses of Congress by resounding margins, including a 78 to 1 vote in the Senate. The purpose of this and similar quotas were clear: Since most Northern European immigrants had come to the United States in large numbers prior to 1910, the law would have little effect on the future entry of British, German, Irish, or Scandinavian immigrants, whereas many potential immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would be barred from entry.

But to Johnson and many of his colleagues, the restrictions seemed too lenient. Building on his illustrious reputation, Johnson took up a position as president of the Eugenic Research Association during 1923-1924, a group that pushed for the adoption of public policy based on the pseudo-science of eugenics. The eugenics movement, with Johnson as its chief congressional advocate, pushed for more stringent limits, one that recognized Northern and Western Europeans as more intelligent, democratic, and more readily assimilable into the United States.

Johnson proposed a new bill, one that used the 1890 census as its benchmark, on March 17, 1924. The bill limited European immigrants to 2 percent of each group's population in this country as of 1890. A ceiling of 150,000 immigrants, drawn almost entirely from the eugenicists' favored nations, was placed as the annual ceiling on immigration. The act excluded from entry anyone born in a geographically defined "Asiatic Barred Zone," which included most of the continent of Asia. A final section of the act banned immigration by groups ineligible for naturalization, a category that included the Japanese. After numerous disagreements between the House, the Senate, and President Coolidge, the measure easily passed both houses and received the president's signature on May 26, 1924.

In his short biography of Congressman Johnson, Alfred J. Hillier correctly posited that the 1924 bill was "the most important immigration law to be enacted in the history of the country" (Hillier, 208). Its wide-ranging nature can be seen by looking at its impact on Greeks, who came in their greatest numbers to the United States between 1900 and 1920. Under the limitations placed by the 1921 Act, 3,088 Greeks were allowed to enter the Unied States per year. After the Johnson-Reed Act passed three years later, that number dropped to 100, about 3 percent of the earlier figure. The law's success exceeded even its most optimistic supporters' expectations. In part due to the Johnson-Reed Act, as the legislation was known, from 1924 to 1947, only 2,718,006 immigrants came to the United States.

Last Years

The 1924 law was the high point of Johnson's career and indeed, as historian Alan Dawley wrote, was the "culmination of decades of nativist agitation going back to the Know-Nothings of the 1850s" (Dawley, 278). After four more terms in office, spent advocating his Republican presidents' agendas and shoring up his restrictionist successes, Johnson was swept out of office in the 1932 Democratic Party landslide victory.

Following his defeat Johnson returned to his home district and retired from public life. He died in 1957 at the age of 87 in American Lake, Washington.

Sources: "Washingtonian's New Editor," Grays Harbor Post, 22 May 1909, p. 6; Albert Johnson, "Listen, William Gohl!," Daily Washingtonian, February 4, 1910, p. 2; "Endorse Editor as Candidate," Aberdeen Herald, February 1, 1912, p. 1; "Johnson Gets Endorsement," Ibid, February 8, 1912, p. 1; "Official Returns, Chehalis County, General Election," Ibid, November 21, 1912, p. 1; A. B. Walmsley, "The Home Defender," Home Defender, May 12, 1912, p. 2; "Sinclair and Sabotage," Ibid, May 1912, p. 1."The Home Defender: A National Newspaper Opposed to Revolutionary Socialism," Ibid, March 1914, p. 1; "Socialist Couples Obey Free Love Theory," Ibid, November 15, 1912, p. 2; Albert Johnson, "Put Up the Bars," Ibid (Washington, D.C.), September-October 1913, p. 2; Alfred J. Hillier, "Albert Johnson, Congressman," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 36 (1945), 193-211; Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); William Preston Jr., Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963); John Higham, Stranger in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1963); Philip J. Dreyfus, "The IWW and the Limits of Inter-Ethnic Organizing: Reds Whites, and Greeks in Grays Harbor, Washington, 1912, Labor History Vol. 38, No. 4 (Fall 1997), pp. 450-470; Aaron Anthony Goings, "Free Speech and Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Grays Harbor, Washington, 1910-1912 (master's thesis, Central Washington University, 2005); Philip J. Dreyfus, "Toward Industrial Organization: Timber Workers, Unionism, and Syndicalism in the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1917 (Ph.D. Dissertation, City University of New York, 1993); Steve Willis, "Henry McCleary and the Land of the Rising Sun," McCleary Museum Newsletter Vol. 11, No. 3 (September 2001); Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 86-87; Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, "Johnson, Albert (1869-1957)" (Accessed June 9, 2008); Doug Blair, "The 1920 Anti-Japanese Crusade and Congressional Hearings," Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website accessed June 2008 (; "The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)," U.S. Department of State website accessed June 2008 (

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