Tom Loftin Johnson

American entrepreneur and politician Tom Loftin Johnson (1854-1911) made a fortune from his inventions and investments, then began a second, distinguished career as a reform congressman and mayor.

Tom L. Johnson was born at Blue Spring, Ky., on July 18, 1854. During the Civil War his family experienced hard times, and he received little formal education. Young Johnson made his way by selling newspapers, and his earnings enabled the family to move to Louisville, Ky., just after the war. While still a teenager, he began working for the streetcar company of family friends. He quickly worked his way up from office boy to superintendent.

Johnson invented the first fare box for coins, and his earnings from this, plus loans from friends, gave him enough capital at the age of 22 to buy controlling interest in an Indianapolis streetcar company. In 1879 Johnson boldly bought into a Cleveland streetcar line. This venture made him a business rival of Mark Hanna, who later became his political rival as well. Johnson prospered and soon was able to increase his streetcar holdings. He also invented an improved streetcar rail and built steel mills to produce his inventions. By the late 1890s he was a millionaire.

Though he had made his fortune in business, Johnson began to turn against capitalism. He had read Henry George's Progress and Poverty, a powerful critique of America's economic system, and after meeting George in 1885, he became a spokesman for George's tax reform ideas. At George's urging Johnson ran for the U.S. Congress from Ohio, losing twice, but winning in 1890 and 1892. In Congress, Johnson was a free-trade Democrat who opposed the protective tariff, which he saw as another form of economic privilege.

By 1900 Johnson's conversion to reform was complete. He sold all his streetcar and manufacturing interests and was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1901 as a reform Democrat. His program of municipal home rule, regulation of streetcar monopolies, and municipal ownership of public utilities attracted bright young progressives to his administration. He built an efficient political organization, which was as effective as many orthodox city "machines" but did not resort to traditional machine practices of bribery and patronage.

During Johnson's four terms as mayor (1901-1909), he fought the political bosses successfully and modernized the city through scientific management of public works, non-partisan administration of many city bureaus, and extension of social services. He was a remarkable organizer and an outstanding figure of the early Progressive movement. He died on April 10, 1911.


Further Reading on Tom Loftin Johnson

Johnson's autobiography, My Story, edited by Elizabeth J. Hauser (1913), provides the best overview of his career. Frederick C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (1925), is by an admiring associate. Carl Lorenz, Tom L. Johnson: Mayor of Cleveland (1911), is more critical. A balanced assessment of Johnson is in Hoyt Landon Warner's scholarly Progressivism in Ohio, 1897-1917 (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Johnson, Tom Loftin, My story, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993.

Murdock, Eugene C., Tom Johnson of Cleveland, Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University Press, 1993.