Ohio History Journal

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Instructor in History, Ohio State University

In 1901 the voters of Cleveland, Ohio, chose as their mayor

a resourceful and unconventional man, newly retired from a suc-

cessful business career, who was the best known American fol-

lower of Henry George. Tom L. Johnson remained in office for

eight exciting and enlightening years. Born in 1854 into an aristo-

cratic southern family which was impoverished during the Civil

War, Johnson had to go to work while still a child. At twenty-two

he was the successful inventor of the first coin fare box in use in

the United States, and at twenty-five he was already a business

rival of Mark Hanna. Converted to the single tax philosophy of

Henry George at thirty, he was a steel manufacturer at thirty-

five and had twice been elected to congress by the time he was

forty. At fifty he had been hailed by Lincoln Steffens as the best

mayor of the best governed city in America.1

Throughout his political career Johnson struck many as a

mysterious and enigmatic figure. The reason for this was not that

his political views were obscure, for he never straddled or

avoided an issue, but that they seemed to contradict his business

interests. The president of street railways, he advocated munici-

pal ownership of public utilities. A steel manufacturer, he

nevertheless favored free trade. In politics a vigorous opponent

of monopoly, as a businessman Johnson used monopolistic prac-

tices to amass a large fortune. Such a quixotic figure, his enemies

claimed, was surely a demagog. Johnson was never able to con-

vince these critics of what his friends called his "larger moral-

ity." As a matter of fact, Johnson was not troubled by, nor in-

* This article is a condensation of material relating to Johnson in Robert H.

Bremner, The Civic Revival in Ohio, a dissertation presented in partial fulfillment

of the degree of doctor of philosophy at Ohio State University in 1943.

1 Lincoln Steffens, "Ohio: A Tale of Two Cities," McClure's Magazine,

XXV (1905), 293-311.