Tom L Johnson

Born into a wealthy family in 1854, Tom L. Johnson did not originally have political intentions or aspirations. Instead, he started off as an inventor and street railway magnate with holdings in companies in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York, and Cleveland.

In the 1880s, Johnson became involved in politics after being influenced by the progressive ideas of Henry George. He became an advocate of free trade and the single land tax. These values were often seen as a contradiction to the ideas and practices that made Johnson rich in the past. Some opponent claimed that his past thus made his new-found ideals and claims hard to trust. Even so, Johnson was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1890 and won the mayoral race in Cleveland in 1901.

As mayor of Cleveland, Johnson represented the ideals of the Progressive movement, seeking to use government to counter the strength of big businesses and bring relief to those struggling to make ends meet. He fought against monopolies by supporting the municipal ownership of public utilities. He also fought against the city's streetcar companies in a long struggle to lower the fare to 3 cents. He supported efforts to aid Cleveland's poor residents by building public bathhouses, expanding the city's park system (as well as removing all "keep off the grass" signs), and improving public services. Under his leadership, the Group Plan Commission was formed and developed an ambitious plan to reshape the city.

Tom Johnson was re-elected for three terms, but lost the office in 1909. In many ways, Johnson revitalized Cleveland and made the city into a lively, popular American city as concerned for the well-being of its citizens as it was for its industry. His statue was erected on Public Square in 1915.

Tom Johnson is often ranked among the very best mayors in US history. He died in 1911.

Images

Tom Johnson Portrait

Tom Johnson Portrait

Tom Johnson was mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909 and in that time was able to reform many aspects of the government and the city itself. Johnson's statue can be found in Cleveland's Public Square. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Johnson Company Works

Johnson Company Works

Before Johnson moved to Cleveland and became involved in politics, he was the owner of a streetcar empire. The Johnstown factory was where he manufactured parts. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

1902 Election Sign

1902 Election Sign

One of the main portions of Tom Johnson's platform for all his elections was just taxation and home rule. He was an advocate of the single land tax, which taxed only undeveloped land holdings, sparing the lower classes. "Home rule" referred to the right of a municipality to run their own affairs without state authorities interfering. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Three Cent Fare Card

Three Cent Fare Card

One of Johnson's biggest political moves was his effort to have the city's streetcar companies lower their fares to 3 cents. This was not a popular idea with the companies and turned into a political and legal battle that played out over almost all of Johnson's time in office. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

First Three Cent Fair Streetcar

First Three Cent Fair Streetcar

Eventually, Johnson managed to make a deal with the streetcar companies. They agreed to begin lowering their fares, aiming for a 3-cent fare, with no fare being higher than 5 cents. This step, Johnson hoped, would lead to municipal control of Cleveland Electric, who held the dominant streetcar monopoly in Cleveland. Photo Courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Video

Progressive Reform for the Common Man, excerpt 1 of 3

Created for the 2009 National History Day competition. Re-edited and used here courtesy of the authors. | Creator: Nat Henry, Isaac Hoffman, Leo Katz, Jacob Miller, and Jack O'Halloran View File Details Page

Progressive Reform for the Common Man, excerpt 2 of 3

Created for the 2009 National History Day competition. Re-edited and used here courtesy of the authors. | Creator: Nat Henry, Isaac Hoffman, Leo Katz, Jacob Miller, and Jack O'Halloran View File Details Page

Progressive Reform for the Common Man, excerpt 3 of 3

Created for the 2009 National History Day competition. Re-edited and used here courtesy of the authors. | Creator: Nat Henry, Isaac Hoffman, Leo Katz, Jacob Miller, and Jack O'Halloran View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Robin Meiksins, “Tom L Johnson,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 25, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/329.
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