John Albert Johnson was Minnesota's first governor born in state, its first governor to serve a full term in the current State Capitol, and its first governor to die in office, making him one of the state's most notable leaders. He also was the first Minnesota governor to bask, albeit fleetingly, in the national spotlight when he sought the 1908 Democratic presidential nomination but lost to William Jennings Bryan.
John Albert Johnson was born on July 28, 1861, in St. Peter. He was the eldest child of an impoverished Swedish family abandoned by an alcoholic father, and he left school at age thirteen to support his mother and siblings by clerking in a store. In 1887, local Democrats, impressed with the enterprising young clerk, asked him to join their party and edit the strongly Democratic St. Peter Herald. Johnson's success as a journalist attracted statewide attention and fostered his political aspirations.
Johnson married local schoolteacher Elinore (Nora) Preston on June 1, 1894. Around the same time, he began running for state office from his heavily Republican home county. After early losses, he finally was elected to the state senate in 1898, thanks to his growing bipartisan appeal.
Known as a courageous and charismatic leader, Johnson was elected the sixteenth governor of Minnesota in 1904. He was reelected in 1906 and 1908, serving as governor from January 4, 1905, to September 21, 1909.
Johnson's ability to work with legislators from both parties resulted in reform legislation such as reorganization of the state's insurance department to the benefit of policyholders, reduction of railroad passenger and freight rates, and removal of constitutional restraints on the legislature's power to tax.
Johnson began his third term as governor with reservations. His health was precarious, and he wanted to pursue a promising sideline career as a public speaker. When he died suddenly on September 21, 1909, at age forty-eight in Rochester following surgery, the state's citizens were grief-stricken. His lieutenant governor and successor, A.O. Eberhart, formed a John A. Johnson Memorial Commission in October 1909. The group commissioned and erected memorial statues of Johnson at the State Capitol and in his hometown of St. Peter.
In 1904, John Albert Johnson is elected to his first term as governor of Minnesota and starts on a path to national political recognition.