James R. Johnston

Pennsylvania Prohibition Party Candidate

Pittsburgh-area resident James R. Johnston was the Prohibition candidate for Treasurer of Pennsylvania in 1889. Born in Armstrong County on 16 March 1846, he was the eldest of the six children of John and Susan (Wissinger) Johnston. He died on 9 October 1934 and is buried in the Homewood Cemetery at Armstrong. James Johnston was a well-known oil man, having been one of the pioneers in the Greene County oil field, an oil broker, and treasurer of the Pittsburgh Oil Exchange.

He married Mary N. Hollobaugh, of Brady’s Bend (Armstrong County), in 1873. She preceded him in death. They had a daughter, Emma Johnston Witherspoon, a son, Cyrus, and a second daughter, Ruth. He was a Presbyterian and a member of the Masons.

Johnston was not much involved in politics, but in 1888, he was persuaded to run for state treasurer. A family genealogist, Jonathan Johnston, has accumulated several newspaper clippings and other references, from which this notice has been constructed:

The 1888 state Prohibition convention was held in Harrisburg on October 17th. (Pennsylvania elected its treasurer in the off-year, so the 1888 convention also selected 1889 candidates.) Johnston was recruited to run as a Prohibitionist by Republicans opposed to the corrupt “Boss Quay” Republican machine which controlled politics in the state capital, the goal being to capture enough machine votes to throw the election to the Democrat candidate. The strategy failed. Johnston received a large vote (21,308 – 3.31%), but only about a third of what would have been needed to throw the election.

Upon receiving the nomination, Johnston issued a lengthy campaign statement to the press:
“In reply to your notification of my nomination to the office of State Treasurer by the Prohibition Party, I take this opportunity to express to your committee and through the committee to the Prohibitionists of Pennsylvania my gratitude and sincere thanks for the honor conferred in choosing me as their standard bearer in the coming campaign.

“In replying to the nomination thus tendered, permit me to re-affirm my adherence to the principles of the Prohibition Party believing they will prevail.

“In the progress of civilization and the development of advanced of liberal forms of government, whereby the people are accorded the greatest possible liberties consistent with safety, questions of vital importance arise, and which must of necessity be solved.

“The suppression of the liquor traffic evil being a question of great prominence before the people of this State and nation of the present time, affecting, as it does, all social, political and moral reforms, demands at the hands of the law-making power, the people, careful consideration as to the best means to secure the same.

“Our system of government is wrought out through political organizations or parties, which adopt and advocate certain methods for the settlement of pending questions, such as the suppression of the liquor traffic.

“Three political parties exist in Pennsylvania, and submit in their platforms methods which, if successful in securing through the ballot box the control of State government, they will put in force for the settlement of all pending questions. It will scarcely be denied by any thinking person that the most pressing question for practical solution at the present time is that of the suppression of the drink traffic.

“The Democratic party defends the liquor traffic by its opposition to prohibitory, which it calls sumptuary, laws, and favors its perpetuation by license laws. The Republican party in the past had no policy for or against the liquor traffic until by official declaration at its recent State Convention it declared that it ‘heartily indorse the Brooks high license law,” thereby adopting as its method for the suppression of the liquor traffic restricted legalization by high license laws, thus repudiating prohibition as a means for correcting the evils arising therefrom.

“The Prohibition Party was organized and exists for the purpose of securing the suppression of the liquor traffic by prohibitory enactments. It repudiates any policy or plan that tends to legalize or license the same. At the same time it takes hold of other political questions, such as the protection of the Sabbath, trusts, labor problems, foreign emigration, etc., and clearly defines its policy toward the same, as a reading of its declaration of principles will disclose; and being a party of sobriety is more eminently fitted for handling the affairs of the Government, as sobriety in public officials, as in individuals, is always available.

“It may be said by some earnest conscientious persons who desire the abolition of the drink traffic that it is not properly a question for political solution, and should be left with moralists rather than with statesmen to solve.
“Webster defines politics to be ‘the science of government, that part of ethics which has to do with the regulation of a State or nation, the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity, the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control and conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protections of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals.’ This clearly indicates that any question affecting the people in their moral or material rights as does the suppression of the liquor traffic, is a proper one for political agitation and political action, and, therefore, most certainly proper as a basis of principles on which to establish political parties.

“The nominee, in becoming the candidate, loses his individuality and as such I accept the nomination so generously tendered.”

— (source unknown)