WILLLIAM FREAME JOHNSTON, son of Alexander and Elizabeth Freame Johnston, was born in Greensburg, while his father was sheriff of the county, on November 29. t8o8. In his youth he perhaps showed a more vigorous intellect than his brothers, all of whom were noted for their precocity. In this way and by industry he acquired a vast fund of information which served him well instead of a college training. He read law with Maj. John B. Alexander. the noted lawyer of Greensburg of that day, and was admitted to the Westmoreland bar in Mai-, 1829, when he had just attained his majority. He did not practice law regularly in Greensburg, but all his life was frequently called here in the trial of cases and in the conduct of the legal business of the clay. He began practicing law in Kittanning. Armstrong county, and very shortly after he went there was appointed district attorney of the county by Attorney General Samuel Douglass. and afterwards by Attorney General Lewis. After attaining a considerable degree of standing as a lawyer in Armstrong county he was elected to the lower house of the legislature, and in 1847 was elected a member of the state senate. representing Armstrong. Indiana, -Cambria and Clearfield counties. It will be remembered that during the presidency of Martin Van Buren came the financial panic of 1837. Mr. Johnston came forward with a proposition that the state should. issue what was called "relief notes" for the payment or refunding of such bills as the state was obliged to pay. This proposition he advocated with great ability, and though a large majority of the legislature was politically hostile to him, he forced his measure to adoption and it gave almost instant relief. It was, of course, designed only as a temporary expedient and as such was entirely successful. To plan and put through the legislature a scheme of this kind gave him a reputation as a financier throughout the commonwealth, and accordingly in 1847 he was elected president of the senate of Pennsylvania. Under our old constitution we did not have a lieutenant-governor, but the president of the senate became governor upon the death or resignation of that officer. Francis R. Skunk was then governor of Pennsylvania, and was performing his duties under greatly impaired health. So weak was he, indeed, from an incurable disease, that he resigned the governorship, and Mr. Johnston. president of the senate, at once assumed the duties of the office. The question then arose as to whether he should hold the office the remainder of the term, or only until his successor should be elected. Governor Shunk had resigned his office on the last day possible according to the constitution, to allow a new man to be elected at the ensuing fall election. Many eminent lawyers held the belief that Johnston had a right under the constitution to hold the office for the remainder of the term for which Shunk had been elected, but not wishing to hold this office a day longer than he was legally entitled to. he ordered an immediate election of his successor. He was a candidate himself for the office, was nominated by his party. and elected for the full term of three years.
In his message of 1851 he recommended that the old manuscript records of the state of Pennsylvania, which up until that time had never been in print, should be published in book form in order that they might be preserved to future generations. His message asked that a billl might be passed providing that these manuscripts should be edited and published at the state's expense. An act was passed in compliance with this recommendation, and Samuel Hazard was accordingly appointed to supervise their publication. Twenty-eight volumes of the "Colonial Records' and the "Pennsylvania Archives" were published as the result of this act. The wisdom of Gov. Johnston has been shown in the fact that scarcely a historical document relative to Pennsylvania has been since written that does not refer to them, and moreover it will be remembered that their publication perhaps saved them from destruction in the burning of the capitol February 2, 1897. Governor Johnston also deserves credit for the manner in which he managed the financial affairs of the state during his term as governor. When he was elected the state debt was over $40,000,000 and had been increasing in indebtedness at the rate of about $2,000,000 a year for nine years preceding his election. The interest on the whole sum was paid during his term of office, and a part of the principal debt was wiped out. At the close of his term he was renominated by his party but was defeated in the fall election by a small majority. After retiring from this office he engaged in the practice of law, and in the manufacture of iron, producing salt, and in the production of oil, and still later in refining petroleum. He was also president of the Allegheny Railroad, which was built from Pittsburgh to Kittanning. In the Civil war he took an active part in home defence at Pittsburgh, being chairman of the executive committee of public safety. Still later he was appointed collector of the port of Philadelphia by President Andrew Johnston, and filled the duties of the office for some months, but his appointment was not confirmed by the senate upon the meeting of that body.
Source: Page(s) 648-650, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)
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