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William A. Johnston Papers

William Agnew JohnstonCollection 62



William A. Johnston served as a justice of the Kansas Supreme Court during the years 1885-1935 and as its chief justice after 1903. This collection of his personal papers and public documents was donated in part by his estate in 1937 with the remainder received from his grandson William J. Brandenburg in 1968. The collection contains personal as well as business correspondence; newspaper clippings; letters of congratulation for fifty years on the bench; endorsements for U.S. District Judge; and several scrapbooks with information relating to family, friends, and acquaintances. It also includes many speeches made by Johnston before a wide variety of groups throughout the state. There are no restrictions on the use of this collection.


William Agnew Johnston was born in the Canadian settlement of Patterson Corners near Oxford Mills, Ontario, on July 24, 1848, to Mathew and Jane Agnew Johnston. At the close of the American Civil War in 1865, an uncle, Hugh Agnew, took him to Rockford, Illinois, where Johnston attended the Academy and worked for four years as a fruit picker. During his stay in Rockford, he had the opportunity to observe a murder trial, which started his interest in law.

Johnston moved to Appleton City, Missouri, in 1869. There he taught school and, in his spare time, studied law under attorney E. F. Clark. Two years later he filed for U.S. citizenship, which was to be granted eleven years later. After a short marriage to Lucy Hoisington, who died after a few months, Johnston moved to Ottawa County, Kansas, and, in 1872, settled just outside the town of Minneapolis. Here he formed a law firm with R. F. Thompson and the two were associated for eight years from 1873-1881. In 1875 he was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives, and shortly after the election married Lucy Browne of Camden, Ohio. They had two children, Margaret and John Jacob. The next year Johnston was elected to serve in the Kansas Senate, where he sat on five committees, including judiciary, finance and taxation, and education.

In 1879, the Solomon Valley Railroad Company was started by Johnston, R.F. Thompson, and other Minneapolis businessmen. In that same year, Johnston joined the law firm of Rossington, Smith, and Johnston and was also appointed as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. He was then elected Kansas Attorney General in 1880 and was re-elected in 1882.

Johnston’s service as justice of the Supreme Court began when he was elected to fill an unexpired term as associate justice in 1884. He was then re-elected an unprecedented eight times and served a total of 50 years and 7 months. He served as Chief Justice from January, 1903, until his retirement in 1935. In 1889, he was also elected president of the Kansas Bar Association.

Politically, William A. Johnston was a conservative Republican, a staunch Prohibitionist, and a supporter of women’s rights. He received honorary degrees as a Doctor of Laws from Baker University and Washburn College in 1901 and 1904, respectively. At the time of his retirement on July 1, 1935, he had participated in approximately 21,000 of the 24,052 opinions recorded in the Supreme Court since its inception; he wrote 2,866 favorable opinions plus 23 specially concurring and 105 dissenting opinions. Of his opinions, only 10 had specifically been reversed or overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court by 1937, 14 others modified, and 8 dissentions reversed. He served with 32 associates on the Court and with 21 of the first 26 Kansas governors. He died January 23, 1937, known as “the Grand Old Man of Kansas.”

Scope and Content

The material contained in this collection consists of speeches and addresses; scrapbooks; letters of congratulations for and regrets by certain parties unable to attend Johnston’s 50th Anniversary celebration; personal, political, and business correspondence; and letters dated 1936-1939 concerning the management of the Johnston’s business and personal affairs, handled by their daughter Margaret (Brandenburg) and their attorney James A. McClure.

Many of Johnston’s speeches and addresses are undated. They were presented on occasions such as meetings of the Y.M.C.A., the Navy League, the marriage ceremony of Eugene Ware, the Woman’s Kansas Day Club, various banquets, and the Fortnightly Club. The subjects of these talks include a wide variety of topics ranging from Fourth of July and types of Americanism, the death penalty (which he thought barbaric), the Supreme Court, lawmaking, education, temperance, churches, women’s rights, public opinion in government, the practical uses of aviation, divorce to various foreign affairs problems. Most of his speeches were probably presented between 1900 and 1928, which seems to be the period he was most in demand as a speaker.

The scrapbooks contain information not only about the Johnstons but also about persons known to them and what they considered important events, such as visits by women’s rights leaders. There is also a scrapbook which contains only material about their grandson, William J. Brandenburg.

The letters in the collection consist of those from Johnston to his wife covering the years 1880-1912; personal correspondence from his brother Joseph, son John, daughter Margaret, and other relatives; political and employment endorsements; and business affairs. These latter categories cover the years 1886-1939 plus some undated material. The correspondence with his brother is fairly extensive and relates to family business and farming activities, political affairs, and mutual friends in Minneapolis. The general correspondence covers a variety of topics ranging from day-to-day concerns to political affairs. Some of Johnston’s correspondents were Eugene Ware, Joseph Bristow, William Allen White, and several governors and congressmen. The general correspondence for 1903-1904 contains information about the political turmoil within the Kansas Republican party at this time as Johnston unsuccessfully attempted to secure an appointment as a U.S. District Court Judge. There is also considerable material relating to Johnston’s 1912 primary campaign for the Supreme Court.

For more information concerning Johnston’s public career, the researcher should refer to the Supreme Court and the Attorney General collections in the Archives Division of the Kansas State Historical Society. In the Manuscript Division, the Eugene Ware collection contains a substantial number of Johnston letters.

January, 1978 William Miller, Intern

Contents List

Box 1
Notes for speeches 1901-1917.

Box 2
Notes for speeches 1918-1926.
Miscellaneous, untitled, or undated addresses.

Box 3
Undated and untitled addresses and speeches.

Box 4
Letters and newspaper clippings concerning the Fiftieth Anniversary
Dinner for Chief Justice Johnston, December 1, 1934.
Scrapbook of the Johnston’s Golden Wedding Anniversary,
November 25, 1925.
Scrapbook of miscellaneous clippings, photographs, and letters.
Address book with list of gifts given to the Johnstons on their
Fiftieth Anniversary, November 25, 1925.

Box 5
Scrapbooks of general clippings and photographs.
Scrapbook of William J. Brandenburg.

Box 6
Letters from Johnston to his wife 1880-1912.
Personal correspondence 1886-1935.
Undated personal correspondence.

Box 7
General correspondence 1886-1905.

Box 8
General correspondence 1906-1933.

Box 9
General correspondence 1934-1939.
Undated general correspondence.
1912 Primary Campaign-Correspondence.
1912 Primary Campaign-Lists and Miscellaneous Material.

Tube Certificates of Election: 1876 – State Senate
Tube (continued)
1882 – Attorney General
1884 – Supreme Court
1900 – Supreme Court
1924 – Supreme Court
1930 – Supreme Court
Certificate of Eligibility to practice law before the U.S.
Supreme Court, 1884.
Certificate proclaiming William A. Johnston a 32nd Degree Mason, 1905.
Honorary degrees conferred on Johnston:
1901 – Baker University
1904 – Washburn University.
Membership in Kansas State Bar Association, 1883.
Membership I the Masonic Lodge, 1923.