William F. Johnston was originally a Democrat, who evolved as an anti-Jackson “Improvement Man” in 1836, after the president’s veto of the Maysville Road project; a proponent of the U.S. Bank charter; and a “coalition man,” aligning with Whigs during the Buckshot War. By 1840, his transformation toward orthodox Whiggery became clear, as his 1846 opposition to the Walker Tariff pushed him toward total commitment to high tariffs, Cameron conservatism, free soil abolitionism, and the Whig Party. Representing the Clearfield, Indiana, and Armstrong district, William Freame Johnston was born in Greensburg, Westmoreland County on November 29, 1808. The son of Alexander Johnston and the former Elizabeth Freame, his father was born in County Tyrone, Ireland in 1773, arriving in America in 1797. The senior Johnston was a committed Mason, serving minor government posts in Westmoreland County. William’s exposure to his father’s various public positions instilled a thirst in the young man for the legal profession. The future governor studied law under Major John Alexander and joined the Westmoreland and Kitanning bars in May 1829. He married Mary Monteith of Westmoreland in 1832.
Johnston received an appointment as district attorney of Westmoreland County, emerging as a prominent political figure, representing his county in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Democrat during the 1836, 1838, and 1841 sessions. His major legislative feat in the House occurred in 1837, when he introduced a banking bill that eventually eased the state’s financial tensions during the recent bank panic. Disappointed with the Democratic Party’s sponsorship of the Walker Tariff, William abruptly aligned with the Whig Party in 1846. Former Representative Johnston became state Senator Johnston in 1848, supporting passage of the femme sole trader extension, “An Act to incorporate the Philadelphia and Atlantic Steam Navigation Company” (a mail service subsidized by the U.S. Postmaster), and the “Ten Hour Labor Act.” Apart from his legislative service, his selection for the upper house became a providential event in William’s political life. Governor Shunk, suffering from declining health, resigned the executive chair on July 9, 1848. Senator Johnston had been elected interim Speaker of the Senate in April, therefore, heir to the ailing governor’s seat. As a result, William succeeded Shunk as the first Whig governor of the Keystone State.
By the time Johnston assumed the full reign of government on July 26, 1848, a constitutionally designated three-month period had passed, necessary to allow ample time to plan a special election. While Speaker Johnston might have had every legitimate right to immediately assume the chief executive’s chair, he insisted that the people choose their governor in October. The election transpired and William became the duly elected state executive.
As governor, he promoted mining and manufacturing interests, established the state’s first sinking fund, and initiated a 70-year program to preserve, collect, and publish the government’s colonial and post-constitutional documents under the supervision of Samuel Hazard. Presented to the people of Pennsylvania, the set became the Pennsylvania Archives and Colonial Records, a multi-volume set of published documents that remain the cornerstone of colonial and post-constitutional era political research. In retirement, Johnston remained active in state politics, especially in an advisory capacity to Simon Cameron.
During the Civil War, Johnston played a critical role in providing ammunition for West Virginia, defense and fortification of Pittsburgh, and the recruitment of federal troops. He received an appointment as Collector of the Port of Philadelphia and contended (unsuccessfully) for a U.S. Senate seat. Resigning from public life, the Honorable William Freame Johnston spent his last years actively participating in local and state committee caucuses, stumping for various Republicans, and pursuing private business interests. Governor Johnston passed away in Pittsburgh on October 25, 1872.
Biographical and Historical Cyclopedia of Indiana and Armstrong Counties, Pennsylvania (BHI), ed. Samuel T. Wiley (Philadelphia: John M. Gresham & Co., 1891), 359; also: W.F. Johnston, Philadelphia, to Simon Cameron, August 30, 1856, Roll 2, Simon Cameron Papers, PSA.