Johnson attributed his stature as a jurist as based on “a well founded knowledge of the general principles of law, and a sound discretionary judgment in their application with the honest purpose of attaining the truth.”
Jurist, governor. David Johnson was born on October 3, 1782, in Louisa County, Virginia, the son of the Reverend Christopher Johnson, a Baptist Minister, and Elizabeth Dabney. The family immigrated to South Carolina in 1789, where they settled on the Broad River in Chester District. Johnson was educated in the local old field schools, the classical grammar school of the Reverend Joseph Alexander at York, and received private tutoring in mathematics and surveying. Johnson’s legal studies began in 1799 under Abraham Nott. After admission to the bar in December 1803, Johnson entered a four-year partnership with Nott at Union, later taking over the practice. Johnson married Barbara Asbury Herndon on June 2, 1807. The couple had eleven children, only four of whom survived their parents.
Johnson’s public service in the judiciary began on February 16, 1805, with his appointment as commissioner in equity for the western circuit, a position he held for two years. Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1810, Johnson resigned the seat upon his election as solicitor of the middle circuit on December 4, 1811. In December 1815 Johnson was elected circuit judge, and in 1824 he was elevated to the Court of Appeals, serving as presiding judge from 1830 to 1835. On June 2, 1834, Johnson, with Judge John Belton O’Neall concurring, rendered his most famous decision. A staunch Unionist during the nullification crisis, Johnson ruled as unconstitutional the militia test oath, a part of the Force Bill that implemented the nullification ordinance. Infuriated over the decision, the nullifier majority legislature abolished the court in December 1835. Johnson was then transferred to the Court of Equity and the Court of Appeals in Equity, serving as presiding judge of the latter court from circa 1838 to 1846.
Johnson was unanimously elected governor on December 8, 1846. His governorship was dominated by the Mexican War and the efforts required in raising troops for and provisioning the Palmetto Regiment. An ally of John C. Calhoun, Johnson only supported a defensive war, privately opposing the annexation of any lands south of the Rio Grande. Along with Calhoun, he believed that volunteers were unfit for service in Mexico. In November 1847 Johnson urged the legislature to provide assistance for Palmetto Regiment widows and orphans, which was done with a grant of $5,000. As governor, Johnson also called for the establishment of a permanent executive office, and, believing that pardons usurped the judicial process, granted only one during his entire term. Although adhering to the right of secession, Johnson opposed separate state action on the part of South Carolina.
Johnson attributed his stature as a jurist as based on “a well founded knowledge of the general principles of law, and a sound discretionary judgment in their application with the honest purpose of attaining the truth.” He died at Limestone Springs on January 7, 1855, and was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Union. “His mind was like his person,” wrote Governor John L. Manning, “grand in every way.”
Bailey, N. Louise, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 4, 1791–1815. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
O’Neall, John Belton. Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina. 2 vols. Charleston, S.C.: S. G. Courtney, 1859.
Scott, Florence Johnson. “Appendix–Letters and Papers of Governor David Johnson and Family, 1810–1855.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1939): 1–47.