Vigilante Congressman: Albert Johnson and the Making of the 1924 Immigration Act

Aaron Goings, Saint Martin's University

This presentation will analyze the career of newspaper editor and congressman Albert Johnson, one of the most prominent politicians in early twentieth century United States history and a central figure in remaking American immigration policy. Johnson is rightfully remembered for his leading role in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act), which dramatically reshaped American immigration policy by applying a stringent quota system to American immigration policies. But Johnson’s racist, xenophobic views developed in large part during his career as a news editor in Washington State. His anti-immigrant policies, though fundamentally racist, grew partly out of another motive. As editor of the (Grays Harbor) Washingtonian and Home Defender (an explicitly anti-socialist publication he founded) during the early 1910s, Johnson figured prominently in several struggles with socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Johnson launched his first congressional campaign in 1912, amid the largest and bloodiest of these strikes and shortly after the strike’s conclusion, voters elected him to serve as their member of Congress. Over the next decade, Johnson gained influence and allies, and led Congressional efforts to pass several immigration restriction laws. Throughout his career, Johnson was attracted to right-wing organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and businessmen’s citizens’ committees—and openly encouraged vigilantism to fight radicals and immigrants. I will conclude by discussing how Johnson’s career trajectory serves as a useful lens into important themes in U.S. history, including the overlap between anti-radical and nativist movements; Johnson’s use of his explicitly right-wing newspaper, the Home Defender, to denounce immigrants and radicals; and the continuities in early 20th century reactionary movements.

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 Presented in Session 241. Conservative Backlash and Restrictions on Labor