Cave Johnson

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Cave Johnson
Cave Johnson.jpg
12th United States Postmaster General
In office
March 6, 1845 – March 4, 1849
PresidentJames K. Polk
Preceded byCharles A. Wickliffe
Succeeded byJacob Collamer
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1843 – March 3, 1845
Preceded byHarvey Watterson
Succeeded byLucien Chase
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 11th district
In office
March 4, 1839 – March 3, 1843
Preceded byRichard Cheatham
Succeeded byMilton Brown
In office
March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1837
Preceded byConstituency established
Succeeded byRichard Cheatham
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 8th district
In office
March 4, 1829 – March 3, 1833
Preceded byJohn Hartwell Marable
Succeeded byDavid W. Dickinson
Personal details
Born(1793-01-11)January 11, 1793
Tennessee County, Southwest Territory, U.S.
DiedNovember 23, 1866(1866-11-23) (aged 73)
Clarksville, Tennessee, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseElizabeth Dortch Brunson
EducationCumberland College

Cave Johnson (January 11, 1793 – November 23, 1866) was an American politician who served the state of Tennessee as a Democratic congressman in the United States House of Representatives. Johnson was the 12th United States Postmaster General in the administration of James K. Polk from 1845-1849.


Johnson was born near present-day Springfield, Tennessee to Robert and Mary Noel Johnson. He was named for Rev. Richard Cave, a Baptist minister in the Travelling Church with whom Mary's mother, also named Mary Noel, had been acquainted in Kentucky. He suspected but could never prove a relation to William Cave Johnson of Boone County, Kentucky.[1] He was studying at Cumberland College when the War of 1812 began, and organized a band of volunteers that Andrew Jackson declined. In 1813 he joined his father's militia unit in the Creek War, returning to Nashville the next year to complete law studies in the firm of Parry Wayne Humphreys.[2]

Johnson settled in Clarksville and served on its first board of aldermen. At the time of his first election to Congress in 1829, he owned an iron factory that employed both free and enslaved black workers.[3] He advocated legal protection of slavery under the federal constitution, believing that this would prevent "moderate" southerners from being overwhelmed by secessionist Fire-Eaters.[4]

Samuel Morse's proposal for the Baltimore–Washington telegraph line came before Congress for funding during Johnson's tenure. Johnson mocked the idea by introducing a rider to fund research into animal magnetism. After the line was successfully demonstrated he apologized to Morse, calling the telegraph an "astonishing invention."[5]

Johnson acted as a campaign manager for presidential candidate James K. Polk at both the Democratic party convention and for the general election. After his victory Polk appointed him Postmaster General, which he held during the full term. He shifted the department from a collect on delivery system to a prepaid system by introducing the adhesive postage stamp in 1847, and is also credited with introducing street corner collection boxes in urban areas. Johnson's duties included overseeing operation of the Baltimore–Washington line, which he struggled to make profitable as other private telegraph lines were constructed. He urged that telegraph lines not be left in unregulated private hands, concerned that they would ruin the Post Office while enriching those who held preferential information access, but his fellow Democrats were unreceptive.[5][6]

He later served as a state circuit court judge and as president of the Third Bank of Tennessee from 1854 to 1860.[2] During the secession crisis he joined the short-lived Union Party that sought to keep Tennessee loyal to the federal government. He joined in drafting an address that urged the state to remain in the Union while refusing to participate in coercive measures against the Confederacy.[7] Failing in this effort, he sided with the Confederacy but took no personal part in the war.[2] After the Battle of Fort Donelson brought Clarksville under Union control, Johnson was one of three spokesmen who greeted the administering Union officer.[8] He was elected to the state Senate in 1866, but allies of Republican Governor William G. Brownlow refused to seat him.

Johnson proposed to Elizabeth Dortch in 1815. She rejected him for another suitor, embarrassing him so deeply that he dared not pursue a woman again for more than twenty years. His next proposal in 1838 was to the same Elizabeth Dortch, by then widowed. She accepted and they had three sons.[1] Johnson was the maternal uncle of Lt. Col. Cave Johnson Couts of California


  1. ^ a b Titus, William T., ed. (1887). Picturesque Clarksville, Past and Present.
  2. ^ a b c Moor, John Trotwood (1923). Tennessee: The Volunteer State. Vol. II.
  3. ^ "Nebraska and Kansas". Congressional Globe. 23 (2): 1305. May 24, 1854.
  4. ^ Hamilton, Holman (2014). Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850.
  5. ^ a b Wheeler, Tom (2019). From Gutenberg to Google.
  6. ^ Wolff, Joshua D. (2013). Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845–1893.
  7. ^ Hoss, Elijah Embree; Reese, William B. (1890). History of Nashville, Tenn.
  8. ^ Hoppin, James Mason (1874). Life of Andrew Hull Foote, Rear Admiral.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 8th congressional district

Succeeded by
New constituency Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 11th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 11th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the House Military Affairs Committee
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 9th congressional district

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Postmaster General
Succeeded by