The most striking characteristic of Johnson's qualifications for the presidency is not that he was an alumnus (although he was the first full-time president to be one), but that he was a layman. When such positions are commonly held by laymen, as they are today, nothing unusual is seen in it. It was a great innovation in the history of the college and was not common for liberal arts colleges generally. (Princeton University did not have a layman as president until the early twentieth century, and that was Woodrow Wilson.)
Shortly after his graduation, Johnson had moved west to Missouri, where he taught school while studying for the bar. He was elected to the Missouri state legislature in 1849 in order to promote a local railroad, a promotion that succeeded in passing a bill to establish the Iron Mountain Road. By 1851 he was land agent and attorney for the Pacific Railroad, and by the end of the decade he was an important figure in the state senate, Although he opposed secession and supported the futile efforts at compromise in 1860, he ended up in the Confederate army. Recognizing the need for improved transportation in the war, Johnson agitated the issue so successfully that he became the director of the Confederate Transportation Works at Columbus, Georgia. After the war, he practiced law in Georgia.
Johnson probably owed his election to the realization by the board that money was desperately needed and that it could not be generated from within the Methodist conferences of a prostrate South. Johnson had no sooner arrived at the board meeting to receive his M.A. degree and for his election to that body than he was sent off to visit New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, and such other places as he may deem advisable, for the purpose of raising funds for the College, and he is hereby authorized to appoint such Agent or Agents as he may require to assist him. It may have been thought that not being a clergyman of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, would be an advantage. The North had just rejected President of the United States Andrew Johnson's readmission program for the South by returning a radically Republican Congress. Relations between the two principal Methodist churches were even more strained.
Johnson, for reasons that now seem historically inevitable, was unable to raise money in the North for a school whose previous president had been an outspoken advocate of slavery. One of the trustees, Alexander G. Brown, wrote to Smith, observing The President does not fill the public eye, nor has he the tallents [sic] as a public speaker to place the Institution prominently before the people, or [Church] conferences. He is an earnest worker, but utterly a failure as College President. Johnson's inability to save the school had been recognized certainly by the end of March 1868. At a called meeting of the board on the thirtieth of that month, to consider matters touching the prosperity and permanence of the Institution, a desperate stroke was planned. On Motion resolved that Dr. J. C. Blackwell, Judge E. R. Chambers, and J. J. Daly, Esq. be appointed a committee to correspond and if possible confer in person with Hon. Jefferson Davis and obtain full information as to the prospect of procuring him as president of the College. The committee was to report on May 20 to a meeting of the board.
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