Cave Johnson, a prominent Jacksonian, served as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives (1829-37, 1839-45), postmaster general of the United States (1845-49), and president of the Bank of Tennessee (1854-60). Johnson was born near Springfield in Robertson County, the second son of Thomas Johnson and Mary Noel Johnson. He attended Cumberland College in Nashville. There, at the start of the War of 1812, he and others formed a volunteer unit which elected Johnson as captain. Andrew Jackson declined their offer to join his army, saying that the country’s interest would be served better by the boys remaining in college. Johnson’s college career, however, concluded the following year in 1813, when he was expelled for refusing to follow the prescribed curriculum. Johnson next studied law with Justice William Cocke for a year before serving under Jackson in his father’s militia unit during the Creek War of 1813. He then returned to his legal studies and was admitted to the bar in 1814.
By this time, Johnson was in love with Elizabeth Dortch, but she rejected him in 1815; Johnson vowed never to address another lady. Dortch married another but was later widowed. Johnson then renewed his attentions. This time she accepted, and they were married on February 20, 1838.
Following his appointment as attorney general of the Tenth District in 1817, Johnson moved to Clarksville. In the Jacksonian landslide of 1828, Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where, as an ardent Jacksonian, he was notable for his economic conservatism. Johnson’s attempts to control spending led Congressman John Quincy Adams to label the Tennessean “the nuisance of the House.”
Cave Johnson became a close friend and advisor to James K. Polk, a fellow Democratic House member, and the two congressmen, along with Senator Felix Grundy, became leading pro-Jackson loyalists. When Polk became the Democratic presidential candidate in 1844, Johnson assumed the role of campaign manager and was rewarded by the victorious Polk with the office of postmaster general.
Johnson’s tenure oversaw the creation of the modern postal service. The introduction of the adhesive postage stamp in 1847 placed the service on a sounder financial basis by requiring the sender to finance the cost rather than the recipient. Further reforms included the urban collection of outgoing mail, a practice that became a standard feature of the postal service.
When Polk’s administration ended in 1849, Johnson returned to his home in Clarksville where he practiced law until 1860 and served in several appointed posts, including circuit court judge, president of the Bank of Tennessee, 1854-59, and as a claims commissioner of the United States, 1860. Johnson took a leading role in the resistance to the Southern rights cause and secession. Like other old-line Jacksonians, he was alarmed by the new Democrats who were tinged with the old Calhoun “heresies” against majority rule and the Union.
He was a reluctant Confederate, sitting out the Civil War with resignation. When the Union gunboats arrived in Clarksville on February 20, 1862, Johnson surrendered the town to the federal forces. Johnson received a presidential pardon and in 1866 was elected to the state Senate but was refused his seat by the Brownlow forces. His final word on the subject of the Union came shortly before his death in a letter to his son, Polk Johnson, dated March 17, 1866: “We should always bear in mind the distinction between the Government and the administration of the government. Our government is the best ever made and its administration for a few years past the worst. We should not therefore destroy or attempt it but by a change of Rulers in the legal mode” (emphasis in original; TSLA collections).
Clement L. Grant, “The Public Career of Cave Johnson,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 19 (1951): 195-223 and “Cave Johnson: Postmaster General,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 20 (1961): 323-49