Cone Johnson, lawyer and politician, was born on June 11, 1860, to Samuel Caraway and Emily (Swilling) Johnson at Dawsonville, Georgia. He attended Emory College at Oxford, Georgia, and Peabody Normal College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1880. After graduating, he moved to Tyler, Texas, where he taught for two years at East Texas University while studying law with William S. Herndon. He was admitted to the Texas bar in 1883 and for the next forty years maintained a law practice in Tyler.
In 1886 he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. Having been an opponent of prohibition in his youth, he campaigned as a stump speaker in 1887 against the proposed constitutional amendment. He engaged in several debates, the most memorable of which was a meeting at Denton with prohibition supporter Joseph Weldon Bailey before a crowd of 8,000. Eventually, the antiprohibition forces prevailed, and the amendment failed in a general election. Ironically, both Johnson and Bailey later reversed their positions on the issue. After serving only one term in the Texas House of Representatives, Johnson was elected state senator in 1888 and served until 1892. In 1891 he framed a bill to establish the Railroad Commission. He chose not to seek reelection when the state was redistricted. In 1892 he supported James Stephen Hogg's opponent in the gubernatorial race. Johnson and Hogg eventually overcame an early estrangement to become good friends and political allies. After his service in the Texas Senate, Johnson practiced law in Tyler and participated in state party politics. He fought unsuccessfully in 1908 against antiprohibitionist Joseph Bailey for a delegate-at-large seat at the Democratic national convention. In 1910, Johnson made a run for governor against Oscar Branch Colquitt but failed to appeal to a majority of Democrats. He was a staunch prohibitionist by this time and, in addition to prohibition, supported a variety of progressive issues, such as trust-busting.
One of his political strengths lay in his oratorical skills. Reporters described him as "eloquent" and "pleasing," particularly when it came to the prohibition issue. "The saloon must go," he stated; "it has no rightful place in the affairs of men; it remains only to demoralize and debase manhood, produce poverty and crime and injure, disturb and degrade the social, industrial and political life of the people." When yet another prohibition amendment was submitted to Texas voters in 1911, Johnson explained its importance: "The law may not make men good, but it undertakes to make men `be good.'"
In 1912, as a delegate to the Democratic convention in Baltimore, Johnson gained national notice as the leader of the so-called "Immortal Forty," Texas delegates who provided crucial swing votes for Woodrow Wilson's presidential nomination. In 1914, Wilson appointed Johnson solicitor in the Department of State. Johnson acted as an advisor to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and handled American citizens' claims for losses in World War I. Many credited him with having a stabilizing influence on American foreign policy during this turbulent time. He resigned his position in 1917 and returned to Texas, where he worked in the Liberty Loan program and the Red Cross during the war. In 1920 Johnson supported William G. McAdoo for president and served as head of the Texas delegation to the national democratic convention in San Francisco. In 1922 he campaigned for Pat M. Neff in his gubernatorial race against Joe Bailey. Johnson's final public service to Texas was as commissioner of the Texas State Highway Department. He was appointed to the post in 1927 by Governor Dan Moody and served until his death.
In addition to his political activities and career in law, Johnson served as a trustee of Southwestern University in Georgetown and was a member of the Marvin Methodist Church in Tyler, where on occasion he acted as lay preacher. He was married on May 8, 1889, to Eliza Sophia Robertson of Salado, who died in 1926 (see JOHNSON, ELIZA S. R.), and on Aug. 2, 1928, to Ethel Frances Hilton of Galveston. Johnson died on March 17, 1933, in Tyler.