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Joe Johnston, R.I.P.

Remembering a Southern gentleman of the old school.

Bremo

Joe Johnston was a throwback to another time who understood more about the present day than about anybody I know. A Southern gentleman of the old school, lawyer, teacher, author, and farmer, he knew more about modern culture than the most sophisticated Ivy League professor.

Joseph F. Johnston, Jr.  died in Alexandria, Virginia on January 3, 2023, at the age of 89. His last book, The Decline of Nations, a thorough discussion of why countries lose their mettle and fall into disrepair or worse, was published two years ago (full disclosure—I was his publisher) and he was deep into research on his next one, an intellectual history of the Left. We would often have long lunches together near his office in Old Town Alexandria, and he would regale me with whatever happened to be on his mind from that morning’s left wing research, whether it be Marx, Voltaire, Rousseau, Sartre or some obscure and forgotten socialist. In the next breath the conversation would move to the cancel culture, how a pending Supreme Court case might come down, or the state of the corn crop at his beloved Virginia farm.

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Born into one of the South’s old and distinguished families and raised in Virginia and Alabama, he was descended from two Virginia Generals, Confederate Gen. Philip Cocke and United States Gen. John Hartwell Cocke, who served with distinction in the War of 1812.  Although many of his friends assumed Joe was also related to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, one of the most famous and highest-ranking Generals in the Confederate Army, there was actually no connection.  Joe was sent off to a Yankee prep school, then to Princeton, and after a stint as an Army officer in post-war occupied Germany went on to Harvard for a master’s degree in history and his law degree—none of which eradicated any of his southern charm or character, and in fact probably instilled it within him more fully. He practiced law in New York and Washington, taught at the law school at the University of Virginia, and served on many nonprofit boards, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the Philadelphia Society, Liberty Fund, the Virginia Historical Society among others.  

Bremo, the family farm on the James River in central Virginia, was his favorite place in the world, as it should have been—a grand Palladian structure on several hundred acres, designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by his builders after Monticello was finished, a house which still retains its original charm, style and dignity.  Joe would delight in showing his guests about the place, from the 225-year-old stone barn built, he explained, by slaves as a way of teaching them masonry, to the room in the basement where slave children were taught to read and write (in violation of Virginia law) to the pictures on the walls and books in the shelves that had been left by family members of generations past. I recall Joe’s wife showing my wife and me to our bedroom, telling us  that we would be staying in Mrs Lee’s room.  “The house was far enough away from both Richmond and Charlotttesville,” she explained, “that General Lee thought she wouldn’t be bothered  here by Union troops.” A specially built bed, constructed on site to accommodate Mrs. Lee’s rheumatoid arthritis, still sat in a corner of the room.

Joe was a man of ideas. But ideas were only half of it. He understood how ideas were applied in the real and practical world.  It might have been the  ideas behind the Palladian architecture at Bremo, ideas which he could transform into why the roof had a particular slant, why the intricate gutter system worked as it did, or the geometry behind the French drains in the foundation.  Or how the political and philosophical ideas of the Greeks, Romans, French and British helped to preserve or destroy their respective republics.  He could quote long passages from Homer,
Aristotle or Plato from memory or carry on about the latest outrage coming out of the Biden White House, always recognizing the often crazy ideas or lack of any ideas responsible for whatever the outrage was.

I got to know Joe best during several years of weekly fellowship meetings, held in the shabby basement of a small Anglican Church in Georgetown. The topic for the day, more often than not suggested by Joe the week before, was usually a book or an essay having to do with Christianity.  As the rest of us struggled through many dense and complex readings, Joe could usually explain the issue in a straightforward and understandable manner.  We read several of the Epistles of Paul, including Romans (Joe’s favorite) at least three times, all of the Gospels, Peter Kreeft, several books by Pope Benedict and much more.  Those 90 minutes early each Thursday morning were, for all of us, the highlight of the week.

Conservatives will miss this modest and honorable man, so full of knowledge on so many things, as will his wife Rhonda and his family and his many friends. May he rest in peace.

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