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Calvin Johnston (1796-1859)


Daniel Calvin Johnston was the only man Kate allowed to shake her hand.  He often spoke of the incident, describing Kate’s hands as being “fragile and velvety.”  Kate thought a great deal of Calvin Johnston, often using him as a basis for comparison when telling others of their faults, exclaiming, “There is no finer man in this country than Calvin Johnston.”

Born in North Carolina, Calvin Johnston was a toddler when his family moved to Tennessee in 1800.  He spent his childhood on the Johnston farm in Robertson County, Tennessee, where he developed a keen interest in Latin and horticulture.  He married Francis Porter, a first cousin, in 1823.  They had one child.

He built a large brick home on his father’s farm and spent most of his adult life there.  It is believed that the house was built around 1841, with that being the date carved into a stone window lintel.  In 1850, four years after the death of his first wife, Johnston married Elizabeth Holland.  They had no children.

Contrary to the way in which Calvin Johnston is portrayed by many authors and historians, he was in fact a very enlightened and innovative man, much moreso than most of his peers.

One of his greatest achievements was the creation of a raised writing system for the blind, which enabled them to read written material with their fingers.  After perfecting his system, Johnston traveled to New Orleans to apply for a patent.  He learned upon arriving that a Frenchman named “Braille” had received a patent for the same type of writing system only a week earlier.

Gravestone of Calvin JohnstonA horticulture enthusiast, Johnston collected specimens of all wild plants and flowers in the area and pressed them in a book, listing both the Latin and common name of each.  Vanderbilt University in nearby Nashville learned of Johnston’s book and asked that it be donated because of its stunning accuracy and potential as a learning tool.  His descendants decided to retain the book, which is still in their possession today.

Calvin Johnston’s interest in horticulture is still evident today, not only in the form of his book, but also in the flowers he planted many years ago.  He loved buttercups and liberally planted them around the site of his home and the grave of his nephew.  Although the buttercups around his home site are long gone, the ones he planted on his nephew’s grave still bloom each year.  The variety growing on the grave is very old and no longer obtainable, which leads many to believe that these are the same buttercups planted by Johnston many years ago.  The variety contains some green, but mostly “butter and egg” colors.

Both Calvin and John Johnston were subscribers to The Scientific American, one of the earliest scientific magazines to be published in this country, all the way back to the early 1830’s.  The family still has some very early copies that belonged to the Johnston brothers of long ago. 

Calvin Johnston died in 1859 and is buried near Adams, Tennessee.  His gravestone reads, “Remember mortal man, as you pass by.  As you are now, so once was I.  As I am now, so you must be.  Prepare for death, and follow me.”

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