Richard Mentor Johnson may well be the most controversial vice president in the history of the United States, and considering some of his competition for that distinction, that is quite an accomplishment. Richard Mentor Johnson is the only vice president to be selected by the Senate, according to the provisions of the 12th amendment. The Van Buren-Johnson ticket won a clear majority, but for purely social reasons, some of the electors refused to vote for Johnson.
Richard Mentor Johnson was born on October 17,1780 in Beargrass, near present-day Louisville, Kentucky, then part of Virginia. The Johnsons were an established family of means. Johnson’s parents had come from Orange County, Virginia, in 1779 and by 1812 were one of the largest landowning families in Kentucky. Richard Johnson’s father served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the Kentucky Constitutional Convention, and the Kentucky state legislature. Two of Johnson’s brothers served in the U.S. House of Representatives and a third was a federal district judge. The family excelled in securing government contracts for family members and friends, which along with their financial interests in local newspapers, added to their political influence.
Richard Johnson read for the law and was admitted to the bar in 1802. He started a law practice in Great Crossings, Kentucky, and operated a store and entered into other business ventures with his brothers. He also inherited a large amount of land and slaves from his father. He soon became a very wealthy man. Even so, he identified with the average man, and often represented them for free against more wealthy people. He often received people in need, such as veterans and widows, at his home. Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite, described him as “the most tender hearted, mild, affectionate and benevolent of men . . . whose countenance beams with good will to all, whose soul seems to feed on the milk of human kindness.” He “might have been a fashionable man if not for his retiring nature and plain . . . dress and manners.” One writer said Johnson possessed “the rare quality of being liked by everyone.” He would be described very differently later in his life.
From 1804 to 1806, Johnson served in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1806, and served for six consecutive terms. In 1818, he did not run for re-election, but instead ran for the U.S. Senate.
During the war of 1812, for which Johnson had worked and voted, he raised two mounted regiments and joined the command of General William Henry Harrison (who would lead the rival ticket to his in 1836). At the Battle of the Thames, Johnson led a heroic cavalry charge that overran the enemy position and helped secure a decisive victory in which the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was killed. Some witnesses later claimed that Johnson personally killed Tecumseh. Johnson took the credit for this kill, although his claim was never proven.
When Johnson returned to his seat in Congress in March 1814, he was hailed as a hero. He became a champion of veterans, working for compensation for disabled veterans, widows, and orphans. He also worked to improve and strengthen the military.
On December 10, 1819, Johnson was elected by the Kentucky legislature to fill the remaining term of Senator John J. Crittenden. Johnson was re-elected and served in the Senate for ten years, from 1819 to 1829. He entered the Senate heavily in debt due to financial reverses and failed speculations during the recent economic depression. Johnson seemed to be on the verge of bankruptcy for most of the rest of his life, and became a champion in the effort to eliminate imprisonment for debt. He led the effort to convince the Kentucky legislature to eliminate it in 1821, and then led the decade long fight in Congress which led to the elimination of the federal imprisonment for debt in 1832.
While in the Senate, Johnson became part of the group led by Van Buren that formed the core of the new Democratic Party. He also became a leading supporter of Andrew Jackson. He supported Jackson in the election of 1824. Johnson was not re-elected to the Senate in 1828, mainly because democrats were afraid the controversy over his personal life might hurt Andrew Jackson’s chances of carrying Kentucky. It was this personal life that would lead to his eventual political problems in 1836 and 1840.
Johnson took as his common-law wife a slave named Julia Chinn. He had inherited Julia from his father, and lived openly with her, treating her in all respects as his wife. He fathered two daughters with her and raised them as his daughters. When they married, both to white men, he gave them large tracts of land as a wedding present. When he was away from home, serving in Congress, Julia Chinn was left with full authority over his business affairs in his absence.
Largely because of his personal living arrangements, Johnson was defeated for re-election in 1828. He tried three more times to return to the Senate. He was defeated by Henry Clay in 1831 and 1848, and by John J. Crittenden in 1842. Still popular in his own congressional district, he was returned to the House of Representatives in 1829, and served until he became Vice President in 1837.
Richard Mentor Johnson entered the U.S. Senate in 1819 to fill a vacancy, and was elected to a full term in 1822. He was defeated for re-election in 1828, largely because of his personal life. A slave owner from Kentucky, Johnson was extremely popular in his congressional district which overlooked his unusual lifestyle choices. But as a senator, he answered to the state at large, and the powerful plantation aristocracy could not overlook his choice of a slave as a wife.
However, his congressional district returned Johnson to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1829 when his Senate term ended. During the two terms of President Andrew Jackson, Johnson was a loyal Jacksonian and served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs (1833-1837).
Johnson was an early candidate for the 1832 democratic presidential nomination, but withdrew after Jackson announced he would seek a second term. Johnson then set his sights on the Vice Presidency, but that went to Martin Van Buren. Shortly after Jackson’s second inauguration, the Political Register reported “the western States are flooded with handbills nominating Col. Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, as a candidate for the Presidency in 1836.” William Emmons, a friend of Johnson’s, published “The Authentic Biography of Colonel Richard M. Johnson” in 1833. Richard Emmons’ play, “Tecumseh, of the Battle of the Thames” became a hit the next year. Richard Emmons also wrote a poem, one line of which read, “Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” This became a Democratic slogan in the elections of 1836 and 1840.
Johnson greatly enjoyed his new-found celebrity, but his popularity also rested on his advocacy of veterans issues, his fight to abolish imprisonment for debt, and his support for continuing Sunday mail delivery. He also supported Jackson’s fiscal policies, especially his opposition to the Bank of the United States. His popularity in the west made him an early choice of some of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” (his unofficial advisors) for a place on the ticket as a means to neutralize Henry Clay’s popularity in the West.
In 1836, the Democratic convention gave the presidential nomination to Martin Van Buren. There was never any question about this choice, as President Jackson supported it enthusiastically. The choice for the vice presidential nomination was not as clear. Most of the party regulars wanted Senator William Cabell Rives of Virginia, including Van Buren.
Van Buren considered “the gallant Colonel . . . among the bravest of the brave” but also thought that Johnson could not be “relied upon to check the cupidity of his friends.” Jackson, concerned about the independent candidacy of Hugh Lawson White, popular with western voters, thought Johnson a better choice given his western following. Even with Jackson’s considerable influence, Johnson only won the vice presidential nomination after New York Senator Silas Wright grabbed a non-delegate named Edward Rucker from Tennessee to cast the state’s fifteen votes for the absent Tennessee delegation in Johnson’s favor.
The Virginia delegation refused to support the nomination, and stormed out of the convention. One leading democrat warned Jackson that “I do not think from what I hear daily that the nomination of Johnson for the Vice Presidency will be popular in any of the slave holding states except Ky. On account of his former domestic relations.” Another worried that “Col. Johnson’s . . . weight would absolutely sink the whole party in Virginia.” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron warned that Johnson was “not only positively unpopular in Tennessee, but affirmatively odious” and asked President Jackson “to assure our friends that the humblest of us do not believe that a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the Vice Presidency.” He was concerned that “the very moment Col. J. is announced, the newspapers will open upon him with facts, that he had endeavored often to force his daughters into society, that the mother in her life time, and they now, rode in carriages, and claimed equality.”
Johnson’s “domestic relations” involved his marriage. He took Julia Chinn, a slave he inherited from his father, and made her his common law wife. He further angered polite society by trying to introduce her into society with the social rank his wife would normally hold, even taking her to formal parties and other social events. He had two daughters with Julia, and treated them fully as his daughters rather than as mere farm property. They both married white men, and he gave both of them large tracts of land as wedding gifts.
When Julia died during a cholera epidemic in 1833, Johnson took another of his slaves as his next wife. Again, he made her mistress of his plantation home and tried to confer upon her the social status as his wife at social events. This wife, however, ran off with another slave, her common law husband prior to Johnson. Johnson tracked her down, and took her to a slave auction, where she was sold to a slave owner from deeper in the South. Johnson then took that woman’s sister as his third wife, again trying to elevate her from slave to one of the leading women of southern society. She often referred to him as “my dear Colonel.”
Johnson’s actions in “marrying” slaves, trying to recognize them as equal to white plantation aristocracy ladies and forcing them upon society as such, cost him, and the Democratic ticket, many southern votes. His selling of his “wife” back into slavery hurt him, and again the Democratic ticket, in the North. For all this, Johnson failed to help win western votes he was expected to attract. In fact, Johnson’s presence on the ticket did not even help them in Kentucky, which they lost to Harrison and the Whigs.
In spite of all this, Van Buren and Johnson managed to win a narrow popular vote majority and a majority in the electoral college. All the Democratic electors voted for Van Buren for President. But the Virginia delegation refused to vote for Johnson for Vice President, casting their 23 votes for William Smith. This resulted in Johnson having one vote less than a majority, and threw the election of the Vice President into the U.S. Senate.
When Congress convened to count the electoral vote, Van Buren had 170 and was declared “duly elected President of the United States.” When the votes for Vice President were counted, Johnson had 147, one vote short of a majority. Francis Granger had 77, and William Smith had 23. The Senate then retired to their own chamber to elect the Vice President according to the Constitution. When the Senators voted along strict party lines, Johnson had 33, Granger had 16, and President Pro Tem William King (who himself would be elected Vice President in 1852) declared Johnson “constitutionally elected Vice President of the United States for four years, commencing on the fourth day of March, 1837.”
As Vice President, Johnson found himself with considerably less influence than he had while a member of Congress. During Jackson’s two terms, Johnson’s influence in the House and his long-standing personal and political friendship with Jackson had always assured him access to the President and the influence that went with that access. Given his rivalry with Van Buren, plus his poor showing in the 1836 election, he found his role in the Van Buren administration very limited. Johnson’s activities were confined to the Senate chamber where he served as presiding officer.
Johnson was considered a competent presiding officer, but not a brilliant one. He made the most of his power to assign Senators to standing and select committees to continue to gain favors for himself and his family and friends. When he entered the Vice Presidency, he was still heavily in debt. He opened the Choctaw Academy and received funds for each student he enrolled as part of the government’s attempt to “socialize and civilize” Native Americans. He also opened a spa, hotel and tavern at White Sulphur Spring, Kentucky. Although very successful and fashionable, this spa became an embarrassment to the Van Buren administration. Johnson spent much of his term running his spa rather than being in Washington.
As his debts mounted and the chronic pain he suffered from wounds received in 1813 increased, Johnson changed. His appearance ceased to be elegant and urbane, but rather unkempt and disheveled. His “plain Republican manners” which had earlier charmed people were seen as crude and vulgar. As the election of 1840 approached, things did not look good for Van Buren’s chances of being re-elected. The nation’s first depression made the Democratic administration very unpopular and vulnerable. Johnson’s liabilities could not be afforded. Even Jackson withdrew his support for Johnson’s re-nomination.
When the Democratic convention met, the delegates refused to re-nominate Johnson for the Vice Presidency. This caused such a division, which the Democrats could not afford, that they actually adjourned without naming a Vice Presidential nominee. Johnson, unfazed, ran as an independent and most voters assumed he was the Democratic nominee. Van Buren (or Van Buren and Johnson, if you wish) were defeated by William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, the Whig candidates.
Richard Mentor Johnson was one of those Vice Presidents who had the unpleasant duty, as presiding officer of the Senate, to count the electoral votes and announce the winners in the election of 1840. It fell to Johnson to announce that John Tyler (and not Richard Mentor Johnson) “was duly elected Vice President of the United States for four years, commencing with the fourth day of March, 1841.”
The election of 1840 effectively ended Johnson’s political career. He tried three more times to win election to the U.S. Senate, but lost to Henry Clay twice and John J. Crittenden . In 1844, he tried to gain a place on the Democratic ticket, but failed. Even his old friend Andrew Jackson warned Van Buren, who was the front-runner for the presidential nomination, that Johnson would be dead weight on the ticket.
Johnson was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1850, but was too ill to do much. It was said that he was suffering from dementia. Shortly after he took his seat in the legislature on November 8, 1850, the Louisville Daily Journal reported “it is painful to see him on the floor attempting to discharge the duties of a member.” Johnson suffered a stroke, and died on November 19, 1850. A Kentucky state senator eulogized Johnson saying, “He was the poor man’s friend, void of ostentation, simple in his taste, his manners, and his dress – – – brave, magnanimous, patriotic and generous to a fault, in his earliest years he was the beau ideal of the soul and the chivalry of Kentucky.”