On February 8, 1837 the United State Senate voted along party lines to elect Democrat Richard Mentor Johnson Vice President under Martin Van Buren. It was the first and only time in the nation’s history that the Vice President was selected in this manner consistent with the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution.
How the man selected personally by Andrew Jackson to be the running mate of his anointed successor in the White House came to this embarrassing situation despite the fact that Van Buren easily won enough Electoral Votes to be elected is the crux of today’s story.
Johnson, like most Vice Presidents, has virtually disappeared from the pages of popular history. But he was once one of the great men of the nation—a genuine war hero, longtime member of the House of Representatives and a leader of his party, a former Senator, a popular figure lauded for his defense of “the little guy” against the tyranny of money lenders and banks, a staunch defender of the Union in time of crisis.
Richard Johnson was born on the Kentucky frontier on October 17, 1780. The American Revolution was still going on, although after the Battle of Yorktown the next year major action east of the Appalachian’s slowed as diplomats in Europe sought a negotiated peace.
But the war was far from over in the distant West where the English armed native tribes to make unremitting war on the isolated settlements, farms, and forts on both sides of the Ohio River. Johnson was not yet two years old when the Tory Simon Girty leading a large force of Seneca warriors attacked Bryan’s Station, a fort harboring settlers driven from their farms by raiding parties. His mother was hailed as a heroine for devising a plan and leading the women of the fort to leave its confines and under the nose of advance scout, fill their pots, buckets, and basket with water so that the Fort could withstand a siege.
Johnson’s father was a surveyor, a craft that made him moderately well to do by frontier standards and allowed him to have early claim on choice land. After the Revolution he and his family prospered.
Although he received no more than perhaps a few month of schooling, Johnson’s father must have tutored him. He enrolled in Transylvania University in Lexington at the age of 15. The school was the premier institution of higher learning in the West. He apparently graduated in two years and went to read law with George Nicholas and then with James Brown, both Professors at the University. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1802,
He hung out his shingle at Great Crossing in Scott County where his father and older brothers had established themselves comfortably on land purchased from two Virginia Tidewater land speculators—Patrick Henry and James Madison. Despite his family’s status as the local squires, Johnson seemed to feel a genuine fondness for his less fortunate neighbors. He took many of their cases pro bono defending their land claims against the powerful speculators who swept up thousands upon thousands of western acres by hook or by crook. These cases made him a popular man in the county.
Popularity translated into a political career when his neighbors elected him to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1804 when he was only twenty-three years old, two years too young to legally serve under the state Constitution. In fact he was so popular that no one challenged him and he took his seat.
About this time, reportedly after a failed love affair with a young woman from a “good family,” Johnson took up with his slave, Julia Chinn. This was far from uncommon. In fact enjoying the “favors” of their chattel seemed to standard behavior which everyone politely ignored as long as things were done discretely. But Johnson was not discrete. He openly cohabitated with Chinn and when she gave him two daughters, acknowledged them and raised them. He told one and all that he would marry her legally if Kentucky law allowed, and considered the two of the “married in the eyes of God.”
Chinn was a light skinned octoroon. Johnson never officially freed her because, oddly, her status as his possession allowed him to protect her. He did free his daughters, who could and did “pass for white” and who both married white men. When Johnson was away, as he frequently was for long periods of time as a soldier and politician, she capably managed the affairs of the household. Their long relationship seemed firmly based on deep affection.
Their immediate neighbors seemed to take the arrangement in stride, and even “respectable” women allowed themselves to be entertained by Julia, the de-facto mistress of the house. Unfortunately as Johnson stepped on a wider stage and as sectional differences over slavery became more acute, he would find others far less tolerant than his neighbors.
Those neighbors so esteemed him that they elected in to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1804. He was also too young to serve under the terms of the U.S. Constitution when he was elected but passed his 25th birthday before he was sworn in the following March.
Thus began a long and distinguished service in the House, where he served until 1818 and rapidly became a leader of the Democratic-Republican block. He continued to be a champion of small farmers, mechanics, and debtors and rose to prominence as one of the leading voices against the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the U.S.
As tensions rose between the U.S. and Britain over the reluctance of the British to abandon Forts deep in American territory, the sponsorship of tribes who continued to make low level war on the advancing line of western settlements, and the impressments of American seamen for service in the Royal Navy, Johnson allied himself with Henry Clay, another Kentucky congressman, to become a leader of the War Hawks.
When war did break out, Johnson left his seat in Congress—twice—raised troops, and went to battle. He first raised a battalion among his neighbors and was then elected Colonel of the regiment of Kentucky Volunteers to which it was attached. William Henry Harrison, Territorial Governor of Indiana, commander of the entire Northwest frontier ordered Johnson to relieve Fort Wayne, then under siege by the British and their Native allies. After a forced march he succeeded in lifting the siege. On his own authority he then hunted and burned enemy Potawatomi villages along the Elkhart River on the way home.
His 90 day troops disbanded and Johnson returned to Congress. But in Washington he lobbied for a new plan to conduct war against the tribes. Previously heavy Army columns encumbered by major baggage trains would lumber into the wilderness, be slowed by the necessity to hack roads for the wagons, while bands of warriors would melt into forest never to be seen, perhaps hectoring the heavy column with hit and run ambushes.
Johnson proposed to raise a force of light mounted rifles that could break away from supply lines and move quickly. He also recommended striking the principle villages, rather than chasing bands of hostiles and hitting them in winter when the warriors would have to defend the meager food supplies of their people. Eventually President Madison and his Secretary of War recommended the plan to Harrison, who approved it except for the winter campaign.
Johnson raised his mounted riflemen, outfitting many of them at his own expense, and was placed nominally under Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby. Most of the rest of Shelby’s force were ill trained Militia infantry. Johnson and his men operated mostly independently. Between May and September 1813 his force hectored the Indians, burned several smaller villages and surrounded and trapped small, isolated groups of warrior using innovative tactics. When the British were defeated on Lake Erie, the tribes south of the Lakes were mostly deprived of British arms, ammunition, and provisions. Warriors could not hunt for winter because they were on the defensive in their own territory.
British troops in the Northwest began falling back on Ft. Detroit. Tecumseh, in command of their Indian allies tried to cover their retreat. But that required massing his forces. Johnson’s cavalry trapped and defeated the main force of Indians on September 29 and four days later captured the major British baggage train on its retreat. The British and Tecumseh’s Indians were forced to stand and fight at the Battle of the Thames on October 5. Johnson was forced to dismount his men because of boggy ground, but continued to personally command from the saddle exposing himself to heavy fire.
After a force commanded by one of his brothers smashed the 800 British Regulars, Johnson pressed forward against Tecumseh and a band of 15 braves who took advantage of cover to pepper the attackers with lethal fire. But eventually they were forced into the swamp where some drowned and others were picked off at will by sharpshooters.
At the end of the battle Johnson was found unhorsed and riddled with bullet wounds. Within feet was the body of Tecumseh. Although no one witnessed the event, many believed that Johnson had killed him before collapsing from his horse.
Overnight Richard Johnson was one of the most celebrated heroes of the War of 1812. He returned to Washington and his duties in the House, but was trying to raise yet another force when the war ended.
He spent the immediate post-war years, the so-called Era of Good Feelings after the old Federalist Party collapsed leaving the Democratic-Republicans in total control of the Federal Government, pressing for pension benefits for the troops and relief for war orphans, a popular cause that cemented his reputation as a champion of the people.
With his military experience, he also took a leading role in supervising the Department of the Army. When General Andrew Jackson was brought up on charges of hanging two British citizens in Florida, Johnson was placed in charge of the Congressional Committee which in the end refused to sanction the Hero of New Orleans. That won him the undying loyalty of Jackson and the enmity of his former ally Henry Clay.
Clay would go on to consolidate a new anti-Jackson party, the Whigs and the two Kentuckians were evermore sworn enemies.
In 1818 Johnson announced his retirement from the House with the intent of seeking election to the U.S. Senate by vote of the Kentucky Senate. Clay, using the scandal of Johnson’s relationship with Julia Chinn managed to block election in the spring of 1819, but the state’s other seat became vacant later in the year and Johnson was elected to fill the unexpired term in December. He won a full term on his own in 1823.
In the Senate Johnson was the leading voice against the re-charter of the Second Bank. He also submitted legislation every year of his tenure to end the practice of imprisonment for debt, which was viciously fought by banking interests. Despite getting it through the Senate three times, he could never overcome Clay’s opposition in the House.
Johnson’s other great battle in the Senate was preserving the separation of Church and State. As Chairman of the Committee on the Post Office and Roads he drafted a controversial report opposing a call by Evangelicals to end postal service on Sunday in recognition of the Sabbath. Johnson maintained that the Sabbath was a religious construction, not a civil one the Post Office could offer no preference for any religious practice. The report drew the ire of ministers riding the crest of one of America’s periodic Awakenings. They smeared Johnson, a practicing Baptist, as a godless man who lay in sin with a Negress.
The issue and the whisper campaign cost Johnson re-election by the Kentucky Senate in 1829. He returned home to Julia and to attend his business affairs.
But he could not give up politics. He served four years back in the Kentucky House of Representatives where his career began before being returned to the U.S. House in 1833. Once again he was put in charge of a Postal Committee and once again he issued a report opposing Sunday mail delivery. It was a spit in the face of his enemies and critics.
He also revived his long cherished dream of ending imprisonment for debt. This time President Andrew Jackson, a close political ally, signaled his support in a State of the Union Message. Johnson finally got the measure through the House and the Senate also passed it. Jackson signed it into law in July 1832.
Johnson now had powerful enemies, but also many friends, some of whom tried to stir up a boom for him for President in 1834. Flattered, Johnson however refused to abandon the President. He did hope, however, to be rewarded with a spot on the ticket. Jackson preferred his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. Despite winning votes of four states at the Democratic Convention, Johnson withdrew and loyally supported the ticket.
In 1838, despite the urging of Davey Crockett, John Bell, and other friends, he went along with Jackson’s choice of Van Buren as his successor. This time Jackson wanted his war hero friend to balance the New Yorker, who had never seen action. Van Buren was less than enthusiastic about the match, but was unwilling to cross Jackson.
At the Democratic Convention southern delegates tried to block Johnson’s nomination, citing the affair with Julia. Julia, by the way had died in 1833. But the smear campaign would not go away. Johnson did nothing to disarm it by taking up with yet another slave, albeit slightly more discretely. When that woman left him, he sold her and took up with her sister. Tongues were wagging. Despite the desertion of some southern delegates, Johnson hung on to get the bare minimum of the 2/3 majority of votes required for the nomination.
He campaigned vigorously for the ticket. In November Van Buren handily beat back three regional Whig candidates—Westerner William Henry Harrison, New England’s Daniel Webster, and Southerner Hugh Lawson White. The Whigs hoped for a split result with no majority in the Electoral College sending the election to the House where they had strong support. The plan failed. Van Buren romped to a victory not only in the popular vote but in the Electoral College.
But when it came time for the College to cast a vote for Vice President, Virginia’s 23 faithless Electors refused to cast their votes for Johnson because of his “open, notorious, and scandalous behavior.” That left him one vote shy of a majority, sending the election to the Senate.
In the Senate vote, along party lines, Johnson was elected 36 to 13 with three abstentions. He got the job, but not without humiliation.
If Johnson thought that the Vice Presidency might lead to greater things, he was disappointed. The Panic of 1837 was the worst in history. Voters naturally blamed Van Buren, although there was not much he could have to prevent it, or within the understandings of the day, much he could do alleviate it.
Besides, the constant carping on Johnson’s sexual history had taken a toll. In the ’36 election he had been unable to swing the western states under the influence of Harrison and Clay. He even lost Kentucky. So when the election of 1840 rolled around most Democrats wanted to dump him from the ticket. This time Van Buren wanted to keep him to balance against the Whig nominee, old Tippecanoe himself, William Henry Harrison. Deadlocked on the issue, the Democratic convention declined to make a vice presidential nomination at all.
Johnson doggedly pursued the nomination on his own. Harrison and his running mate John Tyler easily defeated he unpopular Van Buren. In the Electoral College Van Buren earned 60 electoral votes, but 11 South Carolina and one Virginia Elector cast votes for others for vice president leaving the humiliated Johnson only 48.
Johnson once again returned home. He practiced a little law and attended to business affairs, including buying and personally operating a tavern. He still dreamed of a political come back. He went back into the Kentucky House for one term and made unsuccessful runs another Senate term in 1842, a doomed long-shot bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1844, and an aborted run for governor in 1848.
Despite deteriorating health and suspected dementia, Johnson finally succeeded in winning back his old Kentucky House seat in 1850. Days after taking his seat, the press reported him in the grips of dementia on the House floor and clearly, “incapable of properly exercising his physical or mental powers.” Ten days later on November 19, 1850 he died of a stroke at age 70.
Richard Mentor Johnson once walked with Titans, and by the standards of his day amassed a largely progressive body of public accomplishments. But he lies forgotten to day in a Frankfort, Kentucky cemetery because he was loyal to the slave woman he loved.