Richard Mentor Johnson (October 17, 1780 or 1781 – November 19, 1850) was the ninth Vice President of the United States, serving in the administration of Martin Van Buren. He was the only vice-president ever elected by the United States Senate under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. Johnson also represented Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and began and ended his political career in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1806. He became allied with fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay as a member of the War Hawks faction that favored war with Britain in 1812. At the outset of the War of 1812, Johnson was commissioned a colonel in the army. He and his brother James served under William Henry Harrison in Upper Canada. Johnson participated in the Battle of the Thames where some maintain that he personally killed the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, a fact he later used to his political advantage.
Following the war, Johnson returned to the House of Representatives, and was elevated to the Senate in 1819 to fill the seat vacated by John J. Crittenden, who resigned to become Attorney General. As his constituency grew, his interracial relationship with a mulatto slave named Julia Chinn was more widely criticized, damaging to his political ambition. Unlike other leaders who had relationships with their slaves, Johnson was open about his relationship with Chinn, and regarded her as his common law wife. He freely claimed Chinn's two daughters as his own, much to the consternation of some in his constituency. The relationship was a major factor in the 1829 election that cost him his seat in the Senate, but his district returned him to the House the following year.
In 1836, Johnson was the Democratic nominee for vice-president on a ticket with Martin Van Buren. Campaigning with the slogan "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh", Johnson fell just short of the electoral votes needed to secure his election when Virginia's delegation to the electoral college bucked the vote of their state and refused to cast their votes for Johnson. He was elected to the office by the Senate along sharp party lines.
Johnson proved such a liability for the Democrats in the 1836 election that the party refused to renominate him for vice-president in 1840. Instead, Van Buren campaigned with no running mate, and lost the election to William Henry Harrison. Johnson made several failed attempts to return to elected office, and he finally returned to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1850. He died on November 19, 1850, just two weeks into his term.
Johnson's mother was considered a heroine for her actions during Simon Girty's raid on Bryan's Station in August 1782. The traditional story runs: As Girty's forces surrounded the fort, the occupants discovered that there was no water inside. A number of Indians concealed themselves near the spring from which the settlement drew water; however, the fort's inhabitants believed it unlikely that they would show themselves until they believed they could capture the stockade. Jemima Johnson was the first to approve of a plan to allow the women to go and draw water from the spring as usual. There was a risk that the Indians would assault the women, and many of the men disapproved of the plan, but devoid of other options, they eventually acquiesced. Less than an hour after sunrise, the women drew the water and returned safely. Soon thereafter, the raid commenced. A band of Indian warriors managed to set fire to some houses and stables, but a favorable wind prevented the fires from spreading. The fort's children used the water drawn by the women to extinguish the fires. One of the enemy's flaming arrows landed in the crib of the infant, Richard Mentor Johnson, but it was quickly doused by Johnson's sister Betsy. During the afternoon, reinforcements arrived from Lexington and Boone Station, and the fort was saved.
By 1784, the family had moved again, this time to Great Crossing in Scott County, on land purchased by Johnson's father from Patrick Henry and James Madison. Johnson's father was a surveyor, and made a moderate fortune through well-chosen land purchases.
The biographies in Johnson's lifetime say his formal education did not begin until age fifteen, and he entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky shortly thereafter. There is no contemporary record of his attendance, but the records before 1802 are incomplete. By 1799, he was studying law with George Nicholas and then with James Brown, who were Professors of Law at the University in addition to private practice; he was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1802, and opened his office at Great Crossing. Later, he owned a retail store and pursued a number of business ventures with his brothers. Johnson often worked pro bono for poor people, prosecuting their cases against the rich. He also opened his home to disabled veterans, widows, and orphans.
Julia Chinn died in an outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1833. Following his wife's death, Johnson engaged in a relationship with another family slave. When she left him for another man, Johnson had her captured and sold at auction. He then began a relationship with her sister.
Johnson and Chinn had two daughters, Adaline Chinn Johnson and Imogene Chinn Johnson. Johnson saw to it that both girls were provided an education. Both daughters married white men, whereupon Johnson gave them large tracts of land from his own holdings. Adeline Chinn had no children, and died in 1836. Despite Johnson's treatment of Imogene as a daughter, she did not inherit his estate. Upon Johnson's death, the Fayette County Court ruled that "he left no widow, children, father, or mother living" and divided his estate between his living brothers, John and Henry.
Johnson's political service began in 1804 when he was elected to represent Scott County in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was only twenty-three at the time of his election. Although the Kentucky Constitution imposed an age requirement of twenty-four for members of the House of Representatives, Johnson was so popular that no one raised questions about his age, and he was allowed to take his seat. He was immediately placed on the Committee on Courts of Justice. During his tenure, he supported legislation to protect settlers from land speculators. On January 26, 1807, he delivered an address condemning the Burr conspiracy.
Johnson held his seat until 1806 when he was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the United States House of Representatives. At the time of his election in August 1806, he did not meet the U.S. Constitution's age requirement for service in the House (25), but by the time the congressional session commenced the following March, he was of the required age. He would serve six consecutive terms. From 1807 to 1813, he represented Kentucky's Fourth District. He secured one of Kentucky's at-large seats in the House from 1813 to 1815, and represented Kentucky's Third District from 1815 to 1819. He continued to represent the interests of the poor as a member of the House and first came to national attention with his opposition to rechartering the First Bank of the United States.
Johnson served as chairman of the Committee on Claims during the Eleventh Congress (1809–1811). The committee was charged with adjudicating financial claims made by veterans of the Revolutionary War. In his capacity as chair, he sought to influence the committee to grant the claim of Alexander Hamilton's widow to wages Hamilton had declined when serving under George Washington. Although Hamilton was a champion of the rival Federalist Party, Johnson had compassion on Hamilton's widow and, before the end of his term, secured payment of the wages.
Johnson returned to his seat in Congress in the late fall of 1812 and devised a plan, based on his experience, to defeat the guerilla warfare of the Indians. The difficulty had always been that American troops moved slowly and were dependent on a supply line; Indians would evade battle and raid supplies until the American forces were compelled to withdraw or could be overrun. Mounted riflemen could move quickly, carry their own supplies, and live off the woods. If they attacked Indian villages in winter, the Indians would be compelled to stand and fight for their own winter supplies, and could be decisively defeated. Johnson submitted this plan to President James Madison and Secretary of War John Armstrong, who approved it in principle. They referred the plan to Harrison, who found winter operations impracticable, but Johnson was permitted to try it in the summer of 1813; later Indian wars were conducted in winter..
Johnson left Washington, D.C. just before Congress adjourned; this time he raised a thousand men, nominally part of the militia brigade under Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, but largely operating independently. He disciplined his men, required that every man have his arms in prime condition and ready to hand, and hired gunsmiths, blacksmiths, and doctors at his own expense. He devised a new tactical system: when any group of men encountered the enemy, they were to dismount, take cover, and hold the enemy in place. All groups not in contact were to ride to the sound of firing, and dismount, surrounding the enemy when they got there. Between May and September, Johnson raided throughout the Northwest, burning Indian villages, surrounding Indian units and scattering them, and killing some Indian warriors each time.
In September, Oliver Hazard Perry destroyed most of the British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie, taking control of the lake. This put the British army, then at Fort Malden (now Amherstburg, Ontario) out of supply, and threatened to cut it off from the rest of Canada by a landing to the east. The British, under General Henry Procter, withdrew to the northeast, followed by Harrison, who had advanced through Michigan while Johnson kept the Indians engaged. Tecumseh covered the British retreat, but was countered by Johnson, who had been called back from a raid on Kaskaskia that had taken the post where the British had distributed arms and money. Johnson's cavalry defeated Tecumseh's main force on September 29, took British supply trains on October 3, and was one of the factors inducing Procter to stand and fight at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, as Tecumseh had been demanding he do.
At the battle itself, Johnson's forces were the first to attack. One battalion of five hundred men, under Johnson's elder brother, James Johnson, engaged the British force of eight hundred regulars; simultaneously, Richard Johnson, with the other, now somewhat smaller battalion, attacked the fifteen hundred Indians led by Tecumseh. There was too much tree cover for the British volleys to be effective against James Johnson; three quarters of the regulars were killed or captured.
The Indians were a harder fight; they were out of the main field of battle, skirmishing on the edge of an adjacent swamp. Richard Johnson eventually ordered a suicide squad of twenty men to ride forward and draw the Indians' fire, planning to charge with the rest as they reloaded. But the ground before the Indian position was too swampy to support many cavalry. Johnson had to order his men to dismount and hold until Shelby's infantry came up. But eventually they broke, and fled into the swamp. At some point in that fight Tecumseh was slain.
Richard Johnson was credited later with killing Tecumseh personally. Indian reports were that Tecumseh was killed by a man on horseback, and Johnson was one of the few mounted men at that side of the battle. (His own men had dismounted, and Shelby's were infantry.) Furthermore, Johnson, who had been wounded four times already, had been shot in the shoulder by an Indian chief who was advancing to tomahawk Johnson, when he shot back and killed the Indian instantly with a single pistol shot. A nineteenth-century source asserts that Tecumseh's body was found, near Johnson's hat and scabbard, shot from above (as from horseback), and wounded with Johnson's usual load of two buckshot and a pistol ball.
Johnson fell unconscious after this duel and was dragged from the battlefield; in addition to his five wounds, twenty other bullets had hit his horse and gear.. But the war in the Northwest was over. Although there was no organized resistance to his presence in Canada, Harrison withdrew to Detroit because of supply problems. (The Canadians would not feed his men.) Johnson eventually recovered, except for a crippled hand, but he was still suffering from his wounds when he returned to the House in February 1814.
In August 1814, British forces attacked Washington, D.C. and burned the White House. The Federalists, who had opposed the war, now proposed moving the capital to Columbia, Kentucky, a decision which Johnson opposed. The measure was defeated, and Congress instead formed a committee to investigate the circumstances that allowed Washington to be captured. Johnson chaired this committee, and delivered its final report. Following the sacking of Washington, the tide of battle turned against the British, and the Treaty of Ghent ended the war even as Johnson prepared to return to Kentucky to raise another military unit. With the end of the war, he turned his legislative attention to issues such as securing pensions for widows and orphans and funding internal improvements in the West.
The bill passed the House and Senate quickly and was made law on March 19, 1816. However, the measure proved extremely unpopular with voters, in part because it applied to the current Congress. Many legislators who supported the bill lost their congressional seats as a result, including Johnson's colleague from Kentucky, Solomon P. Sharp. Johnson's popularity in other matters helped him retain his seat, and two days into the next session, he recanted his support for the law. It was quickly repealed in that session, and in its place legislators passed an increase in the per diem salary.
In 1817, Congress investigated General Andrew Jackson's execution of two British subjects during the First Seminole War. Johnson chaired the committee which conducted the inquiry. The majority of the committee favored a negative report and a censure for Jackson. Johnson, a Jackson supporter, drafted a counter report that was more favorable to Jackson and opposed the censure. The ensuing debate pitted Johnson against fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay. Johnson's report prevailed, and Jackson was spared censure. This disagreement between Johnson and Clay, however, marked the beginning of a political separation between the two that lasted for the duration of their careers.
President James Monroe seriously considered Johnson for the position of Secretary of War after Henry Clay declined the office, but the post ultimately went to John C. Calhoun. Nevertheless, Johnson wielded considerable influence over defense policy as chair of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of War during the Fifteenth Congress. In 1818, he approved an expedition to build a military outpost near the present site of Bismarck, North Dakota on the Yellowstone River; he awarded the contract to his brother James. Although the Yellowstone Expedition was an ultimate failure and cost the U.S. Treasury a good deal of money, the Johnsons escaped political ill will in their home district because the venture was seen as a peacekeeping endeavor on the frontier.
Johnson's term in the House expired March 3, 1819, but by August, he had returned to the state legislature where he helped secure passage of a law that abolished imprisonment for debtors in Kentucky. In December 1819, he resigned his post in the state legislature to fill the Senate seat vacated by the resignation of John J. Crittenden. He was re-elected to a full term in 1823, so that in total, his Senate tenure ran from December 10, 1819 to March 4, 1829. In 1821, he introduced legislation chartering Columbian College (later The George Washington University) in Washington, D.C.
There had been inflation after the War of 1812, and the establishment of the Second Bank of the United States. In these times, when paper currency was privatized, this took the form of wildcat banks. Johnson, like many other Kentuckians, was caught in the ensuing financial collapse, the Panic of 1819. He therefore took a strong part in the politically popular struggle for debt relief, and some form of bankruptcy legislation, called the Relief War, which would help his own problems and those of his neighbors.
Part of Johnson's campaign for relief was the abolition of the practice of debt imprisonment nationwide. It would take him nearly ten years to see this goal accomplished. He first spoke to the issue in the Senate on December 14, 1822, introducing a bill to end the practice, and pointing to the positive effects its cessation had effected in his home state. The bill failed, but Johnson persisted in re-introducing it every year. In 1824, it passed the Senate, but was too late to be acted upon by the House. It passed the Senate a second time in 1828, but again, the House failed to act on it, and the measure died for some years, owing to Johnson's exit from the Senate the following year.
Already known for securing government contracts for himself, as well as his brothers and friends, he established the Choctaw Academy, a school devoted to the education of the Indians, on his farm in Scott County in 1825. Although he never ran afoul of the conflict of interest standards of his day, some of his colleagues considered his actions ethically questionable.
Another pet project Johnson supported was prompted by his friendship with John Cleves Symmes, Jr., who proposed that the Earth was hollow. In 1823, Johnson proposed in the Senate that the government fund an expedition to the center of the Earth. The proposal was soundly defeated, receiving only twenty-five votes.
Johnson served as chairman of the Committee on Post Office and Post Roads during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Congresses. Near the end of his term in the Senate, petitioners asked Congress to prevent the handling and delivery of mail on Sunday because it violated biblical principles about the Sabbath. These petitions were referred to Johnson's committee, and in response, Johnson, a practicing Baptist, drafted a report now commonly referred to as "The Sunday Mail Report". In the report, presented to Congress on January 19, 1829, Johnson argued that government was "a civil, and not a religious institution", and as such could not legislate the tenets of any particular denomination. The report was applauded as an elegant defense of the doctrine of separation of church and state, but again Johnson did not escape charges of conflict of interest due to his having friends who were contracted to haul mail, and who would have suffered financially from the proposal.
Johnson was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1829, owing in part to his relationship with Julia Chinn. Although members of his own district seemed little bothered by the arrangement, slaveholders elsewhere in the state were not so forgiving. In his own defense, Johnson contended "Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections."
Some contemporaries doubted Johnson's authorship of this second report. Many claimed it was instead written by Amos Kendall. Kendall claimed he had seen the report only after it had been drafted and said he had only altered "one or two words." Kendall speculated that the author could be Reverend O.B. Brown, but historian Leland Meyer concludes that there is no reason to doubt that Johnson authored the report himself.
Johnson chaired the Committee on Military Affairs during the Twenty-second, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth Congresses. Beginning in 1830, there arose a groundswell of public support for Johnson's "pet project" of ending debt imprisonment. The subject began to appear more frequently in President Jackson's addresses to the legislature. Johnson chaired a House committee to report on the subject, and delivered the committee's report on January 17, 1832. Later that year, a bill abolishing the practice of debt imprisonment passed both houses of Congress, and was signed into law on July 14.
Johnson's stands won him widespread popularity and endorsement by George H. Evans, Robert Dale Owen, and Theophilus Fisk for the presidency in 1832, but Johnson abandoned his campaign when Andrew Jackson announced he would seek a second term. He then began campaigning to become Jackson's running mate, but Jackson favored Martin Van Buren instead. At the Democratic National Convention, Johnson finished a distant third in the vice-presidential balloting, receiving only the votes of the Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois delegations; William B. Lewis had to persuade him to withdraw
William Emmons, the Boston printer, published a biography of Johnson in New York dated July 1833. Richard Emmons, from Great Crossing, Kentucky, followed this up with a play entitled Tecumseh, of the Battle of the Thames and a poem in honor of Johnson. Many of Johnson's friends and supporters – Davy Crockett and John Bell among them – encouraged him to run for president. Jackson, however, supported Vice-President Van Buren for the office. Johnson accepted this choice, and once again turned his sights on a nomination for vice-president.
Emmons' poem provided the line that became Johnson's campaign slogan: "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh." Jackson supported Johnson for vice-president, thinking that the war hero would balance the ticket with Van Buren, who had not served in the War of 1812. Johnson's loyalty and Jackson's anger at Johnson's primary rival, William Cabell Rives also played into his decision.
Despite Jackson's support, the party was far from united behind Johnson. Van Buren himself preferred Rives as a running mate. In a letter to Jackson, Tennessee Supreme Court justice John Catron doubted that "a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the vice presidency". Although he was now a "widower", there was still some dissension due to Johnson's relationship with a slave. The 1835 Democratic National Convention, in Baltimore, in May 1835, was held under the two-thirds rule, largely to demonstrate Van Buren's wide popularity, and, although Van Buren himself was nominated unanimously, Johnson barely obtained the necessary two thirds of the vote. (A motion was made to change the rule, but it obtained only a bare majority, not two thirds.)
Tennessee's delegation did not attend the convention, so Edward Rucker, a Tennessean who happened to be in Baltimore, was picked to cast its 15 votes, so that all the states would endorse Van Buren. Silas Wright, of New York, prevailed upon Rucker to vote for Johnson, giving him just more than twice the votes cast for Rives, and the nomination.
Jackson's faith in Johnson to balance the ticket proved misplaced. In the general election, Johnson cost the Democrats votes in the South, where his relationship with Chinn was particularly unpopular. He also failed to garner much support from the West, where he was supposed to be strong due to his reputation as an Indian fighter and war hero. He even failed to deliver his home state of Kentucky for the Democrats. Regardless, the Democrats still won the popular vote.
When the electoral vote was counted in Congress on February 8, 1837, it was revealed that while Van Buren received 170 votes for president, Johnson had received only 147 for vice-president. Although Virginia had elected electors pledged to both Van Buren and Johnson, the state's 23 electors refused to vote for Johnson, leaving him one electoral vote short of a majority. For the first time before or since, the Senate was charged with electing the Vice President under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. The vote divided strictly along party lines, with Johnson becoming vice-president by a vote of 36 to 16 for Whig Francis Granger, with three senators absent.
As presiding officer of the Senate, Johnson was called on to cast a tie-breaking vote fourteen times, more than all of his predecessors save John Adams and John Calhoun. Despite the precedent set by some of his predecessors, Johnson never addressed the Senate on the occasion of a tie-breaking vote; he did once explain his vote via an article in the Kentucky Gazette.
Following the financial Panic of 1837, Johnson took a nine-month leave of absence, during which he returned home to Kentucky and opened a tavern and spa on his farm to offset his continued financial problems. Upon visiting the establishment, Amos Kendall wrote to President Van Buren that he found Johnson \"happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping – even giving his personal superintendence to the chicken and egg purchasing and water-melon selling department\".
In his later political career, he became known for wearing a bright red vest and tie. He adopted this dress during his term as vice-president when he and James Reeside, a mail contractor known for his drab dress, passed a tailor's shop that displayed a bright red cloth in the window. Johnson suggested that Reeside should wear a red vest because the mail coaches he owned and operated were red. Reeside agreed to do so if Johnson would also. Both men ordered red vests and neckties, and were known for donning this attire for the rest of their lives.
Undaunted by this lack of confidence from his peers, Johnson continued to campaign to retain his office. Although his campaign was more vigorous than that of Van Buren, his behavior on the campaign trail raised concern among voters. He made rambling, incoherent speeches. During one speech in Ohio, he raised his shirt in order to display to the crowd the wounds he received during the Battle of the Thames. Charges he leveled against Harrison in Cleveland were so poorly received that they touched off a riot in the city.
In the end, Johnson received only forty-eight electoral votes. One elector from Virginia and all eleven from South Carolina voted for Van Buren for president but selected someone other than Johnson for vice-president. Johnson again lost his home state of Kentucky, but added to the embarrassment by losing his home district as well.
Johnson never gave up on a return to public service. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate against John J. Crittenden in 1842. He briefly and futilely sought his party's nomination for president in 1844. He also ran as an independent candidate for Governor of Kentucky in 1848, but after talking with the Democratic candidate, Lazarus W. Powell, who had replaced Linn Boyd on the ticket, Johnson decided to drop out and back Powell. Some speculated that the real object of this campaign was to secure another nomination to the vice-presidency, but this hope was denied.
Johnson finally returned to elected office in 1850, when he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. By this time, however, his physical and mental health was already failing. On November 9, the Louisville Daily Journal reported that "Col. R. M. Johnson is laboring under an attack of dementia, which renders him totally unfit for business. It is painful to see him on the floor attempting to discharge the duties of a member. He is incapable of properly exercising his physical or mental powers." He died of a stroke on November 19, just two weeks into his term. He was interred in the Frankfort Cemetery, in Frankfort, Kentucky.
There are five counties named for Johnson: Johnson County, Illinois, Johnson County, Iowa, Johnson County, Kentucky, Johnson County, Missouri, and Johnson County, Nebraska. His brothers James Johnson and John Telemachus Johnson and his nephew Robert Ward Johnson were all members of the House of Representatives, and Robert was a Senator as well.
Johnson, and more prominently his common-law wife Julia Chinn and their daughters, all play visible roles in the Eric Flint alternate history novels 1812: The Rivers of War and 1824: The Arkansas War (particularly the latter).
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