Unless they eventually attain the Presidency, most American vice-presidents are doomed to obscurity, proving the truth of the old joke about the two brothers, one of whom was lost at sea and the other elected vice-president, and neither were ever heard from again. That is a shame for Richard Mentor Johnson, who was in several ways a fascinating figure.
Born on October 11, 1780 in the pioneer land of Kentucky, Johnson became an attorney, notable for representing poor people pro bono (for free). He used his house as a shelter for disabled veterans, widows and orphans. He enjoyed a rapid rise in his political career, being elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1804, and then serving in the Federal House of Representatives from 1806-1819. In the House he was known by the title “The Poor Man’s Friend”.
During the War of 1812 Johnson divided his time between serving in Congress and leading a Kentucky regiment in the western theater of the war. At the battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813 he and his regiment were in the thick of the fight with Johnson sustaining five wounds. During the battle he was probably the man who killed in combat the great Indian leader Tecumseh.
Retiring from the House in 1819, he was chosen by the Kentucky state legislature to fill a US Senate vacancy created by the resignation of John J. Crittenden. Johnson served in the Senate from 1819-1829.
His successful political career is remarkable when one considers that he lived openly with Julia Chinn as his common law wife. Chinn was one-eighth black and as a result they could not legally marry, however in every respect they lived as man and wife, with Chinn acting as hostess when they entertained and supervising Mentor’s business interests when he was in Washington. They had two daughters, Imogen and Adeline, who Johnson recognized as his legal daughters, educated and who he demanded be recognized as his daughters in society. They would both marry white men, and receive land from their father. Throughout his political career his enemies used his relationship with Chinn against him. When he was defeated for re-election to the Senate, Johnson made the following comment:
Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.
Rejected for the Senate, Johnson went back to the House of Representatives, serving in the House from 1829-1837. He ran for vice-president on the Martin Van Buren ticket in 1836. Van Buren was elected President, but Johnson, due to the refusal of Virginia members of the Electoral College to vote for him, lacked a single vote of being elected Vice-President. Under the Twelfth Amendment he was chosen Vice-President by the Senate on February 8, 1837. During the campaign a jingle for Johnson declaimed: “Rumptsy-Dumpsy, Rumptsy-Dumpsy, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” No mention was made during the campaign that Johnson on his estate had a school for Indian children, or that he paid to have his household slaves taught to read and write.
The rest of Johnson’s political career was anti-climatic. Like most vice-presidents, he found the job basically worthless and a waste of time. After the panic of 1837, he even left Washington to go back to Kentucky where he opened up a tavern and spa to recoup his financial losses. Johnson was considered a political liability and was not re-nominated. In a unique move the Democrats did not nominate anyone to run for vice-president . Nonetheless, Johnson campaigned to retain the office, winning 48 electoral votes. It mattered not as Van Buren went down to defeat in 1840 at the hands of William Henry Harrison, the former commander of Johnson at the battle of the Thames.
The rest of his life is somewhat sad as Johnson continued his efforts to get back into the political limelight, but attained no office higher than the Kentucky House. He died on November 19, 1850.