To call America’s ninth vice president Richard Mentor Johnson a man of contradictions is like calling Donald Trump egotistical—the mere label does not capture the magnitude of the claim. Johnson was a wealthy landowning populist who denounced the “monied interests.” He was a loyal soldier who ran against his former commander when they were both vying for national office. He was a slaveholder who suffered politically for carrying on an interracial romance publicly—and treating a black woman as his wife in racist Kentucky. He insisted on passing on ancestral lands to his two black daughters—but hunted down his second “wife” as a runaway slave when she cuckolded him. And, while serving as Vice President of the United States, Richard Johnson took a leave of absence to serve drinks in the tavern he ran back home.
It is fitting, therefore, that this prince of paradox is one of those rare American politicians whose political careers suffered from the contradiction that sent Hillary Rodham Clinton packing: that Americans don’t elect their President and Vice President directly. Moreover, Richard Johnson is the one major party nominee whose election was affected by what most of us consider to be simply a theoretical problem, the faithless elector, the elector who defies the voters’ instructions and votes freely, as the Constitution permits.
When Richard M. Johnson ran to be vice president in 1836, he should have been more popular than the ticket’s standard bearer, Martin Van Buren. Andrew Jackson’s Vice President, Van Buren was a crafty New York operative, broadly distrusted. Johnson was more Jacksonian, populist, homespun, authentic, and a genuine war hero. He was, he said, born in 1780, in frontier Virginia, “in a canebrake and cradled in a sap trough,” an exaggeration given his father’s extensive Kentucky landholdings.
Eminently likeable and intermittently principled, Johnson served in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1807 to 1813, then the U.S. House of Representatives from 1813 to 1819. In Congress, Johnson emerged as a War Hawk, demanding America’s entry into what became the War of 1812. Enlisting to fight, he was wounded in the great Battle of the Thames in 1813. Johnson did however, get credit—whether true or not—for killing the feared Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh in 1813. This earned him the right to be feted by the popular slogan in 1836: “Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” Johnson’s commander during that chaotic battle, General William Henry Harrison, would be the chief rival to the Van Buren-Johnson ticket in 1836.
Beyond his Indian fighting, Johnson clearly became a Jackson devotee. Like Jackson, he remained an economic populist while making and losing fortunes. Johnson would denounce the “dangerous influence” of “Great monied monopolies, controlled by persons irresponsible to the people.” Serving in the Senate from 1819 to 1829, he fought against imprisoning debtors and defended Andrew Jackson’s democratic vision. He also broke the news to Jackson that the “corrupt bargain” was sending John Quincy Adams to the White House, instead of Jackson, the popular vote winner that year. Furthermore, like Jackson, Johnson lived on the Southern frontier—which is where his political problems began.
Despite being enmeshed in that immoral system of slavery, Johnson deviated from the norm. He had a sustained, apparently loving, public relationship with a mixed-race slave he inherited from his father, Julia Chinn. It is hard to know the exact nature of these relationships, and given that it started in the evil power imbalance imposed by slavery, it is safest to characterize it as abusive. But Johnson treated it like a marriage. Chinn managed Johnson’s business affairs when he traveled. He treated their two daughters, Adaline (or Adeline) and Imogene lovingly, giving them his last name and transferring some land ownership to them. He defended his domestic arrangements saying that “Unlike” Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and “others,” whose relationships with black women were hidden and abusive, “I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.” When Chinn died from a cholera epidemic in 1833, Johnson mourned her unashamedly.
When Adaline married Thomas W. Scott in 1832, the Lexington Observer and Kentucky Reporter sneered, “This is the second time that the moral feelings… of the people of Scott County have been shocked and outraged by the marriage of a mulatto daughter of Col. Johnson to a white man, if a man, who will so far degrade himself; who will make himself an object of scorn and detestation to every person that has the least regard for decency, for a little property; can be considered a white man.”
This savvy politician knew that his openness would offend constituents north and south. Southerners hated him for treating Julia and the daughters with dignity, as if they were free. Northerners hated him for robbing them and all other slaves of their freedom, as well as their dignity.
While Johnson’s constituents in his Congressional district forgave him, it cost him Senate races repeatedly, and almost lost him the Vice Presidency. The Democrat Albert Balch warned Andrew 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.” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron warned Jackson that Johnson was “not only positively unpopular in Tennessee… but affirmatively odious.” Beyond Johnson’s common-law marriage, Catron did “not believe that a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the Vice Presidency.”
Ultimately, Johnson’s private life made him a public burden for Van Buren. Virginia’s 23 electors punished Johnson rather dramatically. They voted for Van Buren for president—but refused to vote for Johnson. This defection of these “faithless electors” robbed Johnson of the majority he needed by one vote. For the first—and so far only—time in American history, a vice presidential election went to the Senate, under the 12th Amendment’s provisions.
Johnson won in the Senate, but became about as popular as a Brit in Washington after the torching of the White House. He embarrassed the White House when, short of money after the Panic of 1837, he left office for nine months to tend to his hotel and tavern at White Sulphur Spring, Kentucky. Another Jacksonian Amos Kendall passed on word that at “Col. Johnson’s Watering establishment,” the vice president was “happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping.”
Johnson spent the rest of his life politically marginalized. In 1840, the Democrats, for the first and only time since the 12th Amendment passed in 1803, refused to endorse any vice presidential candidate. Even Andrew Jackson would admit: “I like Col. Johnson but I like my country more.” Johnson kept seeking a comeback, with one friend reporting that “You never saw a more restless dissatisfied man in your life, than Dick is.”
Johnson’s domestic arrangement was so infamous, that eight years after Johnson died in 1850, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln tried embarrassing Stephen Douglas, who had been Johnson’s friend. Rejecting insinuations that “because I do not want a negro woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife,” Lincoln said that the only time he had heard of “a perfect equality” being maintained “between negroes and white men” was “in the case of Judge Douglas’ old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson.”
The laughs Lincoln earned with that jab, suggest the courage Johnson demonstrated with his candor. Johnson was too much a part of the oppressive slavery system to be lionized too much. But his example should be remembered just enough to honor a man who could see the woman behind the racial barrier, and whose faith to her and their two daughters, incurred the wrath of contemporaries, including Virginian’s avenging and faithless electors.