Thursday 15 December 2011

Richard Mentor Johnson

I’m back in the United States for a spell, so I figured I ought to focus on an American. So let’s give it up for Richard M. Johnson, former Vice President of the United States!

To be honest, I knew nothing about Richard Johnson before I started researching this post. Well, I knew his name and that he was once vice president, but I got that information from a list in the back of a textbook. Even though now I pretty much only know what Wikipedia told me, I’m so glad I read about this particular Dick. He was amazing, crazy, and a dick. What a guy.

The boring basics: born in 1780 in what would become Kentucky, he became a lawyer and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1806 (which is a pretty early start in politics, as the Constitution requires Representatives to be at least 25). Richard was a colonel during the War of 1812 and might possibly have personally killed Tecumseh (boo!). We can’t be sure if he really did; Richard was at the battle and much political hay was made of him “killing” the Shawnee chief, but politicians are notorious liars. Richard made it to the Senate in 1819 to fill a vacated seat, and lost his 1829 re-election bid. He was later nominated as Martin Van Buren’s running mate in 1836 and served as vice president from March 1837 to March 1841. Although Van Buren lost the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison, Johnson wasn’t his running mate. The Democrats found Johnson to be a liability (more on that later) and so Van Buren ran without an official running mate. Richard was out of politics for a while, but was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1850. Unfortunately, he died of a stroke two weeks later.

Now for the good stuff. Why, pray tell, was a war-hero colonel such a liability? A couple of reasons, but one of the most scandalous was his love life. Richard Johnson was in a long-term committed relationship with Julia Chinn, a slave he had inherited from his father. Although Julia was only one-eighth African-American, she was too much of a “Negro” for her and Richard to legally marry. Nevertheless, Richard Johnson treated her as his common-law wife and had two daughters with her. Perhaps as a slight sop to the prejudices of the day, Richard never took Julia and his daughters with him to Washington, D.C.; Julia stayed at home and managed their farm in Kentucky. Richard’s wife was one of the reasons he didn’t win re-election to the Senate in 1829. He defended himself with a rockin’ quote, though: “Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections” (Wikipedia). In your face, TJ! Richard and Julia’s two daughters both eventually married white men, and Richard settled property on them at the time of their marriages. It was a good thing he did, too, because when he died his one living daughter wasn’t allowed to inherit the rest of his property. I imagine it had something to do with her being technically illegitimate (and a little bit black). Julia died in 1833 during a cholera epidemic, so she was never our nation’s second lady. Nevertheless, Richard’s relationship with her was an issue throughout his life.

I realize the above story makes Richard look like a stand-up guy, and to Julia and his daughters, he must have been. After Julia died, however, Richard’s love life deteriorated. He had a relationship with another family slave, but she left him for another man. That pissed Richard off (and hell having no fury like a Kentuckian scorned), he sold her at auction, and entered into a relationship with her sister. Damn! What a dick move.

Back to politics, though. It turns out Richard’s marriage to Julia was still causing trouble in 1836 when he was a widower. Many Southern voters refused to vote for the Democratic ticket because of Johnson. Despite his wartime service, Johnson didn’t help Van Buren win many Western votes either. While Van Buren won the popular and elector vote, twenty-three electors from Virginia refused to vote for Johnson as vice president. This left Johnson a vote short of the necessary majority, so the Senate had to vote (per the 12th Amendment), selecting Johnson as vice president over the Whig candidate. This was the first and so-far only time this had happened.

Since Johnson just achieved the vice presidency by the skin of his teeth, it’s not entirely surprising he had little influence with Martin Van Buren. Richard didn’t do too much except cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate. Probably the most exciting thing he did was take a leave of absence, go home, and open up a tavern and spa on his farm, in an effort to keep himself financially solvent. Being a slave-marrying bar owner probably did not help Johnson keep in the Democrats good graces.

Even though he wasn’t nominated for vice president in 1840, Johnson campaigned anyway. Apparently he campaigned a little too intensely and managed to start a riot in Cleveland, courtesy of some remarks he made about William Henry Harrison. (If they were along the lines of “your candidate’s so dumb he doesn’t even wear a coat when it’s cold out,” then Richard would have the last laugh). Despite his efforts, he lost. Of course, so did Van Buren, so I guess Johnson could take some comfort from that. The former vice president returned home, ran his farm, and kept trying to get back into politics. As mentioned previously, he did, only to die two weeks later.

Sometime during his tenure as vice president, Johnson started to wear a red vest and a tie. This was basically because he had suggested a friend wear read (to color coordinate with his red mail coach) and this friend had said, “I will if you will.” So they both did. I heartily approve of this maneuver. Red is a great color; people should wear it more.

So that’s Richard Johnson: our first Dick of a vice president. Overall, I get the impression that Richard Johnson was somewhat of a loose cannon. He played by his own rules, and while that was awesome in some cases (following your heart and marrying the woman you loved) it was less than stellar in others (starting riots when campaigning). Richard seems to have been neither a great politician nor a wretched one. He sponsored some good bills, did a few good things, but also promoted unworthy buddies and supported slavery (although he married a slave, he also owned them). He was, in short, a politician.

And to end this on a puerile (or sophomoric, take your pick) note: Richard Johnson. Two dick nicknames in one. No wonder he became a politician.

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