Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850)

"Window to the Past"

by Henry Robert Burke


Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States (1837-41), was born at Bryant's Station near Louisville, Kentucky, on Oct. 17, 1780. He was educated at Transylvania University, founded by early settlers in 1780. Its name, which means "across the woods" in Latin, stems from the University's location in the vast settlement region called Transylvania by a pioneering land company whose chief scout was Daniel Boone. Kentucky still marked the nation's western frontier when Transylvania became the sixteenth college in the United States and the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains. As such, it has been linked with famous names in American history since its inception. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Aaron Burr were early supporters of the fledgling institution, and Henry Clay was both a law professor and a member of Transylvania's board of trustees.

The University also takes pride in a distinguished roster of alumni who have helped shape American history, including Stephen Austin, Jefferson Davis, Cassius M. Clay, two United States vice presidents, 50 United States senators, and 36 governors. When Richard M. Johnson graduated in 1802, he was admitted to the bar in his native Kentucky. He began his law practice and in 1804 entered public life as a member of the Kentucky legislature, later serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Richard Johnson had grown up fighting Indians, as this was a regular feature of life on the early Kentucky frontier. In 1881, while Johnson was still in his crib, Bryant's Station was attacked by a war party of Indians led by Simon Girty. A flaming arrow launched during that attack narrowly missed Johnson's baby crib! Simon Girty was the American frontiersman known as the Great Renegade during the American Revolution. Following the Revolution Girty promoted and led Indian attacks on American pioneers in the Ohio country. He reputedly encouraged the torture of prisoners taken during his raids.

Johnson's military experience as an Indian fighter led to his being appointed a colonel in the Kentucky Militia during the War of 1812. His political career was aided by the claim that he killed the great Shawnee Indian chieftain, Tecumseh, at the Battle of the Thames fought in Ontario, Canada in1813. With the nickname "Tecumseh Killer", Johnson was elected U.S. Senator from Kentucky in 1819 to 1829, then he again became a member of the U.S.. House of representatives, serving until 1837.

In the presidential election campaign of 1836, Richard M. Johnson was the Vice-Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Presidential nominee, Martin Van Buren. Johnson's marriage to his mulatto slave woman was a major campaign issue for his political opponents. The opposition called Johnson's marriage the "Amalgamation". There was evidently no contest to the fact on Johnson's part. He publicly admitted his wife's heritage and released a statement to the press, with this simple explanation: "Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections". While Johnson's wife had been dead some time before the election campaign of 1836 took place, his candidacy was still unacceptable to Southerners who were offended by his efforts to introduce his mulatto daughters into polite society. During slavery times, there was no particular stigma attached to the fact that many southern plantation owners, along with their white overseers, often fathered mulatto children born of black slave women. As long as the white father denied the facts, the customs that created miscegenation were usually overlooked by Southern society.

Because no vice-presidential candidate won a majority in the electoral college that year, the contest was thrown into the Senate, which then elected Johnson to the office of vice-president in March 1837. A man of rough frontier manners and unconventional habits, Johnson had won Andrew Jackson's support as the vice-presidential nominee in 1836. Despite Van Buren's decisive majority, Johnson received only a plurality of the electoral vote and was chosen vice-president by the U.S. Senate. His vice-presidential career was undistinguished. Along with Van Buren, he was unsuccessful in the reelection of 1840. He was denied renomination by the Democratic Convention, which chose no vice-presidential candidate. Richard Mentor Johnson retired to his plantation near Lexington, Kentucky where he died on November 19, 1850.


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