Richard Mentor Johnson was born on October 17th, 1780 in a settlement called Beargrass, now part of Louisville Kentucky, although at the time it was in the colony of Virginia. He was almost killed by a flaming arrow during the Simon Girty attack upon Byran Station (modern day Lexington) but one of his siblings doused the flames before the house burned down. His father was a surveyor and managed to secure prime property for himself in the territory so since Johnson grew up in the frontier his first formal education began at the age of 15 when he entered Transylvania University in Lexington. After school he clerked with two of his professors until he passed the bar. He had invested in several businesses for income and spent most of his time as a lawyer handling pro bono cases for poor people against the wealthy.
When Johnson’s father died he inherited a slave named Julia Chinn. She became his common law wife but they were unable to marry due to slavery laws, although unlike many of his contemporaries he didn’t hide his relation with her. They had two children which he gave the last name Johnson. When Richard died his children were unable to inherit his property since he wasn’t married to their mother so it went to his surviving brothers.
In 1804 he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. In 1806 he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat-Republican. At the time he was 24 but the law required him to be 25, however by the time the House came into session he had turned 25 and was able to take the seat, he served until 1819. During his time he joined in the fight to pay Hamilton’s widow his military retirement even though the Federalists were the Democrat-Republican’s enemies.
During the War of 1812 Johnson returned to Kentucky to raise a militia to keep the British from cutting off supplies from New Orleans. He was supposed to take his troops to support the defense of Detroit but General William Hull surrendered the city before Johnson arrived so they went to Fort Wayne instead just in time to repel an attack by British supported Native Americans.
During the war Johnson was put in charge of tracking down the Native American troops that were harassing supply lines. During one battle he was wounded five times but was reported to have killed Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee nation and the Tecumseh’s Confederacy, after the leader’s death the resistance collapsed. Later Johnson would campaign as the Man who killed Tecumseh. By congressional decree Johnson was awarded the Sword of Honor. During the Civil War the Medal of Honor replaced the Sword of Honor so Johnson was one of 14 men who received the award.
After the war Johnson returned to the House where he championed a pension plan for the widows and orphans of veterans. He also lobbied for the Compensation act of 1816 replacing the per diem pay system for members of Congress for a $1500 per year salary. However voters were against the plan and it was repealed, although the per diem rate was increased.
President Monroe offered Johnson the position of Secretary of War but he passed and John C. Calhoun was appointed to the cabinet. After the war a committee was formed to censure Andrew Jackson for killing two British officers, Henry Clay was in favor of the censure but Johnson came to the defense of Jackson and managed to get him acquitted, however Clay and Johnson became lifelong enemies.
In 1818 Johnson ended his term in the House and attempted to run for the Kentucky Senate but lost the election, a rumor was that he planned to run for governor in 1820. In 1819 he was appointed to the Senate to replace John Crittenden and he won reelection in 1822. He served in the Senate until 1829. During his time he managed to outlaw debtor’s prisons in the U.S. but he also awarded several government contracts to his brothers and tried to fund an expedition to drill to the center of the Earth, the bill was defeated by a near majority. He was also responsible for eliminating mail delivery on Sundays in keeping with Biblical scripture. In 1828 he lost the election mostly due to his common law wife Julia Chinn and the fighting over slavery in America. He was elected to the House in 1829 and served until 1837.
In 1832 Johnson began to campaign for the Presidency but when he learned Andrew Jackson was planning on running he withdrew his name for consideration and threw his full support behind “Old Hickory”. He was considered for the Vice Presidency position but the new Democrat party felt that his relations with Chinn would cost them the slave south and went with Van Buren instead.
In the election of 1836 Martin Van Buren ran for President but the Democrats felt that since he hadn’t fought in the War of 1812 they needed to balance the ticket and chose Johnson based upon the death of Tecumseh and his southern heritage. They overestimated Johnson’s popularity but the ticket managed to win the election mostly thanks to the Northern states. Johnson and Van Buren didn’t get along so he had little influence in the cabinet although he cast 14 tie breaker votes. He opposed all anti slavery bills since he was a slave owner himself and he spent most of his time trying to win contracts and positions for his friends and family. In 1837 he returned to Kentucky and opened a tavern and only returned to Washington when required.
In 1840 Van Buren wanted to replace Johnson with James K. Polk, the hero of the Mexican/American war but Johnson worked hard to retain his office. In the end the Democrats planned to let the states decide in the primaries and the candidates began campaigning. During a visit to Ohio he spoke out against Harrison, the Whig candidate, which sparked a riot in Cleveland. In the end no candidate won a majority of the votes so the Democrats had no Vice President on the ballot. Due to the banking crisis of 1837 Van Buren lost the election and for the first time since 1801 the “party of Jefferson” was not in charge of the Executive branch.
In 1841 Johnson was elected to the Kentucky House and served for the next two years. When the body of Daniel Boone was returned from Texas he served as a pall bearer. He considered running for Governor but withdrew his name. In 1850 he was elected to the Kentucky Senate but his mental health began to slip and there was talk to remove him from office but before any action could be taken he had a stroke and died. He was buried with honors in Frankfort Kentucky.
And so ended the career of the ninth Vice President. Like most people who held office he had a greater impact on the nation before he was elected to the number two spot and had Van Buren been reelected there would have been four years in which there was no Vice President at all.
If one thing Richard Mentor Johnson showed us was that you can be the second in command and not even show up to work. So write in Ocular Nervosa for the Vice Presidency in 2016 and I promise to do as little as possible.