Thursday, February 09, 2012

U.S. Senate Elects Richard Mentor Johnson Vice President

In February of 1837, the U.S. Senate did sometime it had never done before, and has never done since: it elected the Vice President of the United States. According to the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, if no vice presidential candidate has a majority of the electoral votes, "then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice."

A funny thing happened on the way to the election of 1836. Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren, Democrat, received 170 of the 294 electoral votes, a clear majority and besting all of his Whig rivals. The Whigs hadn't had a national convention that year, and so state conventions nominated four separate candidates -- a recipe for losing.

Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky was on the ticket with Van Buren, mainly at the insistence of President Jackson, who perhaps thought Johnson would help win western votes. But not all of the electors liked Johnson, and only 147 voted for him, which was exactly half and thus one vote short of a majority. So the election was thrown into the Senate, where Johnson faced Whig Francis Granger of New York. Ultimately, Johnson prevailed in the Senate by a party-line vote of 33 to 16, and became the Ninth Vice President of the United States.

Why did Johnson face hostile electors? He had been in Congress for 30 years, both in the House and the Senate, but more importantly -- politically speaking -- he was a hero of the War of 1812, when he supposedly killed the Indian chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. It isn't clear that Johnson actually killed Tecumseh, but he used the story to his advantage anyway.

Damning, at least in the eyes of many slaveholders, was Johnson's unconventional behavior regarding his slave Julia Chinn. "Johnson never married," notes his U.S. Senate biography. "Family tradition recounts that he ended an early romance, vowing revenge for his mother's interference, after Jemima Johnson pronounced his intended bride unworthy of the family. He later lived openly with Julia Chinn, a mulatto slave raised by his mother and inherited from his father, until her death from cholera in 1833. Johnson freely acknowledged the relationship, as well as the two daughters born to the union, and entrusted Julia with full authority over his business affairs during his absences from Blue Spring Farm.

"The choice [of Johnson as vice presidential nominee] provoked bitter dissention in Democratic ranks... Van Buren's ally Albert Balch had previously warned 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," and a Van Buren correspondent later predicted that "Col. Johnson's... weight would absolutely sink the whole party in Virginia." Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron warned Jackson that Johnson was "not only positively unpopular in Tennessee... but affirmatively odious."

Nevertheless, Van Buren became president and Johnson vice president, both serving from 1837 to 1841, but losing their re-election bid to William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in 1840. One of the stranger things Johnson did as vice president was to return to Kentucky in 1839 and run a tavern for a while. Then again, vice presidents have little to do and Johnson was in chronic need of money, so a business venture probably wasn't that strange. He also took up with another slave woman.

The Senate bio continues: "By the spring of 1839, Amos Kendall reported to Van Buren on the vice president's latest venture: a hotel and tavern at White Sulphur Spring, Kentucky. He enclosed a letter from a friend who had visited 'Col. Johnson's Watering establishment' and found the vice president 'happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping -- even giving his personal superintendence to the chicken and egg purchasing and water-melon selling department.'

"Kendall wrote with consternation that Johnson's companion, 'a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespears swarthy Othello,' was 'said to be his third wife; his second, which he sold for her infidelity, having been the sister of the present lady.' Although one of the most fashionable in Kentucky, Johnson's resort also formed a source of considerable embarrassment for the administration."

1 comment:

Kevin Deany said...

Absolutely fascinating. I did not know any of this.