But who I really want to talk about is Richard Mentor Johnson, America’s ninth vice president. Today is his 234th birthday. If you ever wanted to get a sense of just how weird the slavery debate was prior to the Civil War, look no further than Johnson.
While out on the frontier during the War of 1812, Johnson first made a name for himself by allegedly shooting Shawnee chief Tecumseh. At the time, Johnson was already a representative for the state of Kentucky to the House of Representatives. Being a bona-fide war hero, however, put him in the political limelight.
By all accounts, Johnson didn’t really care much for convention. He rarely combed his hair. He once described his upbringing as being “born in a cane brake and cradled in a sap trough.” English author Harriet Martineau, who sat opposite him in a White House function, described him thusly: “If he should become President, he will be as a strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled. His countenance is wild, though with much cleverness in it, his hair wanders all abroad, and he wears no cravat. But there is no telling how he might look if he dressed like other people.” The doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate was more blunt, calling him "the most vulgar man of all vulgar men.”
Yet this was the age of Andrew Jackson. Being rough around the edges was considered to be a political asset. Before he became Martin Van Buren’s running mate in 1836, he angled to become Jackson’s. In short, Johnson, for all his eccentricities, seemed to have a bright political future.
Except for one thing. He was in a common-in-law marriage with his mulatto slave Julie Chinn. Johnson had inherited Chinn from his father and soon fell in love with her. Chinn ran Johnson’s plantation as the lady of the house during Johnson’s long absences in Washington. He even had two (reportedly gorgeous) daughters with Chinn -- Imogene and Aledine. Johnson made sure that both of his children were properly educated and that they both ended up marrying white men.
But don’t mistake Johnson for being some forward-thinking love revolutionary. When Chinn died of cholera in 1833, Johnson took up with another slave, Chinn’s niece. The only problem was that she was already married to another slave and refused his affection. So he pulled ultimate asshole power play - he sold her off. Then he took up with her sister.
Johnson’s complicated personal life, not surprisingly, scandalized some in Washington. Amos Kendall, a close personal associate with Andrew Jackson, described Johnson’s companion as "a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespeare’s swarthy Othello." She was "said to be his third wife; his second, which he sold for her infidelity, having been the sister of the present lady."
Nonetheless, as a war hero and a Westerner, Johnson was considered to be a good counterbalance to Van Buren’s East coast fussiness. During the election of 1836, he campaigned with Van Buren to the jingle, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” On election night, Van Buren got enough electoral votes to win. Johnson didn’t. Southern electors clearly didn’t approve of Johnson’s private life. So for the first time in US history, a vice president was appointed by the U.S. Senate.
Just imagine how American history would have been different if Van Buren died in office. The wild man from Kentucky might have be president and, for all intents and purposes, a black slave might have been first lady. Of course, that didn't happen and in 1840 both Van Buren and Johnson were voted out of office.
Years later, Johnson ended up the butt of a joke during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858. “I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men,” said Abraham Lincoln. “I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness – and that is the case of Judge Douglas’ old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson.”