Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Richard M. Johnson (1837–1841)

Richard Mentor Johnson was born near present-day Louisville, Kentucky, on October 17, 1780. His parents had moved from Virginia to the frontier lands of Kentucky shortly before his birth. Johnson grew up on the family farm, and his parents and siblings were active in the community, both in politics and business. Johnson had little formal education but read law and was admitted to the bar in 1802. He served in the Kentucky state legislature for two years until he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Once in Washington, D.C., Johnson served in the House from 1807 until 1819. He was a supporter of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party. During the presidency of James Madison, he became known as one of the War Hawks, congressmen who supported the President’s efforts to go to war against Britain. When the War of 1812 began, Johnson went back to Kentucky and raised a regiment. He achieved military acclaim during the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, when he fought with William Henry Harrison against the British and their Native American allies. During the battle, the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, was killed, and Johnson was credited with killing him although no real evidence existed that he was actually responsible for Tecumseh’s death.

Johnson was badly wounded during the war and returned to Washington after his recuperation. He then turned his attention to war-related issues such as securing pensions for widows and orphans. He also supported federally-funded internal improvements to help develop the West. He retired from the House in 1819 but the Kentucky legislature quickly appointed him to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1829.

Having spent much of his adult life in debt, Johnson worked to end debt imprisonment and saw success when Congress enacted a federal statute to end debt imprisonment in 1832. He also tried to keep mail delivery on Sundays, reasoning that the government should not stop the delivery of mail on Sunday for religious reasons because of the separation of church and state. He lost reelection to the Senate in 1828 but a year later, his home district sent him back to serve in the House of Representatives.

Johnson lost his reelection to the Senate in part due to his personal life. He had never married but had a common-law wife, a slave whom he inherited from his father. They lived together as a family when he was in Kentucky and had two daughters. When she died in 1833, he had two subsequent mistresses, who were also black or mixed race. Many people knew about Johnson’s personal life, and it was not a major issue when he served in the House. However, it became a liability for him in statewide Senate campaigns and national elections. During his campaign for vice president, some Virginian politicians refused to support Johnson in part because of his personal life.

While serving in the House from 1829 to 1837, Johnson was a supporter and friend of President Andrew Jackson and became strongly allied with the Democratic Party. He had considerable power in the House due to his long congressional career. In the election of 1836, Jackson promoted Johnson as Martin Van Buren’s vice president to balance the ticket. Johnson had strong military experience and was seen as a war hero, whereas Van Buren had not fought in the War of 1812. Although Van Buren won the presidential election, Johnson fell one vote short of the majority he needed. Thus the race was put to the Senate, which voted for Johnson. He is the only vice president to be elected by the Senate.

As vice president, Johnson did not have a close relationship with Van Buren and had little influence in the administration. He presided over the Senate, assigned Senators to committees, and cast tie-breaking votes. He was considered a competent but unremarkable vice president. In the election of 1840, Johnson was considered a liability to Van Buren but instead of nominating someone else, the Democratic Party chose not to nominate anyone nationally but to allow state party organizations to select their vice presidents. In the end, Johnson had little effect on the election, and William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren for the presidency.

Johnson returned to private life in Kentucky after the election, running his farm and tavern. He served in the Kentucky legislature from 1841 to 1843 and was again elected in 1850 but he never took office. He died of a stroke on November 19, 1850.