By Robert Treadway
As this year’s vice presidential candidates debate at Kentucky’s Centre College, let’s take a moment to look back at Kentucky’s contribution to the unique office of vice president, an office which has been denigrated as not being worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” (and I cleaned that up) but which has produced not only future presidents but fascinating characters.
Three U.S. vice presidents were Kentucky citizens at the time of their election. While little known today, each was a household name in his age, and a unique and powerful personality. Each was a larger-than-life figure, but only one survived an Indian attack as an infant, married a slave, killed an Indian chief, and was elected vice president — from which he took a nine-month leave to set up shop as a tavern keeper — not by the Electoral College, but by the Senate of the United States. Come to think of it, no vice president from any other state has done these things, either.
Richard Mentor Johnson, for whom counties would be named in five states, was born in 1780 (or ’81 by other accounts) on the frontier of what was then Kentucky County, Va., at a settlement called Beargrass, near modern day Louisville. Johnson’s family soon moved to Fayette County, where they were caught up in Simon Girty’s Raid on Bryan’s Station, a fort that gives its name to modern day Bryan Station Pike.
Girty was a Scots-Irish mercenary, leading a band of Native Americans fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War. In August of 1782, they surrounded Bryan’s Station. The settlers had no water, and Jemimah Johnson, Richard’s mother, decided that the women of the fort should pretend that they didn’t know the Indians were there, go to the nearby spring, fill their buckets, and bring them back to the fort.
The plan assumed that Girty’s forces would not attack the women, and open themselves to fire from the fort. The plan worked beautifully, and the water was brought in to the fort. Girty’s forces tried to set the fort on fire with burning arrows. One of those arrows landed in the straw-filled crib containing the infant Richard Mentor Johnson. However, with the water fetched by Mrs. Johnson and the other women, the settlers were able to put out not only that arrow, but the fires set by all the rest, and hold off the attackers until help arrived. Johnson and his family escaped the battle unscathed. A historic marker commemorates the event on Bryan Station Pike today.
How would you like to be able to tell that story about yourself in a stump speech? It gets better. Johnson, perhaps incensed by his treatment by the Native Americans, raised his own regiment during the War of 1812 and headed north, where once again, the British had paid the Native Americans to fight against our forces. Surrounded by the fog of war, the Native American chief Tecumseh, leading his troops, was killed in battle, reportedly by Johnson personally.
And that incident did become part of Johnson’s regular stump speech, and ultimately evolved into a poem, the chorus of which is, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh,” Johnson’s campaign theme, which makes my father’s quip about the Kennedy administration, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Masons are now in second place,” sound like Wordsworth.
Johnson’s personal life showed an enlightenment rare in a man of his age. Johnson inherited a slave who was seven-eights white, an octaroon in the language of the time. Johnson was forbidden from marrying her legally, but treated her as his common law wife and raised and provided for their children accordingly. While this arrangement did not appear to bother voters in his own Congressional district, which sent him to Congress regularly, it later came back to haunt him both in statewide races — and in his aspirations for national office. Johnson, though, defended it to his death.
“Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others, I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections,” he sniffed.
Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives, then the Senate. By the presidential election of 1836, Johnson was a national figure in Congress, and many urged him to run for the presidency. By this point, he was a widower, which removed his biggest impediment to national office in a nation half of which still practiced slavery.
Johnson, though, was a loyal supporter of fellow Democrat Martin Van Buren. Andrew Jackson, still patriarch of the party, supported Johnson for Vice President on Van Buren’s ticket, and the Convention narrowly agreed, though many questioned Johnson’s qualifications for the office. One Tennessee politico quipped that he doubted that “a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the vice presidency.” Though Van Buren easily won the Presidency, a number of electors refused to vote for Johnson for vice president, leaving him one vote short of a majority.
Under the 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution, under these circumstances, the vice presidential race is decided by the Senate. The vote went down party lines, and Johnson became the first and only Vice President elected by the Senate.
Johnson was hit hard by the panic of 1837, and in the only instance I’ve ever read of a vice president taking a leave of absence he did so for nine months, while he converted his farm in Kentucky into a spa and tavern. While Johnson ultimately won the vice presidency, it became clear after the election that while none of his supposed support in the West panned out, his enemies in the South were able to use his past marriage to a slave against him. The party got all his negatives, and none of his positives. As Vice President, Johnson had no influence with Van Buren and accomplished little.
By 1840, the Democratic Party knew he should not be renominated, but by this point, Van Buren feared dumping Johnson, because the President feared that the ticket needed a war hero to offset the heroics of Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison. Harrison’s own heroics at the Battle of Tippecanoe produced the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” the most famous political slogan of the Nineteenth Century. Again, not exactly “I like Ike,” but better than Johnson’s slogan.
The Democrats compromised by nominating no one for Vice President, the only time it has failed to do so since the emergence of the modern party-based system. Johnson continued to campaign as if nominated. The matter was resolved at the polls, by the Whig victory that sent Harrison and Tyler to the White House and Johnson back to Kentucky, where he lived out his life and continued to run for office — winning some and losing some — until his death in 1850.
The career of Richard Mentor Johnson points out the societal tensions of the Nineteenth Century in America. In a society in which slave holding was perfectly legal in half of its states (though forbidden in the other half), a white man’s marriage to a woman with any known African blood was forbidden. Unlike other white slave owners, Johnson treated his common law wife well, and provided for her and their children as if the marriage were legal.
Richard Mentor Johnson is one of the most fascinating of Kentucky’s politicians, and one wonders how he would do in today’s elections. He’d need a better slogan, for one thing.
In our next column, we will have the second of three columns on Kentucky’s vice presidents, this one on Alben Barkley, the last vice president born in a log cabin. He’s also the only former Vice President who died during a speech which was being recorded and which now appears on YouTube. Then, we will profile John Cabell Breckenridge, vice president under James Buchanan, defeated for the presidency by Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln, and who served as secretary of war for the Confederacy. Kentucky vice presidents are nothing if not interesting.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.