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Kentucky by Heart: Kentucky Senator Richard Mentor Johnson led an interesting and controversial life

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

I have been reading The US Senate and the Commonwealth (University Press of Kentucky, 2019), by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Roy Brownell II. It focuses on an overall study of senate leadership, along with a fascinating look at what the book calls “the colorful and vivid lives of fifteen Kentucky lawmakers, including Henry Clay, Alben Barkley, and John Sherman Cooper.” To the authors’ credit, it appears that the book is not slanted toward a partisan viewpoint, and the historical accounts are detailed but easily read.

Surprisingly for me, I found the profile of Richard Mentor Johnson, born in 1780 in Jefferson County, as one of the most fascinating. Why? It’s because he was a mixture of both the very good and very bad in regard to his overall performance in public life. In fact, he often presented himself as a picture of controversial behavior.

His father, Robert Johnson, served in the Kentucky legislature, though later lost races for the US Congress and state lieutenant governor. It appears that Richard never attended college, and the book said that he “was not known for his intellectual curiosity.” However, he studied law under a lawyer’s tutelage and became one in 1802. He served two years in the Kentucky legislature, and then was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served from 1806 to 1819.

His social skills demonstrated while in Congress were reportedly good; one source said that Richard Johnson had “the rare quality of being personally liked by everyone.” Despite that attribute, it’s odd that he didn’t seem to care much about his appearance; one person called him “shabbily dressed” while at a White House dinner, and it wasn’t a rare occurrence.

In the midst of his congressional term, he volunteered to command a Kentucky unit in the War of 1812. And, said the book, he “displayed great valor.” It’s reported that during the Battle of Thames, he killed the iconic Shawnee chief Tecumseh, though it has not been substantiated. Regardless, he received great recognition for his bravery. He also came out of the war with injuries to an arm and leg, and he walked with a limp the rest of his life.

Getting back to his political service after the war, he “secured adoption of the Compensation Act, which changed the congressional pay rate from a per diem basis to an annual salary.” It drew fierce push back from voters, however, and he promised to repeal it. That likely saved his career, at least for a while.

In another controversial move at that time, Richard defended a couple of noted American military generals, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson against charges of malfeasance, and that meant that he was pitted against fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, then the House speaker—not helpful to his political career at that point.

Also on the negative side of things during his time in Congress, he supported two projects, the Yellowstone Expedition, along with the establishment of the Choctaw Academy (a school for Native-American youths). Both were reputed to be conflicts of interest with his personal businesses.

And in what sounds quite bizarre, in 1822 Richard Johnson supported giving funds for a plan to explore the center of the earth. The plan was based on the idea that “a void existed at the earth’s core, and to access the planet’s interior, a team of explorers would need to enter a passageway that supposedly existed in the Arctic Circle.” Ideally, the project would have 100 men driving “reindeer and sleigh” to the North Pole and descend into the core of the earth. However, a committee studied it and it failed in the Senate, though it did have some significant support.

Richard Mentor Johnson (Image from Wikipedia)

Alas, and perhaps because of his noted affability and despite his inconsistent record, he was elected to the US Senate in 1819 and served until 1829. He got pretty good reviews, particularly for his leadership, sustained over many years, in ending imprisonment for debtors. He also worked to make the cost of federal land more affordable. Helping causes for economically vulnerable US citizens became a hallmark of his service.

He became a member of the “Jacksonians,” supporting Andrew Jackson over John Quincy Adams in the 1824 presidential election. That further alienated the supporters of Henry Clay, and that proved hurtful to his political career. Richard would not extend his term in the US Senate, but he did win in his race for the House of Representatives again, and served from 1829 to 1837. He had run for vice-president under Martin Van Buren in 1836, not securing the number of electoral votes needed, but got elected to the post under provisions of the 12th amendment, starting his term in 1837.

He mostly didn’t distinguish himself as vice-president, developing a bit of a reputation for spending time away from the chamber and tending bar at the inn he owned back home in Kentucky. Andrew Jackson took away his support for Richard, and he was dropped from the ticket for the 1840 election. He also carried some well-known baggage. He cohabited with a slave mistress, Julia Chinn, and after her death, started another such relationship with Patience Chinn, possibly related to Julia. He never married but had two children with Julia.

After he was ousted as a vice-presidential candidate, he ran for the Kentucky state legislature and won, but the Kentucky governor called Richard Johnson a “restless dissatisfied man” in that role. Ironically, he then set his sight on running for the US presidency, but as you might already know, that didn’t work out.

For Richard M. Johnson, his political record was spotty, but he sure was an interesting person.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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