Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,044

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,044


This is the grave of Richard Mentor Johnson.

Born in 1780 in the small frontier settlement of Louisville, Kentucky, Johnson was a man of the violent white conquest of the West. This was an upwardly mobile family. His father came from a middling background but made a bunch of money in land speculation, which allowed him to the marry the daughter of one of Virginia’s elite slaveholding families. They owned slaves and killed their share of Indians to free up the land for white domination. Johnson grew up on his family’s plantation and then went to Transylvania University starting in 1796. He then read for the law and passed the bar in 1802, which was as much about continuing to rise in Kentucky’s elite as it was about actually practicing law.

From the time he was a young man, Johnson had an interesting sexual life, which is worth mentioning. First, he was engaged and got his fiancee pregnant. But his mother vetoed the marriage. So his fiancee had the child and then it was raised by his father as an equal. This could have happened any number of ways but this was less likely than him paying a bunch of money to have the kid taken care of elsewhere. Even more fascinating and unusual is that when his father died, Johnson got a bunch of the family slaves. One was a woman named Julian Chinn. She was 7/8 white but also a slave. That was the point of slavery after all–when Virginia all the way back in the mid seventeenth century ruled that your status was based on your mother, it incentivized white owners to rape their slaves. Over time, you got slaves that could very easily pass as white, such as Chinn. But again, she was still a slave. Not only did Johnson start a relationship with her, but he treated her as his wife, including at official functions, even though they were not nor could be married. They had two daughters. She became manager of his plantations when he was off on official business. He believed that a consensual (well, OK not actually consensual but he said it was) multi-racial relationship was a good thing and should be celebrated. To say the least….Johnson’s actions were seen as odd. Moreover, she was still technically his slave!!!!!!! She died in the terrible cholera epidemic of the 1830s, before Johnson reached the pinnacle of his career. But both their daughters were married to wealthy white men. So….yeah, this is an unusual story.

But let’s not get crazy thinking Johnson was some kind of good guy on race. He was not! He still owned slaves and they had to live under Julia’s control too. He also was part of the generation who saw the massive killing of Native peoples as necessary for white society to thrive. More on this shortly.

Johnson got super rich off the plantations he inherited. So he entered politics. He was first ran for Congress in 1803 as a Jeffersonian but lost. But the next year, he ran for the Kentucky legislature and won, even though he was under the constitutionally required age. People liked him too much and he was too rich for anyone to care about something like a constitution. He quickly gained a reputation for trying to limit the power of the federal courts, for he believed that federal courts should have no authority over anyone’s day to day lives and should just exist for the interpretation of the Constitution. He served one term and then was elected to Congress in 1806, the first of six terms. He wasn’t quite 25 yet when elected, but he was when the term started, so Congress looked the other way on his age. He was a strong supporter of Jefferson and Madison during his six terms. He supported Jefferson’s disastrous Embargo like most of his followers and then as the nation moved to the War of 1812, he was for Madison’s rhetoric against the British. He also opposed the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, like most Jeffersonians.

By 1811, Johnson was one of the War Hawks–the young members of Congress from southern and western states who were ardently pro-expansion and also pro-war with the British. That year, they took over Congress and elected Henry Clay as Speaker of the House. Of course, a lot of these people didn’t actually want to pay the taxes to pay for the military, the classic conservative double-step when it comes to military matters. In any case, he was a big supporter of Madison’s declaration of war in 1812.

Johnson was not taking a big step onto a limb by supporting the war. It was almost universally supported in Kentucky. He returned home and raised a regiment of troops. He was elected as a major and then a colonel when his battalion was merged with another. Johnson served under William Henry Harrison on the frontier. Let’s be clear what that meant–killing Indians. The tribes had a foreign policy too. They knew what the Americans meant–death and destruction. So they aligned with the British, hoping to stop the continued American expansion. This was the work of Tecumseh especially. Well, Johnson’s troops were marauding around the frontier, just killing all the Indians they could no matter where they sat on the war. They would go out of their way to do this, once detouring to slaughter a bunch of Potawatomi and burn their villages.

In fact, Johnson went further than just violent warlord. When he got back to Congress in the fall of 1812, he proposed to Madison a comprehensive plan to eliminate all Native resistance in what was then the West. He proposed sending in small groups of mounted riflemen that would fit in the winter, denying the tribes their supplies and starving them out. Madison was pretty cool with this, but Harrison did not like the idea of fighting in the winter. However, this soon became modus operandi for American military strategy on the frontier. But winter or summer, Johnson was all about destroying the tribes and he spend as much time as he could doing so during the war. In fact, it might well have been Johnson himself who killed Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813; at the very least Johnson was there and engaged in the fight. He probably didn’t kill Tecumseh, but he certainly used it to his political advantage. Johnson was also injured in that fight as well and limped the rest of his life from his wounds.

With the end of the war somehow not having destroyed the United States, Johnson’s star was in the ascent. He became chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs. He was obsessed by the idea that the tribes had captured white women and children during the war and he spent a lot of energy on this issue, such as it was. He also took the lead on pushing through a congressional pay raise, which had the usual impact of voters throwing a lot of the people who voted for it out of office. It didn’t get rid of Johnson because he said he was sorry and took the lead to repeal his own bill! Now that’s leadership! In 1817, Johnson became head of the Committee on Expenditures, which was a hugely powerful chair, similar to Appropriations today. As such, Johnson took the lead on protecting his ally Andrew Jackson from congressional censure after he murdered two British traders in Florida. So that’s just great.

Was Johnson immune from the corruption already overtaking American politics, even if it didn’t really hit the big time until after Johnson’s career? No sir and/or madam! When the War Department decided to build a fort on the site of modern-day Bismarck, North Dakota, guess who Johnson made sure got the contract to lead the expedition and build it? His own brother! Will it shock you that said brother overcharged the government by $76,000, a lot of money at that time? Ha ha, of course not.

Johnson decided to step down from the House in 1819. He went back to the Kentucky legislature, but his real goal was the Senate. When John J. Crittenden resigned later that year, the state sent Johnson back to Washington. His main goal was more genocide, advocating for aggressive expansionism to create a gigantic American empire. His secondary goal was the abolishing of debt imprisonment. That one took awhile, but he started the ball rolling on ending this, which was mostly gone by the 1840s. This is probably the best thing Johnson ever did.

Johnson took leadership in Senate, if that’s the word you want to use, to oppose everything John Quincy Adams did as president, citing the “corrupt bargain” nonsense. He also continued to use his influence to personally profit off of the Indian wars, starting a government school to educate tribal members in how to be good passive subjects of whites on his own land so that he could make bank.

Johnson also wanted to use “science” to prove that the Earth was hollow, his personal pet theory. In 1823, he actually–and this is not an exaggeration–introduced a bill for Congress to fund an expedition to explore the center of the Earth. To say the least, this bill did not pass.

Johnson also led the fight to continue the delivery of mail on Sunday against the religious idiots who opposed this. He stated that it was a church and state issue. Of course he was also largely in charge of handing out contracts to his friends to deliver the mail in Kentucky and didn’t want to dip into his cut.

Johnson was not returned to the Senate after completing his term. That’s because of the scandal around his relationship with Chinn, which evidently didn’t bother the voters in his own district much since they all knew about it, but did offend a lot of people. The real outrage of course was not sex with the slave. I mean, what white man wouldn’t do that amirite? It was passing his daughters off into respectable society. Ah, the moral consistency and bravery of a slave society……

So Johnson went back to the House and was even floated as a presidential candidate in 1832 if Jackson didn’t want a second term. But of course he did and Johnson wasn’t going to challenge Old Hickory. However, he was super ambitious and really wanted to be the VP candidate in 1836. Jackson was cool with that and it was what mattered in the end. Martin Van Buren named him as his VP for that campaign. Politically it wasn’t really that smart because the South was pretty disgusted by his daughters being considered white. Can’t have that after all, even if they were 15/16 white. In fact, enough electors refused to vote for Johnson that while Van Buren won the presidency, Johnson did not have a majority of electors. So the House ended up putting him in the office.

As VP, he was something of a persona non grata. Van Buren didn’t care what he had to say and wanted to distance himself from the guy playing with racial boundaries. Moreover, Johnson was still super corrupt and using what power he had to enrich himself and his friends. Also, during the Panic of 1837, he just bailed from Washington, went home, and opened a tavern and spa.

In 1840, the only reason Van Buren wanted to keep him on the ticket was because of his war hero status. He knew he was in trouble against Harrison and wanted to promote the war hero stuff. Jackson on the other hand called him “dead weight,” which he even spelled correctly for once. So Johnson took the road to make his case. But he was a terrible public speaker. Although he once stripped off his shirt to show the audience his war wounds, he was a rambling, incoherent speaker who was so nasty to Harrison that in Cleveland, the crowd nearly rioted against him.

Well, that was about it for Johnson’s political career. He did make it back to the Kentucky legislature for a term. But between his clown show campaigning, his corruption, and his open relationship with a “Black” woman, he was mostly finished. He tried to get the legislature to send him back to the Senate instead of Crittenden in 1842, but it did not. He tried to get the presidential nomination in 1844, but was totally ignored. He did get back once more to the legislature in 1850, but by this time, he was failing both physically and mentally. He probably had dementia by this point. It was noticed on the floor of the legislature and reported in the newspapers. Just two weeks into his term, he had a stroke and died. He was 70 years old.

Richard Mentor Johnson is buried in Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Kentucky. The courts would not allow his one surviving daughter to inherit his money since her mother was a slave and therefore she was not “legitimate.”

In case you think the point of settlement wasn’t open genocide, let’s take a look at this detail from the side of Johnson’s grave.

Shooing an Indian (probably Tecumseh) in the head is….precisely how Johnson wanted to be remembered! Murder was the peak of his life. This was the heart of the American racial ideology of the time and to no small extent all the way to the present. Also, there is a frieze in the U.S. Capitol building of Johnson shooting Tecumseh.

If you would like this series to visit other vice-presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I can’t guarantee they will all have believed the Earth is hollow, but we’ll see about Dan Quayle after he dies. William King is in Selma, Alabama and Hannibal Hamlin is in Bangor, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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