A Brief History
On February 8, 1837, the United States Senate elected Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky as the incoming Vice President of the United States, the only time in US history that the Senate was required to make such an election due to the failure of any Vice Presidential candidate to garner enough Electoral votes to get elected. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which went into effect starting with the Presidential election of 1804, is the basis for the Senate being tasked with electing a Vice President in the absence of a majority Electoral College votes for a Vice Presidential candidate. The 12th Amendment also covers the way the Electoral College elects the President as well.
Richard Johnson was serving as a US Representative from Kentucky when he ran as the Vice Presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket with Martin Van Buren in 1836. He had first served in the House of Representatives in 1807 and had continued to serve in elected office, including a stint in the US Senate from 1819 to 1829 before returning to the House of Representatives. A colonel in the US Army from 1812 to 1814, he was on the expedition that fought the Battle of Moraviantown (also known as The Battle of the Thames) in Canada in which American forces defeated British Native American allies, including Chief Tecumseh. Johnson is reputed to have personally killed Tecumseh in battle, or at least he would have liked us to believe that!
The quaint political rallying cry for the 1836 Presidential election for the Democratic Party was, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” When Van Buren won the 1836 Presidential election and was awarded a majority of the Electoral votes, his running mate, Johnson, failed to get a majority by a single Electoral vote. Why did the Electoral voters not cast their votes for Johnson, despite Johnson being on the winning ticket? Because Johnson had a mistress that was considered an “octoroon,” a woman 7/8ths White and 1/8th Black! Today such an “offense” may seem trivial, but in 1837 (when the Electoral votes were cast) race was a Big Deal in the United States, with the country almost 3 decades away from outlawing slavery. Kentucky, being a “slave state,” was used to wealthy and powerful White men taking African American mistresses and continued to elect Johnson to office, although it is possible Johnson’s open affair with this woman led to his limited time in the Senate and forced his return to the House of Representatives instead.
The Electoral delegation from Virginia decided as a bloc to refuse to cast their vote for Johnson, resulting in no Vice Presidential candidate receiving the necessary number of Electoral votes. Thus, the Senate was tasked with electing the new Vice President, and they honored the will of the popular voters by electing Johnson. Johnson’s position as Vice President was seen as a political liability, and he was not selected to run again with Van Buren in 1840, who actually ran for President without a running mate! Johnson did campaign for the Vice Presidency in 1840, and made something of a spectacle of himself on the campaign trail, with erratic behavior including touching off a riot in Cleveland! His political career seemed over after he left office in 1841, and Johnson headed home to Kentucky to see after his farm and a tavern he owned. A minor political foray as a State Representative followed from 1841 to 1843, and an attempt to return to the Senate failed in 1842, as did an attempt at becoming the Governor of Kentucky in 1848. In between those failed campaigns, he also sought the party’s nomination for President in 1844.
In 1850, Johnson won election to the Kentucky House of Representatives, but he was a shell of his former self and was reputed to be suffering from dementia. He died of a stroke only 2 weeks after taking office in November of 1850, at the age of 70. Trivia fact: When the body of frontiersman Daniel Boone was moved back to Kentucky in 1845, Johnson served as a pall bearer. So far, Richard M. Johnson remains the only Vice President to be elected by the Senate because of failure to gain enough Electoral votes, a distinction of dubious value.
(By the way, Johnson had received his education at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Yes, this is a real university and in fact can claim many illustrious graduates, including 2 US Vice Presidents, the President of the Confederacy, 50 US Senators, 2 US Supreme Court Justices, over 100 US Representatives, and 34 US Ambassadors! And all this with a relatively small student population of just under 1000.)
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For more information, please see…
Cole, Donald. Martin Van Buren and the American Political System. Eastern National, 2004.
Petriello, David. The Days of Heroes Are Over: A Brief Biography of Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. Amazon, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a racist attack on Democratic vice-presidential candidate Richard M. Johnson, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.