For those wishing to build a collection of vice-presidents, there are few books appropriate to a Richard Johnson collection. Johnson was not himself a writer, and he did not develop much in the way of biographers. He was simply forgotten. In this way, he was similar to King, whom we reviewed earlier. The most notable books pertaining to King were obituary addresses given when he died. In Johnson’s case, it seems no one even bothered to print these. One of the most decent things he ever did, standing up for the humanity of his children whom society said he should shun, had left him an outcast.
There is really only one book that is essential to a collection of Richard Mentor Johnson. I can find no copies available on the internet book sites at this moment, but records in the Americana Exchange Database show that it has come up for sale many times in the past. It is not expensive. The title is Authentic Biography of Col. Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, printed in 1833 and again in 1834. This one is probably authentic-plus as its author was a rabid partisan of Johnson. No author is given, but it is frequently attributed to William Emmons, the publisher. Of all who catalogued the book and are listed in the AE Database, only mid-20th century bookseller Ernie Wessen seems to have picked up on the fact that William’s brother Richard was the writer in the family and would have been the author.
Richard Emmons was a well-known writer, actually poet, of the first half of the 19th century. His epic poem The Fredoniad, a tribute to America’s “victory” in the War of 1812, was immensely popular at the time. So was his not quite so epic The Battle of Bunker Hill. Emmons was a fellow Kentuckian who uninhibitedly admired Johnson. Along with this book, he even wrote a play about Col. Johnson (Tecumseh, of the Battle of Thames) and a poem. It is from this poem that the poetic “rumpsey, dumpsey” rhyme arose. Perhaps this explains why Emmons rarely appears on anyone’s list of great poets anymore. Fredoniad and Bunker Hill can be readily found on bookselling sites today as they were very common, but you may have to wait a little while for the “authentic” biography. A copy was sold last year by Waverly Auctions, and the price was a modest $75.
The more even-handed, though less collectible biography of Johnson is Leland Meyer’s The Life and Times of Colonel Richard M. Johnson, originally published in 1932 and reprinted in 1967. Meyer may have accepted some of the legend, but at least he wasn’t trying to get Johnson elected to anything. I find no copies of it available at the moment either, but it won’t be too expensive when it comes around. I do find a copy of Speech of Col. Richard M. Johnson, of Kentucky, on a Proposition to Abolish Imprisonment for Debt, submitted by him to the Senate of the United States, January 14, 1823 available on TomFolio.com. Published in Boston by the Society for the Relief of the Distressed in 1823, this would be a worthwhile inclusion in a Johnson collection. It is offered by Zubal Books of Cleveland for $65. What you aren’t likely to find is a copy of his speech given at Great Crossings, Kentucky, in April 1815, concerning his victory at the Thames. This rare piece was sold by Edward Eberstadt in 1964 for $500. He could find no other reference to it at the time, and speculated it might be the only known copy.
Finally, we close with a quote about Johnson, from an 1833 speech by Ely Moore published by Emmons in his Authentic Biography. Speaking of Johnson’s defense of separation of church and state in his postal reports, Moore states “We hazard but little in predicting that the Reports of the Kentucky statesman, calculated as they are to guard us from a like curse, will survive the flourish -- will be read and admired -- honored and revered by the freemen of America, when the edicts of kings and emperors and the creeds of councils, shall have been swept from the memory of man.” He was, of course, wrong. Johnson’s words are neither read nor admired, not honored or revered anymore. They have simply been forgotten. That’s unfortunate. He deserves better. Please try to remember Richard Mentor Johnson, ninth Vice-President of the United States of America.