Eccentricity At the Top:<br>Richard Mentor Johnson
By Michael Stillman
A few months ago, we began an erratic and some may think trivial series on collecting some of the notable men who have served this nation in the trivial office of vice-president. This month, we push on. Last time we wrote about William Rufus King, who served from 1853 to a few days later in 1853 (he was already deathly ill when he took office). See Trivial Pursuit. Though now virtually forgotten, King was a beloved long-serving senator who often filled the vice-president’s role in the senate as President Pro Tempore, though sadly never as vice-president himself. Terminal illness was far advanced by the time he was sworn in. King was a moderate, conciliatory, non-controversial man liked by both supporters and opponents alike.
Today we look at his opposite. In the 19th century, we had a vice-president probably even more disliked by his party than Nelson Rockefeller, the wild-eyed liberal from New York Gerald Ford was forced by his party to jettison in 1976. In fact, he was so disliked that many of his party’s electors refused to vote him in as vice-president, forcing his former colleagues in the senate, under the rules of the 12th Amendment, to salvage his election. We, of course, could be referring to no one other than “Old Rumpsey Dumpsey” himself. What? You don’t recall “Old Rumpsey Dumpsey?” O.k. This is about the estimable Vice-President of the United States Richard Mentor Johnson. Still don’t remember? Read on.
The year was 1836, and Martin Van Buren, not the most beloved of presidents himself, had recently been elected. When the electors met to vote, Van Buren, who won the majority of the electoral votes, naturally was elected. So should his running mate have been. However, Johnson managed to antagonize enough of his own electors that he was unable to carry a majority. The vice-presidential race, under the terms of the 12th Amendment, was thrown into the senate where, fortunately for Johnson, party loyalty saved the day. It was the cap to one of the more controversial and entertaining political careers we have seen. However, in fairness, we must point out that Johnson also had his supporters, and he engendered great loyalty from an unusual coalition of western frontiersmen and northeastern workingmen. But, we are ahead of ourselves. To understand this odd turn of events, we need to go back to rural Kentucky, where the legend of “Rumpsey Dumpsey” was born.
His early “log cabin” upbringing, which many politicians of this era loved to claim, was semi-true. Johnson was born in Bluegrass, Kentucky, near current-day Louisville, when that was the far-off western frontier. However, his father was no Davy Crockett. Robert Johnson was one of the state’s major landowners, and served in the Kentucky legislature and Virginia legislature before that. Three of his brothers would also serve in federal offices and Richard Mentor would attend Transylvania College and be admitted to the bar. Yet, despite his relative wealth and more privileged upbringing, he would never associate himself with the more privileged classes. He frequently assisted poor people with legal claims against the wealthy for no fee, genuinely sympathetic to their plight. In fact, Johnson was rabidly against the whole concept of classes of people, an attitude that would make him a hero to some of the nation’s more downtrodden.