Eccentricity At the Top:<br>Richard Mentor Johnson
Johnson is particularly remembered for two stands he took during this period. Both involved matters of principle, but somewhat typical of Johnson, both were tied to his personal interests as well. Following the Panic of 1819, many citizens, Johnson included, found themselves in debt and in difficult financial straits. Johnson was better off than most, but one of the punishments still in use at the time was debtor’s prison. Senator Johnson was an ardent opponent of this punishment, helping convince Kentucky legislators to outlaw the practice in 1821. In 1822, he introduced a bill to outlaw the use of imprisonment for debt in federal courts. It would take another decade to pass this legislation, but Johnson’s role in ending the practice was substantial. Of course this legislation would protect the indebted Johnson as well, but the major benefits accrued to the common people Johnson always championed.
The other notable position taken by Johnson came about from his role as Chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. A movement developed in the 1820s to force the government to outlaw all mail service and movement on Sundays as a violation of the Sabbath. Arguments still heard today were raised, claiming the U.S. to be a “Christian nation” in which such behavior was unacceptable. The debate sounds eerily similar to one heard recently involving the Ten Commandments and a judge in Alabama. But, contrary to what many think, the United States was a secular nation, at least in terms of its government, in those days. The wall between church and state was strong, and it was defended more vigorously by governmental officials then than most would dare in today’s era of constant election polls.
Johnson was second to none in his defense of separation of church and state. Interference with the government, in this case the movement of the mail, on religious grounds was totally intolerable. Even here, Johnson can’t escape questions of conflict of interest. Friends of Johnson were among the contractors who were hired to haul the mail, and closing down all activity on Sundays would have hurt their business. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Johnson, himself a practicing Baptist, strongly believed in a clear separation.
In 1829, Johnson’s senate committee issued a strong rebuke to attempts to impose religious beliefs over the operation of the Post Office. In 1830, a committee of the House (Johnson had returned to the House of Representatives) issued a similar report. Among the moving statements in the earlier report, the Committee states: “Our Constitution recognises no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing religious observances. Let the professors of Christianity recommend their religion by deeds of benevolence -- by Christian meekness -- by lives of temperance and holiness. Let them combine their efforts to instruct the ignorant -- to relieve the widow and the orphan -- to promulgate to the world the gospel of their Savior, recommending its precepts by their habitual example: government will find its legitimate object in protecting them. It cannot oppose them, and they will not need its aid. Their moral influence will then do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion, than any measures which they may call on Congress to enact." Perhaps if we listened to Johnson’s words today, there would be no more arguments about church and state nor any reason for there to be again.