Eccentricity At the Top:<br>Richard Mentor Johnson
Johnson offers another argument in support of extending slavery to the territories, one that reaffirms his own true discomfort with the institution plus a willingness to try to rationalize this discomfort away. Using logic that’s hard to comprehend, he claims that expansion of slavery to more territories will one day enable slaves to be free without tearing the country apart. Perhaps his obscure point is if slavery were to spread throughout the country, abolition would no longer be a North-South issue. At least emancipation would not split the country on a geographical basis. This, supposedly, would make freeing of the slaves, so that “they may one day enjoy the rights of man,” easier to accomplish. I see little sense in this argument, but it does reveal that Johnson was not blind to the evils of slavery, and that it’s eventual elimination was the moral choice.
In an aside, Johnson also set up on his property the “Choctaw School,” one of the earliest schools for Indians in the west. Although a man who made his fame fighting Indians, he turned to training their children to survive in the changing world. But, as was typical with Johnson, there was also another motive. The Indian school was for him a money-making venture funded by federal dollars.
Why the bondage of people with black skin was, though unpleasant, acceptable to Johnson, but that of those with white skin was not, is not explained. He evidently saw a need for people to fill servile jobs, and for the protection of poor, exploited Whites, he was willing to let that fall to people who were black. It was a mindset shared, often with similar discomfort, by the Founding Fathers. Johnson more than most of his contemporaries was a believer in equality. He just didn’t extend it to Blacks, at least not yet. The fact that his children, whom he loved dearly, were by most definitions “black,” did not change his mind, though he obviously was troubled by the inconsistencies. He was not a bad man, just a man of his times. And, it must be remembered, that he was still so much more progressive on this issue than most of his contemporaries that it eventually ended his political career.
As the election of 1832 rolled around, it became clear that Jackson was not going to call on Vice-President Calhoun to serve another term as his running mate. Calhoun was developing his concept of states’ right to nullify federal actions in response to tariffs Jackson supported. Calhoun resigned before he could be dumped. Johnson wanted the vice-presidential nomination, and despite the great controversy swirling around him, he also had his strong constituencies. Added to this was the fact that he was a close ally of Jackson. However, Martin Van Buren was Jackson’s right-hand man. A New Yorker, he offered the polish and good manners both Jackson and Johnson lacked. He was the perfect running mate for Jackson, and got the nod from the President. Johnson returned to Congress where he continued to serve for the remainder of Jackson’s second term.