February 8th, 1837


Courtesy of the Library of Congress

When Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster was offered the Vice Presidency on the Whig ticket of 1840 he declared, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.” It was, as the nation’s first Vice President, John Adams described, largely viewed as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” It was not an office often marred with controversy or struggle, at least not like the Presidency, whose elections had, more often than not, turned into brutal political blood sports. Then there was the man who became the only Vice President in history to be selected by the alternative provisions of the Twelfth Amendment, as the Senate met on February 8th, 1837 to elect Richard Mentor Johnson as the 9th Vice President of the United State.

The truth was that Colonel Johnson, Congressman from Kentucky, was not Martin Van Buren’s first choice. He wasn’t Van Buren’s choice at all He wanted Virginia Congressman William Cabell Rives, a man who had begun his career studying law at Monticello under then former President Thomas Jefferson. But Rives, a onetime supporter of President Andrew Jackson, began to make an enemy of the President as he began to oppose the administration on hard money currency and its stance on state banks. While it left Jackson’s Vice President undeterred as he looked for his running mate for 1836, Jackson would start looking elsewhere before setting his sights on his protégé, Richard Johnson. Still, he was a hard choice and an even tougher sell. After all Johnson carried far too much baggage for his liking. Having been in a common-law marriage with a slave, Julia Chinn, he had lost his bid for re-election to the Senate less than a decade prior when he claimed their daughter as his own, offering to her his last name. To have an affair with a slave was acceptable, to introduce them and the children through them into society as one’s family was indefensible. Yet to Johnson there was no shame or embarrassment. As he explained it, “Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections.” Even after her death just a few years prior he was a controversial choice, though he still seemed to keep his eye on a potential ascendency to the highest office of the land.

Regardless, Jackson believed that Johnson’s war record during the War of 1812, would offset any liability that he had, and offer credibility to Van Buren, who had not served. He was, after all, the hero of the Battle of the Thames, the man who had killed the Shawnee leader of the great Native American Confederacy, Tecumseh. In fact that would be all that he would run on as he took the line from Boston Publisher William Emmon’s poem as his slogan, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” Yet it was not enough. Tennessee Supreme Court Justice John Catron, who would be appointed as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court by Jackson during his final days in the White House as the court expanded from 7 members to 9, would declare to the President that he found the idea was ridiculous that “a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the vice presidency.”

In the end, the Electoral College agreed. South Carolina would, for the only time in its history, award its Electors to a Whig. It would return to the Democratic fold for every election after until 1868. Though Van Buren and Johnson carried the election with 15 states and 170 votes in the Electoral College compared to William Henry Harrison’s 7 states and 73 Electors, Virginia, a state that they won, refused to cast its 23 votes for Johnson as Vice President even as it affirmed Van Buren as the President. With 148 votes necessary, the faithless electors of that state had left him one vote shy. It was up to the Senate to decide by the power vested in them by the Constitution, which declared, “The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice.” They would have to pick between Johnson and Whig Vice Presidential Candidate Francis Grainger.

Johnson would carry the Senate 33 to 16, but it would be clearly across Party lines, with the clear majority of his votes coming from Jacksonian Democrats, with the Whigs casting their vote overwhelmingly for Grainger. Four years later though even Jackson couldn’t, and wouldn’t, save him. Viewed as a liability on the ticket Van Buren would opt not to have a running mate rather than the Vice President from Kentucky that couldn’t carry his own state, agreeing to a compromise that would see no one nominated to the ticket, allowing anyone to run as Vice President, allowing the States to decide. Johnson would run again, but perhaps as a incoherent shell of an embattled man desperate to retain the office that had, in that election, been spurned by Daniel Webster, when William Henry Harrison offered him the second spot on his ticket. With only 48 electoral votes, he would fall 12 short of the 60 that his one time running mate one. In the end it wouldn’t matter for either of them as Harrison won in a landslide, his short lived Presidency making way for John Tyler to ascend to the Presidency


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