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Johnson, Richard M.

Born: 1780-10-17 Louisville, Kentucky

Died: 1850-11-19 Frankfort, Kentucky

Born on a frontier settlement named Beargrass--currently part of Louisville--Johnson's family soon moved to Bryant's Station before settling at Great Crossing in 1783. Johnson studied law and earned admittance to the bar in 1802. His practice primarily represented poor farmers with land title problems. In 1804, he became the first native Kentuckian to serve in the Kentucky General Assembly--again making poor farmers his priority--and became the first native Kentuckian to serve in Congress after winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1806. In Congress, Johnson opposed the National Bank and advocated action against Great Britain. Following the outbreak of the War of 1812, he left Congress and formed a regiment of mounted riflemen in Kentucky, serving as colonel. The unit earned a strong reputation, especially under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, where Johnson suffered five bullet wounds and reportedly killed Tecumseh.

Johnson returned to Congress after the war and increasingly moved into the nascent Jacksonian camp, leading the movement to oppose Henry Clay's censure of Andrew Jackson's actions during the First Seminole War. Following the Panic of 1819, he resigned from Congress and returned to the Kentucky General Assembly to manage the crisis, before winning election to the U.S. Senate at the end of the year. He lost his seat in 1828 but won election back to the House. During the Jackson administration, Johnson consistently sided with the president, regardless of his previous stances, and Jackson rewarded Johnson by pushing him as Martin Van Buren's running mate in the 1836 presidential election. After not winning a majority of Electoral College votes due to defecting electors, Johnson's election went to the Senate, making him the first vice president chosen by that body. Part of the reason for Johnson's unpopularity in his party was his public unmarried relationship to a mulatto woman named Julia Chinn. Even after Chinn's death in 1833, Johnson had continued to pursue relationships with various mulatto mistresses. Following Van Buren's defeat in 1840, Johnson returned to his Kentucky plantation where he remained until he again won election to the state legislature in 1850. He died in session at the Kentucky General Assembly later that year.

Gravestone, Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, KY; Edgar J. McManus, "Johnson, Richard Mentor," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12:118-20; Leland Winfield Meyer, The Life and Times of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky (New York: AMS, 1967).