Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Richard Mentor Johnson

Now that I am in the Bluegrass state I am going to try to learn more about some of the interesting personalities of Kentucky history, and hopefully share some of them via this blog.

One individual that I have always found unique for his era and accomplishments is Richard M. Johnson. I first read about Johnson in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson. At the time I was a new student to serious history, but I knew enough to be surprised by what I learned about this man.

Richard M. Johnson was born in 1780 at Beargrass (near present-day Louisville) Kentucky to Robert and Jemima Johnson. The Johnson family eventually landed in Scott County, Kentucky and at 15 young Richard attended Transylvania College in Lexington. He later studied law and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1802. Johnson's political career began when he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1804. In 1806 he was elected to the U.S. House and served several consecutive terms. Johnson's political career was sidetracked when he participated in the War of 1812 as a colonel of Kentucky militia. He is credited as having personally killed the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, where Johnson received five wounds. Johnson later served as a U.S. Senator and was elected Vice President in President Martin Van Buren's administration. He returned to Kentucky when his vice presidency ended, and later was again elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1850. He died of a stroke just two weeks into his term.

Johnson's story is not so unique if that is all you know, but here is where the story gets interesting for 19th century values. Family tradition says that Johnson broke off an engagement to a woman because she was deemed unworthy of the family name by Johnson's mother. When Johnson's father died, Richard began a long-term openly visible relationship with a family slave, Julia Chinn, that his father had willed to him. Relationships between male masters and female slaves were not all that uncommon in the 19th century South, but almost all remained secreted. Chinn was apparently only 1/8 African American, but was considered a "Negro" in the period's terminology and understanding, and therefore Johnson was unable to legally marry her. Johnson lived with Chinn as his common law wife until she died of cholera in 1833. This relationship produced two daughters; Adeline and Imogene. Johnson provided an education to each daughter, and after each married white men, Johnson gave both a large title of land. Adeline died in 1836 without children, and Imogene did not receive Johnson's estate when he passed away, instead the estate was deeded to Johnson's two brothers.

Another interesting aspect of Johnson's life and legacy was his donation of part of his land to start the Choctaw Indian Academy in Scott County, Kentucky in 1825. The school educated only Choctaw chiefs' sons at first, but as other Indian tribes learned of its success Cherokees, Chickasaws, Pottawatomies, and other tribes sent young men to be educated there as well. By 1830 there were over 100 Indian scholars at the school. Increasingly missionaries started numbers of schools closer to the Indian's own homes, and numbers fell rapidly at the Choctaw Academy; finally closing in 1845.

I have been able to nail down two biographies on Johnson, one from the 1840s and one from the 1930s. Hopefully, now that I am in Kentucky, I will be able to find one of these and learn even more about this unconventional man.

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