When The Electoral College Took Down a Winner
To call America’s ninth vice president Richard Mentor Johnson a man of contradictions is like calling Donald Trump egotistical—the mere label does not capture the magnitude of the claim. Johnson was a wealthy landowning populist who denounced the “monied interests.” He was a loyal soldier who ran against his former commander when they were both vying for national office. He was a slaveholder who suffered politically for carrying on an interracial romance publicly—and treating a black woman as his wife in racist Kentucky. He insisted on passing on ancestral lands to his two black daughters—but hunted down his second “wife” as a runaway slave when she cuckolded him. And, while serving as Vice President of the United States, Richard Johnson took a leave of absence to serve drinks in the tavern he ran back home.
It is fitting, therefore, that this prince of paradox is one of those rare American politicians whose political careers suffered from the contradiction that sent Hillary Rodham Clinton packing: that Americans don’t elect their President and Vice President directly. Moreover, Richard Johnson is the one major party nominee whose election was affected by what most of us consider to be simply a theoretical problem, the faithless elector, the elector who defies the voters’ instructions and votes freely, as the Constitution permits.
When Richard M. Johnson ran to be vice president in 1836, he should have been more popular than the ticket’s standard bearer, Martin Van Buren. Andrew Jackson’s Vice President, Van Buren was a crafty New York operative, broadly distrusted. Johnson was more Jacksonian, populist, homespun, authentic, and a genuine war hero. He was, he said, born in 1780, in frontier Virginia, “in a canebrake and cradled in a sap trough,” an exaggeration given his father’s extensive Kentucky landholdings...
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