"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Richard Mentor Johnson

This 1843 portrait of Richard Mentor Johnson by John Neagle hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
"The successful Philadelphia portrait painter John Neagle received one of the most important commissions of his career in 1842, when Whig Party members requested a full-length likeness of their presidential candidate Henry Clay (The Union League of Philadelphia). To execute the portrait, Neagle traveled to Frankfort, Kentucky, where he received additional commissions including this painting of Clay’s fellow Kentuckian Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850). Like Clay, Johnson served in both houses of Congress; he also served as the ninth Vice President of the United States in the administration of Martin Van Buren (1837 to 1841).

The son-in-law and student of Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully, Neagle displayed the same bravura brushwork as his mentor. Dazzling strokes define Johnson’s trademark red waistcoat, shiny silk cravat, ruddy complexion, and the breeze-blown gray curls that frame his pensive face. They also enliven the dense, lush trees edged in fall foliage, whose crimson color echoes that of Johnson’s vest. Neagle’s choice of a landscape background, rather than a studio setting, was relatively unusual for portraiture during this era." -- The National Gallery of Art.
Wikipedia gives this capsule biography of Johnson.
"Richard Mentor Johnson (October 17, 1780 – November 19, 1850) was the ninth Vice President of the United States, serving in the administration of Martin Van Buren (1837–41). He is the only vice president ever elected by the United States Senate under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment. Johnson also represented Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate; he began and ended his political career in the Kentucky House of Representatives." -- Wikipedia
Richard Johnson was known for his crusade to outlaw Debtor's Prison. This image appeared in Asahel Langworthy's Biographical sketch of Col. Johnson of Kentucky in 1843.

Col. Johnson Liberating an Unfortunate Debtor. 

Perhaps Johnson was most famous for killing Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, when he was a Colonel of Cavalry. His Senate biography considers that claim dubious and quotes Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron who remarked to Andrew Jackson in 1835, " . . . I pray you to assure our friends that the humblest of us do not believe that a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the Vice Presidency." The slogan of Johnson's Vice-Presidential campaign was "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh."

 Colonel Johnson Killing Tecumseh

[This Blog post was extended in February of 2021, the content below is new.]

In 1819 Johnson founded the Choctaw Academy, an elite school for Choctaw students. Peter Pitchlynn was among the alumnae of the Academy.

Julia Chinn is often described as Johnson's "common-law wife". She was an enslaved woman of African ancestry, owned by Richard M. Johnson, reportedly a gift from his parents. Johnson openly called Julia his wife and gave his name to their two daughters, Imogene and Adeline.  We really don't know what Julia Chinn looked like but this modern picture is circulating on the internet:

Julia Chinn

Julia died in 1833, at age 42 or 43,  during a cholera epidemic at the Academy, the location of her grave in unknown.

Richard Johnson's relationship with Julia Chinn nearly cost him the Vice-Presidency. In 1836 Johnson ran for vice-president on the same Democratic ticket as Martin Van Buren. Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes but Virginia's 23 electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson because of his inter-racial marriage. Johnson was 1 electoral vote short of the 148 needed to win.  Under the rules set by the 12th amendment,  the Senate decides who will be vice-president if no candidate gets enough votes in the electoral college. The Senate chose Johnson. 

Cartoons like the one below, from the 1836 campaign, representing a “Jinnoowine Johnson Ticket” demonstrate the level of nastiness in 19th century political campaigns. (LOC)

In this caricature, a woman presumably representing Julia Chinn Johnson says  “Let ebery good dimicrat vote for my husband, and den he shall hab his sheer ub de surplum rebbenu wat is in my bag,” The caption reads “She plucks Dick -- and Dick plucks you -- and Van plucks Dick.” I suspect that sounded as vulgar to 19th century people as it does to me. “Go it, ye Cripples!” and “The people will it!!!” are apparently Democratic Party slogans. (see Tanisha C. Ford and Carl R. Wienberg, Slavery, Interracial Marriage, and the Election of 1836.)

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