Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Richard Johnson Mentor

If you are going, who the heck is that, you probably aren't alone. He's a Vice President - Martin Van Buren's.  I found this historic cartoon on him and thought I'd share with a biography. Plus VP nomination talk is starting up, so it seemed appropriate:
Notified of his election, Johnson responded that his "gratification was heightened from the conviction that the Senate, in the exercise of their constitutional prerogative, concurred with and confirmed the wishes of both the States and the people." He explained that he had never paid "special regard to the minuteness of rules and orders, so necessary to the progress of business, and so important to the observance of the presiding officer" during his three decades in Congress. He was nonetheless confident—in words reminiscent of Jefferson's forty years earlier—that "the intelligence of the Senate will guard the country from any injury that might result from the imperfections of the presiding officer." While he hoped "that there may be always sufficient unanimity" to prevent equal divisions in the Senate, he would perform his duty "without embarrassment" in the event that he was called upon to cast a tie-breaking vote.
President pro tempore King administered the oath of office to Johnson in the Senate chamber at 10:00 a.m. on March 4, 1837. In a brief address to the Senate, the new vice president observed that "there is not, perhaps, a deliberative assembly existing, where the presiding officer has less difficulty in preserving order." He attributed this characteristic to "the intelligence and patriotism of the members who compose the body, and that personal respect and courtesy which have always been extended from one member to another in its deliberations." At the conclusion of his remarks, the ceremony of newly elected senators presenting their credentials to the Senate and taking the oath of office was temporarily interrupted by the arrival of President-elect Van Buren and his party. The senators therefore joined the procession to the east portico of the Capitol for the presidential inauguration.
Contemporary witnesses and scholarly accounts of the day's festivities mention Richard Mentor Johnson only in passing, if at all. The outgoing president, worn and emaciated from two terms in office and a recent debilitating illness but still towering over his immaculately attired successor, was clearly the focus of attention. Thomas Hart Benton, a dedicated Jackson supporter, later recounted the "acclamations and cheers bursting from the heart and filling the air" that erupted from the crowd as Jackson took his leave of the ceremony. From Benton's perspective, "the rising was eclipsed by the setting sun."
Johnson's friendship with Jackson and his stature in the House had assured him access to the president and some measure of influence during Jackson's administrations. The controversy surrounding his nomination, however, together with his disappointing showing in the 1836 election, his longstanding rivalry with Van Buren, and the constitutional limitations of his new office severely curtailed his role in the Van Buren administration. Histories of Van Buren's presidency do not indicate that he ever sought his vice president's counsel. Johnson's duties were confined to the Senate chamber, where he watched from the presiding officer's chair as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Silas Wright of New York introduced Van Buren's economic program.
Johnson was, however, willing to use on behalf of his friends and cronies the limited influence he still commanded. When Lewis Tappan asked the vice president to present an abolition petition to the Senate, Johnson, who owned several slaves, averred that "considerations of a moral and political, as well as of a constitutional nature" prevented him from presenting "petitions of a character evidently hostile to the union, and destructive of the principles on which it is founded." "Constitutional considerations" did not, however, prevent him from lobbying Congress on behalf of Indian subagent Samuel Milroy when Milroy, an Indiana Democrat who performed "special favors" for the vice president, sought the more lucrative position of Indian agent.
Johnson was a competent presiding officer, although not an accomplished parliamentarian. In keeping with Senate practice during the 1830s, he appointed senators to standing and select committees, a duty that President pro tempore William R. King performed when he was absent.
Although he had hoped for "equanimity" in the Senate, Johnson was called upon to cast his tie-breaking vote fourteen times during his single term in office, more frequently than any previous vice president except John Adams and John C. Calhoun. Three of his predecessors—Adams, George Clinton, and Daniel D. Tompkins—had addressed the Senate on occasion to explain their tie-breaking votes, but Johnson declined to do so. In at least one instance, however, he did explain a vote to readers of the Kentucky Gazette. Justifying his support for a bill granting relief to the daughter of a veteran, Johnson reminded his former constituents that he had always "used my humble abilities in favor of those laws which have extended compensation to the officers and soldiers who have bravely fought, and freely bled, in their country's cause, and to widows and orphans of those who perished." In other instances, however, Johnson voted with Democratic senators in support of administration policy.
Notwithstanding his steady, if lackluster, service in the Senate, Johnson from the outset represented a liability to Van Buren. Still heavily in debt when he assumed office, he hoped to recoup his fortunes through the Choctaw Academy, a school he established at Blue Spring Farm during the 1820s that became the focus of the Jackson administration's efforts to "socialize" and "civilize" the Native American population. He received federal funds for each student from tribal annuities and the "Civilization Fund" established by Congress during the Monroe administration, but revenues from the school failed to satisfy his mounting obligations. By the spring of 1839, Amos Kendall reported to Van Buren on the vice president's latest venture: a hotel and tavern at White Sulphur Spring, Kentucky. He enclosed a letter from a friend who had visited "Col. Johnson's Watering establishment" and found the vice president "happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping—even giving his personal superintendence to the chicken and egg purchasing and water-melon selling department." Kendall wrote with consternation that Johnson's companion, "a young Delilah of about the complexion of Shakespears swarthy Othello," was "said to be his third wife; his second, which he sold for her infidelity, having been the sister of the present lady." Although one of the most fashionable in Kentucky, Johnson's resort also formed a source of considerable embarrassment for the administration.
As debts, disappointments, and the chronic pain he had suffered since 1813 took their toll, Johnson's once-pleasing appearance became dishevelled, and the plain republican manners that had in earlier days so charmed Margaret Bayard Smith now struck observers as vulgar and crude, especially compared to the impeccably clad and consummately tactful Van Buren. Henry Stanton observed Johnson presiding over the Senate in 1838 and pronounced him "shabbily dressed, and to the last degree clumsy," a striking contrast with his "urbane, elegant predecessor." English author Harriett Martineau sat opposite the vice president at a dinner party, and predicted that "if he should become President, he will be as strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled. His countenance is wild, though with much cleverness in it; his hair wanders all abroad, and he wears no cravat. But there is no telling how he might look if he dressed like other people." The trademark scarlet vest that Johnson affected while vice president (after he and stagecoach line operator James Reeside agreed to don vests to match Reeside's red coaches) only accentuated his unkempt appearance and eccentric habits.
Van Buren and Johnson took office just as weakened demand for American products abroad and credit restrictions imposed by British banks and trading houses combined to produce a massive contraction in the economy. Critics focused their wrath on Jackson's fiscal policies, which were in part responsible for the panic of 1837, but Van Buren would not abandon his predecessor's "hard money" stance. He refused mounting demands to rescind the 1836 Specie Circular, Jackson's directive to end speculation and inflation by requiring purchasers of public land to pay in specie. During the September 1837 special session of Congress that Van Buren called to address the crisis, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Silas Wright of New York introduced the new administration's remedy, a proposal to end government reliance on the banking system. Congress finally approved Van Buren's independent treasury plan in the summer of 1840, but not before bitter debate and the worsening economy galvanized the Whig opposition. Adding to Van Buren's considerable difficulties, and contributing to Democratic losses in the 1837 and 1838 local elections, were a border dispute with Canada, armed resistance to removal by the Seminole tribe in Florida, heightened sectional antagonism over slavery in Congress, and flagrant misconduct on the part of several administration appointees.

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