Richard Mentor Johnson was born on October 17, 1780, the fifth of Robert and Jemima (Suggett) Johnson's eleven children. His father had served as a Fayette County representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses, while his mother "came from a wealthy and politically connected family." At the time of Johnson's birth, fortunes of the Johnson family were tied up with indigenous peoples. Resistance by such peoples stopping the family from moving there for numerous years, and when they were able to settle there, they constructed a stockade around their house since a "multi-tribal coalition contested US claims to the region" after the Treaty of Paris in 1783. At the time, the family was living in the newly founded settlement of "Beargrass", near present-day Louisville, Kentucky which was part of Virginia until Kentucky was organized and admitted as a state in 1792. Two years later, the border war had ended. Soon thousands more would join the Johnsons in Kentucky, with 324,000 whites living in the state by 1800.
By 1782, the Johnsons had moved to Bryan's Station (future Lexington) in Fayette County. Johnson's mother was considered among the heroic women of the community because of her actions during Simon Girty's raid on Bryan's Station in August 1782. According to tradition, as Girty's forces surrounded the fort, the occupants discovered that they had almost no water inside to withstand a siege. Several Indians had concealed themselves near the spring outside the fort. The Kentuckians reasoned that the Indians would stay hidden until they attacked. Jemima Johnson approved a plan for the women to go alone and collect water from the spring as usual. Many men disapproved of the plan, fearing the women would be attacked and killed. However, faced with no other option they finally agreed. Shortly after sunrise, the women went to the spring and returned without incident.
By 1784, the Johnson family was at Great Crossing in Scott County. In 1779, Johnson purchased 2000 acres from Patrick Henry and a large portion of James Madison's 3000-acre land grant in the area. As a surveyor, Robert Johnson became successful through well-chosen land purchases and being early in the region when huge land grants were made.
After his father died, Richard Johnson inherited Julia Chinn, an octoroon slave (one-eighth African, seven-eighths European in ancestry), born into slavery around 1790 and a person who had grown up in the same household as him. Johnson began a long-term relationship with her and treated her as his common-law wife. Chinn was simply put, the concubine of Johnson, later having the role as mother of their children and manager of plantation. With this, both Chinn and Johnson championed the "notion of a diverse society" with the multiracial Chinn-Johnson family. They were prohibited from marrying because she was a slave. When Johnson was away from his Kentucky plantation, he authorized Chinn to manage his Business affairs. She died in an epidemic of cholera in the summer of 1833, to Johnson's great grief.
The son Richard Johnson did not begin his formal education until age fifteen, since there were no schools on the frontier. He entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. While studying law (reading the law) as a legal apprentice with George Nicholas and James Brown by 1799 at the university, where his father was a trustee, he was quickly drawn into politics like his father. Nicholas and Brown were professors of law at the university in addition to being in private practice, with his apprenticeship the customary way for many young men to enter the law.
Johnson was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1802, and opened his office at Great Crossing. Later, he owned a Retail store and pursued a number of Business ventures with his brothers. Johnson often worked pro bono for poor people, prosecuting their cases when they had merit. He also opened his home to disabled veterans, widows, and orphans.
In 1806, Johnson was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the United States House of Representatives, serving as the first native Kentuckian to be elected to Congress. At the time of his election in August 1806, he did not meet the U.S. Constitution's age requirement for Service in the House (25), but by the time the congressional session began the following March, he met the required age. He was re-elected and served six consecutive terms. From 1807 to 1813, he represented Kentucky's Fourth District.
Johnson entered politics in 1804, when he was elected to represent Scott County in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was twenty-three years old. Although the Kentucky Constitution imposed an age requirement of twenty-four for members of the House of Representatives, Johnson was so popular that no one raised questions about his age, and he was allowed to take his seat. He was placed on the Committee on Courts of Justice. During his tenure, he supported legislation to protect settlers from land speculators. On January 26, 1807, he delivered an address condemning the Burr conspiracy.
Johnson served as chairman of the Committee on Claims during the Eleventh Congress (1809–1811). The committee was charged with adjudicating financial claims made by veterans of the Revolutionary War. He sought to influence the committee to grant the claim of Alexander Hamilton's widow to wages which Hamilton had declined when serving under George Washington. Although Hamilton was a champion of the rival Federalist Party, Johnson had compassion for Hamilton's widow; before the end of his term, he secured payment of the wages.
Emmons' poem provided the line that became Johnson's campaign slogan: "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh." Jackson supported Johnson for vice-president, thinking that the war hero would balance the ticket with Van Buren, who had not served in the War of 1812. Jackson made his decision based on Johnson's loyalty but also the president's anger at the primary rival, william Cabell Rives.
He secured one of Kentucky's at-large seats in the House from 1813 to 1815, and represented Kentucky's Third District from 1815 to 1819. He continued to represent the interests of the poor as a member of the House. He first came to national attention with his opposition to rechartering the First Bank of the United States.
In August 1814, British forces attacked Washington, D.C. and burned the White House. Congress formed a committee to investigate the circumstances that allowed Washington to be captured. Johnson chaired this committee, and delivered its final report. After the sacking of Washington, the tide of battle turned against the British, and the Treaty of Ghent ended the war even as Johnson prepared to return to Kentucky to raise another military unit. With the end of the war, he turned his legislative attention to issues such as securing pensions for widows and orphans and funding internal improvements in the West.
The bill passed the House and Senate quickly and was made law on March 19, 1816. But, the measure proved extremely unpopular with voters, in part because it applied to the current Congress. Many legislators who supported the bill lost their congressional seats as a result, including Johnson's colleague Solomon P. Sharp from Kentucky. Johnson's popularity in other matters helped him retain his seat. Two days into the next session, he recanted his support for the law. It was repealed in that session, and in its place, legislators passed an increase in the per diem salary.
President James Monroe's first choice for Secretary of War was Henry Clay, who declined the office. When Johnson also declined to serve, the post ultimately went to John C. Calhoun. The result was that Johnson became chair of the Committee on Expenditures where he wielded considerable influence over defense policy in the Department of War during the Fifteenth Congress. In 1817, Congress investigated General Andrew Jackson's execution of two British subjects during the First Seminole War. Johnson chaired the inquiry committee. The majority of the committee favored a negative report and a censure for Jackson. Johnson, a Jackson supporter, drafted a counter report that was more favorable to Jackson and opposed the censure. The ensuing debate pitted Johnson against fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay. Johnson's report prevailed, and Jackson was spared censure. This disagreement between Johnson and Clay, however, marked the beginning of a political separation between the two that lasted for the duration of their careers.
Already known for securing government contracts for himself, as well as his brothers and friends, he offered land to establish the Choctaw Academy, a school devoted to the European-American education of Indians from the Southeast tribes. Johnson had tied to establish an Indian school at Great Crossings in 1818, partnering with the Kentucky Baptist Society, but the school folded in 1821 after it didn't gain support of the federal government or private donors. The new academy would come into being a few years later. The academy, sitting on his farm in Scott County in 1825, was overseen by Johnson, not only was part of treaty negotiations with the Choctaw Nation but appealed to his colleagues as a form "peaceful conquest" or "expansion with honor" as Henry Knox put it. Although he never ran afoul of the conflict of interest standards of his day, some of his colleagues considered his actions ethically questionable. Johnson was paid well for the school by the federal government, which gave him a portion of the annuities for the Choctaw. It was promoted by the Baptist Missionary Society as well. Some European-American students also attended the Academy, including his nephew Robert Ward Johnson from Arkansas.
Johnson's term in the House expired March 3, 1819, but by August, he had returned to the state legislature where he helped secure passage of a law that abolished imprisonment for debtors in Kentucky. In December 1819, he resigned his post in the state legislature to fill the Senate seat vacated by the resignation of John J. Crittenden. He was re-elected to a full term in 1822, so that in total, his Senate tenure ran from December 10, 1819 to March 4, 1829. In 1821, he introduced legislation chartering Columbian College (later The George Washington University) in Washington, D.C. During this time period, his views on Western expansion were clear. He believed that the US "empire of liberty" should extend across the continent, arguing in debates leading up to the Missouri Compromise that western expansion and emancipation should go hand in hand, acknowledging issues with white racism but advocating for gradual emancipation. Furthermore, he went against the ideas put forward by sympathizers of the Colonization movement, arguing in "favor of meaningfully incorporating people of color into a multiracial empire."
Part of Johnson's campaign for relief was the abolition of the practice of debt imprisonment nationwide. It would take him nearly ten years to see this goal accomplished. He first spoke to the issue in the Senate on December 14, 1822, introducing a bill to end the practice, and pointing to the positive effects its cessation had effected in his home state. The bill failed, but Johnson persisted in re-introducing it every year. In 1824, it passed the Senate, but was too late to be acted upon by the House. It passed the Senate a second time in 1828, but again, the House failed to act on it, and the measure died for some years, owing to Johnson's exit from the Senate the next year.
Another pet project Johnson supported was prompted by his friendship with John Cleves Symmes, Jr., who proposed that the Earth was hollow. In 1823, Johnson proposed in the Senate that the government fund an expedition to the center of the Earth. The proposal was soundly defeated, receiving only twenty-five votes in the House and Senate combined.
In 1828, Johnson was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election, owing in part to his relationship with the octaroon slave Julia Chinn, with whom he lived in a common-law marriage. Although members of his own district seemed little bothered by the arrangement, slaveholders elsewhere in the state were not so forgiving. In his own defense, Johnson said, "Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He has found no objections." (Note: The named men were suspected or known to have similar relationships with slave women.) According to Henry Robert Burke, what people objected to was Johnson trying to introduce his daughters to "polite society". People were used to planters and overseers having relationships with slave women, but they were expected to deny them.
After his failed Senatorial re-election bid, Johnson returned to the House, representing Kentucky's Fifth District from 1829 to 1833, and Thirteenth District from 1833 to 1837. During the Twenty-first and Twenty-second Congresses, he again served as chairman of the Committee on Post Office and Post Roads. In this capacity, he was again asked to address the question of Sunday mail delivery. He drew up a second report, largely similar in content to the first, arguing against legislation preventing mail delivery on Sunday. The report, commonly called "Col. Johnson's second Sunday mail report", was delivered to Congress in March 1830.
Johnson's stands won him widespread popularity and endorsement by George H. Evans, Robert Dale Owen, and Theophilus Fisk for the presidency in 1832, but Johnson abandoned his campaign when Andrew Jackson announced he would seek a second term. He then began campaigning to become Jackson's running mate, but Jackson favored Martin Van Buren instead. At the Democratic National Convention, Johnson finished a distant third in the vice-presidential balloting, receiving only the votes of the Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois delegations; william B. Lewis had to persuade him to withdraw
Despite Jackson's support, the party was far from united behind Johnson. Van Buren preferred Rives as a running mate. In a letter to Jackson, Tennessee Supreme Court justice John Catron doubted that "a lucky random shot, even if it did hit Tecumseh, qualifies a man for the vice presidency". Although Johnson was a "widower", after Chinn's death in 1833, there was still dissension related to Johnson's open relationship with a slave. The 1835 Democratic National Convention, in Baltimore, in May 1835, was held under the two-thirds rule, largely to demonstrate Van Buren's wide popularity. Although Van Buren was nominated unanimously, Johnson barely obtained the necessary two thirds of the vote. (A motion was made to change the rule, but it obtained only a bare majority, not two thirds.)
After the financial Panic of 1837, Johnson took a nine-month leave of absence, during which he returned home to Kentucky and opened a tavern and spa on his farm to offset his continued financial problems. Upon visiting the establishment, Amos Kendall wrote to President Van Buren that he found Johnson "happy in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping – even giving his personal superintendence to the chicken and egg purchasing and water-melon selling department".
By 1840, it had become clear that Johnson was a liability to the Democratic ticket. Even former President Jackson conceded that Johnson was "dead weight", and threw his support to James K. Polk. President Van Buren stood for re-election, and the Whigs once again countered with william Henry Harrison. Van Buren was reluctant to drop Johnson from the ticket, fearing that dropping the Democrats' own war hero would split the party and cost him votes to Harrison. A unique compromise ensued, with the Democratic National Convention refusing to nominate Johnson, or any other candidate, for vice-president. The idea was to allow the states to choose their own candidates, or perhaps return the question to the Senate should Van Buren be elected with no clear winner in the vice-presidential race.
Johnson never gave up on a return to public Service. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate against John J. Crittenden in 1842. He briefly and futilely sought his party's nomination for President in 1844. He also ran as an independent candidate for Governor of Kentucky in 1848, but after talking with the Democratic candidate, Lazarus W. Powell, who had replaced Linn Boyd on the ticket, Johnson decided to drop out and back Powell. Some speculated that the real object of this campaign was to secure another nomination to the vice-presidency, but this hope was denied.
Johnson finally returned to elected office in 1850, when he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. By this time, however, his physical and mental health was already failing. On November 9, the Louisville Daily Journal reported that "Col. R. M. Johnson is laboring under an attack of dementia, which renders him totally unfit for Business. It is painful to see him on the floor attempting to discharge the duties of a member. He is incapable of properly exercising his physical or mental powers."
Johnson and Chinn had two daughters, Adaline (or Adeline) Chinn Johnson and Imogene Chinn Johnson, whom he acknowledged and gave his surname, with Johnson and Chinn preparing them "for a Future as free women." Johnson taught them morality and basic literacy, with Julia undoubtedly teaching her own skills, with both later pushing for both of them to "receive regular academic lessons" which he later educated at home to prevent the scorn of neighbors and constituents. Later Johnson would provide for Adaline and Imogene's education. Both daughters married white men. Johnson gave them large farms as dowries from his own holdings. There is confusion about whether Adeline Chinn Scott had children; a 2007 account by the Scott County History Museum said she had at least one son, Robert Johnson Scott. Meyers said that she was childless. There is also disagreement about the year of her death. Bevins writes that Adeline died in the 1833 cholera epidemic. Meyers wrote she died in 1836. The Library of Congress notes that she died in February 1836.
At least two of Johnson's brothers had notable careers as well: the eldest, James Johnson, went into shipping and stagecoach lines. A younger brother, John T. Johnson, became a minister and prominent in the Christian Churches, a 19th-century movement in the Protestant congregations.