by Dr. David Petriello
Over the last 200 years, the country has elected a variety of colorful figures to national office. Drunkards, racists, slave holders, philanderers, war heroes, populists, demagogues, humanitarians, misogynists, embezzlers, patriots, and nepotists, all have walked the halls of the Capitol and the White House. Yet rarely has a man been sent to Washington who could be defined by all of those descriptors at once. Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky was one of those men. His heroic, controversial, and eccentric life made him notorious in his day, a tragic hero who walked the stage of American politics for almost half a century. Col. Dick Johnson was the epitome of a frontier Republican from the early part of the 19th century. Born into a politically active family which had migrated west during the Revolution, his early years were shaped by the Indian warfare that plagued the region. He himself achieved notoriety due to his successes against the great Native leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, allegedly killing the war-chief himself. Johnson then went on to serve in various positions in the government, at all times being involved in the growth of the nation. His eccentricities as Vice President, when combined with his scandalous relationships with various African American women, resulted in his eventual damnatio memoriae. This biography seeks to fill the gap in the historical record, examining the life and accomplishments of one of America’s more storied Vice Presidents.
David R. Petriello has taught and written on various subjects in American history. His specialties include military history, the impact of disease upon history and society, and 19th political thought. Recent publications by the author include A Military History of New Jersey, Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in American Military History, and an upcoming work on disease and the American presidency.