This Day in History: Richard Johnson's unusual election

On this day in 1837, United States Senators choose a Vice President of the United States. Wait. What? The Senate chose a Vice President? But what happened to the regular election?


Let’s just say that 1836 was quite a controversial election year. Indeed, trouble began as early as the party nominating conventions.


It was a huge mess!

Richard Johnson by Rembrandt Peale

The Democratic Party held its national convention earlier than we might expect—a full year and a half before the November 1836 election. During that convention, delegates chose Martin Van Buren as their nominee for President. Southern delegates weren’t too thrilled with the New York native, but matters got even more heated when it came time to nominate a candidate for Vice President. The man poised to get the nod was Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.


Delegates from Virginia were irate. They were already upset about Van Buren, but adding Johnson to the ticket was more than they could bear.


Johnson was a controversial figure because he’d been living with a slave of mixed lineage, Julia Chinn. The couple even had children, whom Johnson freely acknowledged.


Virginians thought the whole thing smacked of immorality, and the state refused to go along with the nomination. Indeed, when Johnson was nominated, the state’s delegates “hissed most ungraciously.” Their chairman got to his feet and announced that Virginia could not support Johnson for Vice President as they had “no confidence in his principles nor his character—they had come there to support principles, not men, and they had already gone as far as possible in supporting Mr. Van Buren.”


Perhaps some Democrats hoped that Virginia would soften during the long presidential campaign? If so, they were surely disappointed. Several months later, Democrats in the State of Virginia held a state party convention, and they chose their presidential electors. These electors did not take a pledge to support Johnson for Vice President, as the national party hoped. Instead, Virginia electors were pledged to William Smith of Alabama.


On Election Day, Virginia voted Democratic, thus electing a Democratic slate of electors. Those electors kept their promise: They voted for Van Buren for President (as the national Democratic Party wished), but then they cast their vice-presidential ballots for Smith.


In the end, Johnson was unable to win even a single elector from Virginia. Without Virginia’s votes, Johnson could not obtain a majority of electors, as Van Buren had done. In that scenario, the Constitution provides that the Senate is to choose a Vice President from the top two electoral vote-getters. That Senate election was finally held on February 8, 1837. Senators chose Johnson, despite his loss in Virginia.


It was the first—and so far only—time that the Senate has been asked to choose a Vice President.

More information on the 1836 election can be found in The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule.


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