Richard Mentor Johnson was born on October 17, 1780, the fifth of Robert and Jemima Johnson's eleven children. At the time, the family was living in the newly founded settlement of "Beargrass", near present-day Louisville, Kentucky, but by 1782, they had moved to Bryan's Station, Kentucky in Fayette County.
Johnson's mother was considered a heroine for her actions during Simon Girty's raid on Bryan's Station in August 1782. As Girty's forces surrounded the fort, the occupants discovered that there was no water inside. A number of Indians concealed themselves near the spring from which the settlement drew water; however, the fort's inhabitants believed it unlikely that they would show themselves until they believed they could capture the stockade. Jemima Johnson was the first to approve of a plan to allow the women to go and draw water from the spring as usual. There was a risk that the Indians would assault the women, and many of the men disapproved of the plan, but devoid of other options, they eventually acquiesced. Less than an hour after sunrise, the women drew the water and returned safely, but then the raid commenced. A band of Indian warriors managed to set fire to some houses and stables, but a favorable wind prevented the fires from spreading. The fort's children used the water drawn by the women to extinguish the fires. One of the enemy's flaming arrows landed in the crib of the infant, Richard Mentor Johnson, but it was quickly doused by Johnson's sister Betsy. During the afternoon, reinforcements arrived from Lexington and Boone Station, and the fort was saved.
By 1784, the family had moved again, this time to Great Crossing in Scott County, on land purchased by Johnson's father from Patrick Henry and James Madison. Johnson's father was a surveyor, and made a moderate fortune through well-chosen land purchases.
Richard Johnson's formal education did not begin until age fifteen, and he entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky shortly thereafter. By 1799, he was studying law with George Nicholas and then with James Brown, who were Professors of Law at the University in addition to private practice. Richard 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 against the rich. He also opened his home to disabled veterans, widows, and orphans.
When his father died, Richard Johnson began a long-term relationship with Julia Chinn, a slave left to him by his father. Chinn was a light-skinned octoroon; nevertheless, the law considered her a Negro which prevented Johnson from marrying her. Throughout his career, Johnson treated Chinn as his common law wife. When Johnson was away from his Kentucky estate, Chinn was given free rein in his business affairs. Julia Chinn died in an outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1833. Following his wife's death, Johnson engaged in a relationship with another family slave. When she left him for another man, Johnson had her captured and sold at auction. He then began a relationship with her sister. Johnson and Chinn had two daughters, Adaline Chinn Johnson and Imogene Chinn Johnson, and he saw to it that both girls were provided an education. Both daughters married white men, whereupon Johnson gave them large tracts of land from his own holdings.
Richard Johnson served in the Kentucky state legislature for two years until he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Once in Washington, D.C., Johnson served in the House from 1807 until 1819. He was a supporter of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party. During the presidency of James Madison, he became known as one of the War Hawks, congressmen who supported the President's efforts to go to war against Britain. When the War of 1812 began, Johnson went back to Kentucky and raised a regiment. He achieved military acclaim during the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, when he fought with William Henry Harrison against the British and their Native American allies. During the battle, the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, was killed, and Johnson was credited with killing him although no real evidence existed that he was actually responsible for Tecumseh's death.
Johnson was badly wounded during the war and returned to Washington after his recuperation. He then turned his attention to war-related issues such as securing pensions for widows and orphans. He also supported federally-funded internal improvements to help develop the West. He retired from the House in 1819 but the Kentucky legislature quickly appointed him to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1829.
Having spent much of his adult life in debt, Johnson worked to end debt imprisonment and saw success when Congress enacted a federal statute to end debt imprisonment in 1832. He also tried to keep mail delivery on Sundays, reasoning that the government should not stop the delivery of mail on Sunday for religious reasons because of the separation of church and state. He lost reelection to the Senate in 1828 but a year later, his home district sent him back to serve in the House of Representatives.
Johnson lost his reelection to the Senate in part due to his personal life. He had never married but had a common-law wife, a slave whom he inherited from his father. They lived together as a family when he was in Kentucky and had two daughters. When she died in 1833, he had two subsequent mistresses, who were also black or mixed race. Many people knew about Johnson's personal life, and it was not a major issue when he served in the House. However, it became a liability for him in statewide Senate campaigns and national elections. During his campaign for vice president, some Virginian politicians refused to support Johnson in part because of his personal life.
While serving in the House from 1829 to 1837, Johnson was a supporter and friend of President Andrew Jackson and became strongly allied with the Democratic Party. He had considerable power in the House due to his long congressional career. In the election of 1836, Jackson promoted Johnson as Martin Van Buren's vice president to balance the ticket. Johnson had strong military experience and was seen as a war hero, whereas Van Buren had not fought in the War of 1812. Although Van Buren won the presidential election, Johnson fell one vote short of the majority he needed. Thus the race was put to the Senate, which voted for Johnson. He is the only vice president to be elected by the Senate.
As vice president, Johnson did not have a close relationship with Van Buren and had little influence in the administration. He presided over the Senate, assigned Senators to committees, and cast tie-breaking votes. He was considered a competent but unremarkable vice president. In the election of 1840, Johnson was considered a liability to Van Buren but instead of nominating someone else, the Democratic Party chose not to nominate anyone nationally but to allow state party organizations to select their vice presidents. In the end, Johnson had little effect on the election, and William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren for the presidency.
Johnson returned to private life in Kentucky after the election, running his farm and tavern. He served in the Kentucky legislature from 1841 to 1843 and was again elected in 1850 but he never took office. He died of a stroke on November 19, 1850.