Over the past few months I’ve been reading books on American history seeing that I am American and I should know a bit about the country which I call home. For example, right now I’m reading Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877. I was surprised when I stumbled upon Richard Mentor Johnson, the 9th Vice President of the United States, between 1836 and 1840:
Following the war, Johnson returned to the House of Representatives, and was elevated to the Senate in 1819 to fill the seat vacated by John J. Crittenden, who resigned to become Attorney General. As his constituency grew, his interracial relationship with a mulatto slave named Julia Chinn was more widely criticized, damaging to his political ambition. Unlike other leaders who had relationships with their slaves, Johnson was open about his relationship with Chinn, and regarded her as his common law wife. He freely claimed Chinn’s two daughters as his own, much to the consternation of some in his constituency. The relationship was a major factor in the 1829 election that cost him his seat in the Senate, but his district returned him to the House the following year.
This isn’t the only fact that has surprised me. I had long assumed that men such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were exceptional and before their time, but I am finding that “their time” was a complex period, and painting with a broad brush elides a great deal indeed.
Coming of age as a young person in the late 20th century I was exposed to a general model which posited that Dead White Males were agents of oppression, and that America had come a long way, and had a long way to go. I generally accepted the factual reality of this, though I uniformly rejected the normative inferences I was asked to make (I’m quite a “conservative” when it comes to the value of Western Civilization vs. Other Ways of Knowing). And yet the more I read the more I am convinced that this is an excessively Whiggish reading of history. In the process of replacing the hagiographies of the Founders with a demonology of Dead White Men, revisionists still retain a fundamentally Anglo-Saxon vision of linear and monotonic change; instead of coming from on high, we are dragging ourselves out of the cesspool.
I’m confident this is wrong. There are many surprises in the past, including decency which requires no normalization to the period in which it manifested itself. From what little I know Richard Mentor Johnson was not a decent man in the way he lived his life, but the fact that he could openly continue to have a relationship with a woman who was identified as black as he ascended up the ladder of power implies that our understanding of white supremacy and race relations needs to become a bit more nuanced. Certainly by 1900 this sort of behavior would destroy a political career.