The race-mixing Vice President

By Razib Khan | November 7, 2008 3:07 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
  • Moopheus

    “Certainly by 1900 this sort of behavior would destroy a political career.”
    But even in his time it did destroy his political career, by what you say–he lost his Senate seat over it, then became VP. In 1836, there were few political positions less powerful than the VP.

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    A side note here: Richard Mentor Johnson appears as a secondary character in Eric Flint’s 1824: The Arkansas War. He supports and aids the young Sam Houston, later migrating with his wife and daughters to the Arkansas Republic. There he plays a role in the titular role, and the peace negotiations with the United States. Thought you’d find it interesting.
    BTW, Andy Jackson remains a rotten old fart, but a rotten old fart with a head on his shoulders and the ability to see past his prejudices.

  • diana

    I’d heard of this guy Mentor Johnson. I was struck by it.
    Did you know that Justice Harlan (grand dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson) likely had a black older brother? Who was fully a part of the family while still formally enslaved? Who married the daughter of a Confederate general?
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Ki8Uwyez5XMC&pg=PA478&lpg=PA478&dq=justice+harlan+black+brother&source=web&ots=W4J3WpX0ZV&sig=oDznQHwIbF-CW2VO8t3NObnbnAo&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result
    Strange. No wonder they called it “the peculiar institution.”

  • http://walldorf.typepad.com/ stefan

    Well, you could mention this as well from the wiki you link to:

    Julia Chinn died in an outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1833.[1] Following his wife’s death, Johnson engaged in a relationship with another family slave.[13] When she left him for another man, Johnson had her captured and sold at auction. He then began a relationship with her sister.[13]

    Also, Chinn was 1/8 black and might be considered a ‘white slave’. Which raises distinct issues.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    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.
    What a classy guy.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Also, Chinn was 1/8 black and might be considered a ‘white slave’. Which raises distinct issues.
    hypodescent.

  • diana

    Undercover Black Man writes about it here:
    http://undercoverblackman.blogspot.com/2007/04/vice-president-and-his-mulatto.html
    Yes, there is a word, quintroon.
    On the subject of African ancestry, everyone’s a little nuts. Would anyone care about a Chinese great-great-great-grandmother?

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    TGGP,
    His second wife betrayed him, he got revenge. Typical primate behavior. As Edgar Rice Burroughs might have put it, “He was, after all, only an ape, and a cuckolded ape into the bargain.”

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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