Canceling a Hero?

The latest person to be canceled is a former vice president of the United States whom few people have ever heard of: Richard Mentor Johnson, who served under Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841. He has had his name removed from the Iowa County that bore his name. Ostensibly, being a slave owner (and an indigenous people-slayer) sufficed for ignominy but, in addition, he allegedly exploited a slave woman as a “practical amalgamator,” in the rubric of those times. 

His vice presidential campaign featured the 1812 war refrain: “Sound the bugles Rumpsey, Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”

But Johnson’s tenure as vice president would include taking a nine-month leave of absence to return to Kentucky to run a tavern in order to pay his considerable debts. The scandal was such that Van Buren ran for reelection without a vice president, allowing the first Whig president and a greater hero of the Indian wars, William Henry Harrison, to take office (and then die shortly thereafter from pneumonia he caught during his lengthy inaugural address).

Reports of the name cancellation acknowledge few of his merits, and his notoriety was such that Abraham Lincoln singled him out for ridicule at the beginning of his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas: 

I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness—and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.] I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject), that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.] 

Lincoln was responding to Douglas’ charge that the Republican platform demanded total equality between whites and blacks, meaning racial “amalgamation.” Illinois, like other anti-slavery states following the Northwest Ordinance, had laws prohibiting entry to free blacks. As Lincoln maintained years earlier, a “universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded.”

Rather than cancel Lincoln, along with Colonel Johnson, for noting the racial fears of the times, distinguished political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa observed that his ridicule of Democratic demagoguery showed how “Lincoln was using this hilarity both to conceal and to reveal some serious thoughts.” 

Rebutting the charge that Johnson simply exploited his slave mistress, Jaffa portrays a loving common-law husband who did all the law permitted to enable Julia Chinn, one-eighth black, and their two daughters, to “rise to equality.” Jaffa summarizes,

Neither she nor her daughters were counted among the servants. Nor does [the brief biographical entry] hint at the great pains and expense Johnson took with his daughters’ education. Both girls married white men, and both couples were deeded a part of Johnson’s estate…. After his death there was no recognition in the laws of Kentucky of the family that he himself had recognized as his own by the laws of God and nature. How he felt about them may be seen by what he wrote to a close friend after the death of one of his daughters, Adaline, in 1836 [while he was a congressman]:

I thank you and all who administered to that lovey and innocent child in her final painful hour. She was a source of inexhaustible happiness and comfort to me. She wise in her counsel beyond her years and obedient to every thought and every advice of mine . . . . She was a firm and great prop to my happiness here, but she is gone where sorrow and sighing can never disturb her peaceful and quiet blossom. She is happy, and left me unhappy in mourning her loss.

One can think only of King Lear, holding the dead body of Cordelia in his arms. Surely no parent ever felt the loss of a child more deeply or expressed his feeling more movingly than this. We can understand what Lincoln meant by Colonel Johnson representing the only case he had ever heard of someone believing in “perfect equality.”

Jaffa goes on to maintain that while Johnson could partly lift the race barrier for their children, he could not do so for his wife, Julia. Contemporary caricatures of Julia can be found here. As Jaffa argued, “The case of Colonel Johnson, Julia Chinn, and their daughters, to which Lincoln points, reminds us not only of the logical contradiction inherent in the law of slavery but also of the pathos and tragedy inherent in that contradiction.” Jaffa also reminds us that passing for white was a well-established practice in the South, done among “some of the ‘best’ families of the antebellum South . . . a fact no less true because of the vigor with which it was usually denied.”

The inequality claimed by Douglas and by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case, and the state laws prohibiting racial intermarriage, “actually proved the exact opposite. . . . such prohibitions fell upon whites no less than blacks,” Jaffa concludes. And, we may presume, hurt some whites—like Johnson—no less than they hurt blacks. Those laws argue for equality, not against it.

I would add Lincoln’s powerful deduction from his speech attacking the Dred Scott decision, 

There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL men, black as well as white; and forth-with he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes! He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others. (Emphasis added.)

It is telling that Lincoln compares himself to a woman. After all, white women could not vote, either. And being unequal would allow that the black woman may be his superior in some regards. Of course, Lincoln could leave her alone, just as a black man could. Being equal by nature in our rights does not mean we must be equal in all other things. Whatever their relative merits, black women (and men) were “the equal of all others,” by the natural right, “to eat the bread [they earn] with [their] own hands without asking leave of any one else. . . .”

Lincoln urged his audience to transcend any “natural disgust” at “indiscriminate amalgamation” by an appeal to natural right, the common sense of equality between free people in civil society. For one to work while only the other eats violates natural right and thus the underlying principle of equality in a free society, recognized by Americans north and south. Julia Chinn, along with her daughters, is this black woman. 

The Johnson-Julia Chinn relationship shows how American race relations and slavery itself might have developed differently than they did.  An honest history may even disclose individual heroes, who may have been obscured or erased—as was Julia Chinn, who hosted the Marquis de Lafayette on his American tour. 

We do not know whether Richard Mentor Johnson attempted to change American attitudes toward slavery and race and therefore deserves gratitude rather than condemnation and cancellation. “O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings.Yet surely we should know that George Washington made such an effort.

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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