Eccentricity At the Top:<br>Richard Mentor Johnson
The election of 1824 sealed Johnson’s career as a Jacksonian. That was the election in which John Quincy Adams was selected by the House of Representatives as president despite Jackson’s carrying the popular vote. Jackson was popular among the common folk of the frontier, and these were Johnson’s people too. It also sealed a split with fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, who supported Adams while Johnson supported Jackson.
While popular among Jackson’s supporters, Johnson’s personal behavior was now making them very nervous, so nervous that he was denied a return to the senate in 1828. They feared that Johnson might pull Jackson’s vote down in Kentucky. And, while his support statewide had seriously eroded, he remained extremely popular in his own district. The result is he was returned to the House of Representatives, where he would serve until elevated to the second highest office in the land in 1837.
The second major issue in his life, and the one that dragged him down even as the Tecumseh legend built him up, had to do with familial relations. To put it bluntly, Johnson was deeply involved with a slave he had inherited from his father, Julia Chinn. This was not unusual. Nor was the fact that he fathered two daughters by Miss Chinn. It was, in fact, rather commonplace. We now know that Jefferson was similarly involved. And even now, long after slavery has been abolished, the unspoken relationships between privileged white men and poorer black women can still be found, as the recent case of Strom Thurmond demonstrates. White male, despite strong public support for keeping black people in a lower status, has no problem fathering a child with a black woman. This is acceptable so long as the white male never acknowledges the woman or children.
If Johnson had stuck to these mores, it is unlikely Julia Chinn or daughters Adeline and Imogene would have been much of an impediment to his political career. To Johnson’s enormous credit, he did not participate in these mores. Julia was regarded as his common law wife and evidently treated as such. Rather than hide his black family, as so many from Jefferson to Thurmond did, he presented it. After Julia Chinn’s death in 1833, Johnson persisted in introducing his daughters to respectable society. Rather than hiding, avoiding, and denying them, as a hypocritical polite society demanded, Johnson insisted on treating them as… his daughters. Eventually he would leave land to both, who would go on to marry into white society. This was an extreme violation of the unwritten code, and it would cost Johnson dearly politically, especially in the south where he would become an anathema.
At this point it is necessary to stop and attempt to look into the mind of Richard M. Johnson. Remember, Johnson was a Democrat from a border state. This was not a party of abolitionists, and Johnson was no abolitionist himself. He was a slave owner, bought and sold slaves during his life, and defended the institution. After Julia Chinn died, he began a relationship with another of his slaves. But, when that woman took up with another man, Johnson simply sold her away. How could Johnson, champion of the common people, intensely loyal husband and farther of a mulatto woman and children, be so callous to a race of people, especially one to which his own children at least partly belonged?