Eccentricity At the Top:<br>Richard Mentor Johnson
Perhaps as good a place to go to understand Johnson’s thoughts is a speech he gave during debates over the Missouri Compromise. Enacted in 1820, this compromise limited the extension of slavery into the new territories. During these debates, Johnson defended the extension of slavery. His basic argument is one southerners would use again in the years to come, but I suspect far more disingenuously than Richard Johnson. It’s the one that compares the conditions of poor, working Whites in the North to that of black slaves in the South. It’s hard to believe the sincerity of the argument when espoused by wealthy white southern plantation owners and politicians, but there’s an air of believability in the words of Johnson, who truly sympathized with those workers who would one day become some of his greatest supporters.
Unlike the typical wealthy southern slave owner who welcomed it, Johnson was offended by distinctions of class. Nowhere did he see this as more prevalent than in the North. He recalled arriving in Washington where he saw wealthy citizens riding in luxurious coaches obediently attended by white servants. He was shocked, he recounts, as he thought only black slaves were so servile. On the frontier, there were no such distinctions of class, at least not among Whites. All had to be treated equally. In the cities, however, he saw the precursors of an aristocracy in America.
Johnson looks at the condition of the working poor in the North and asks what is the difference between them and the slaves of the South. He concludes that the difference is only nominal, not one of reality. In one case, servitude is called involuntary because it is imposed by others; in the other it is called voluntary because it is imposed by necessity. To Johnson, that was no real distinction at all. In either case, servitude is forced upon its victim.
Johnson then goes on to say that in some ways the slave is better off. The so-called “free” servant must deal with all the vicissitudes of the marketplace. They must find work, pay their debts, manage illness, find food and clothing, deal with old age, and when poverty turns them astray, suffer imprisonment. The slave, on the other hand, had none of these concerns. He was fed, sheltered, clothed and had no money worries. Considering that finances were a major concern for Johnson throughout his life, this argument must have had some ring of truth to his ears. Johnson points to the white beggars he constantly encountered in the cities. “Among the slaves are no beggars; no vagrants: none idle for want of employ, or crying for want of bread.” And, he had nothing but contempt for the wealthy who condemned black slavery while effectively imposing, in his view, an even worse form of slavery upon poor Whites.
Johnson was not so callous as were many others who were proslavery. He did not paint pictures of happy black slaves, enjoying carefree lives provided by their generous masters. He still said that he could only admit that slavery was a “bitter draught.” Still, he could turn a blind eye to instances of cruelty by comparing them to instances of cruelty by a parent to a child, which does not thereby condemn the institution of family.