Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Vice President and His Mulatto

Half-hidden in the pages of history is a fascinating tale about race, sex and politics in 19th-Century America.

Let’s begin in the present day with Brenda Gene Gordon, a 67-year-old white woman in Chandler, Ariz. Very nice lady.

Mrs. Gordon is directly descended from a U.S. vice president… but she didn’t discover that fact till recent years. Her ancestor is Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, the ninth Vice President of the United States (1837-1841). He served under Martin Van Buren.

How on earth could Brenda Gordon not have known that her great-great-great-grandfather was Vice President Richard M. Johnson? Wasn’t this fact passed proudly from generation to generation inside her family?

No, it was not.

Why not? Because the woman who bore Johnson’s two children – a woman named Julia Chinn – was, by law, a Negro. And in Johnson’s time (not to mention since), that was scandalous.

“I grew up never hearing the names Richard M. Johnson (even in Kentucky history classes) or Julia Chinn,” Mrs. Gordon wrote to me during a recent email correspondence.

How much of a “Negro” was Julia Chinn? Well, she was a slave… a slave Johnson inherited from his father. She was “Negro” enough that Richard Johnson couldn’t have married her legally.

Yet she was his mate. His common-law wife, in effect.

“She was the hostess at his Kentucky home when [French aristocrat] the Marquis de Lafayette visited,” wrote Lindsey Apple, a retired Georgetown College history professor, in answer to questions from me.

Evidently Julia Chinn was one-eighths black (i.e., she had one black great-grandparent). She was described as a “mulatto” but she was, more precisely, an “octoroon.”

No paintings of Julia are known to exist, but she must’ve been very light-skinned. Her two daughters by Richard M. Johnson – Imogene Chinn Johnson and Adaline (or Adeline) Chinn Johnson – both married white men.

Which means that Imogene and Adaline were bona fide, fully vested white people. Well-off ones at that, because Richard Johnson gave some of his farmland to each of them and their husbands.

Growing up, “Imogene and Adaline Johnson lived in their father's Kentucky home and enjoyed their parents’ undivided attention,” wrote historian Wilma King in 1997. “Johnson, a Baptist known as a humanitarian among his contemporaries, indulged his daughters and provided for their education. … Imogene and Adaline Johnson received instruction ‘until their education was equal or superior to most of the females in the country.’ ”

Quite extraordinary.

Especially when you consider that Richard Mentor Johnson was a politician. His career included service in Kentucky’s state legislature (1804-1806; 1819), the U.S. House of Representatives (1807-1819; 1829-1837) and the U.S. Senate (1819-1829) prior to his becoming vice president.

I still can’t figure how he managed to get elected and re-elected – in Kentucky! – when his love life with a Negro slave was pretty much an open secret.

Johnson’s political enemies certainly spread the word about his babies’ mama.

Duff Green, a partisan journalist of the era, is said to have described Julia Chinn as “a jet-black, thick-lipped, odiferous negro wench.” Duff declared it “astonishing” that Richard Johnson had “reared a family of children whom he endeavored to force upon society as equals.”

Prof. Apple, in his email, told me: “Some of the propaganda, i.e. mudslinging said he tried to introduce his wife and daughters into Washington society. I have found no evidence to substantiate that.”

Indicative of the historical fog surrounding Julia Chinn, author Roger G. Kennedy, in his 1990 book “Rediscovering America,” stated wrongly that she “served as the vice president’s official hostess in Washington.”

Prof. Apple points out that “Julia died in the cholera epidemic of 1833”… several years before Johnson became vice president. And during Johnson’s years in Congress, Julia stayed behind in Kentucky, overseeing his large farm.

At least Roger Kennedy knows there’s a story here. He described Julia Chinn as a “deliberately forgotten woman.”

Forgotten indeed. But she lurks in the annals of U.S. political history.

No less a man than Abraham Lincoln made reference to her. And not in a good way. He exploited Richard Johnson’s relationship with Julia Chinn to score a point against Stephen Douglas during the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Lincoln asserted, to the applause of his audience, that “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… nor qualifying [negroes] to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…”

Lincoln went on to say this:

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. …

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’ old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.]

Is it any wonder that, even among Johnson’s descendants, some historical amnesia took hold?

Which brings us back to Brenda Gordon. She has been researching her family’s history for the past decade. (I stumbled across an old post of hers on a genealogy website and decided to track her down. The first I’d heard of Richard M. Johnson was while reading that passage from the Lincoln-Douglas debates.)

Brenda Gordon’s interest was piqued when she acquired family photos and memorabilia dating back to the time of Daniel B. Pence. He was the man who married Julia Chinn’s older daughter, Imogene, in 1830. (Daniel and Imogene had six children. One of them was Brenda Gordon’s great-grandfather, Daniel Franklin Pence.)

It was an uncle who sent Ms. Gordon pages from the Pence family Bible. He also sent her photocopied pages from a 1932 book, “The Life and Times of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.” This uncle also sent along his own drawing of the family tree.

“I don't recall whether my uncle and I actually talked about Julia being a mulatto, or if I read it in the pages from [the 1932] book,” Gordon wrote to me. “My uncle had a wry sense of humor and when he got to my daughter on the drawn tree, he wrote the following comment: ‘Does this mean Leigh's the first red-haired pick-a-ninny in captivity?’ ”

I’m not crazy about pickaninny jokes, but Brenda Gordon’s uncle highlighted an intriguing thing: the amorphousness of the color line. Usually when a prominent white man snuck sex with a colored girl, and it resulted in a baby, that child was raised among the colored folk… as colored. Such was the case in my own family, just three generations back.

Julia Chinn’s offspring, however, got a passport to whiteness. I mean big-time, because Imogene Chinn Johnson – daughter of a slave – owned black slaves herself after she married Daniel B. Pence.

By the time Brenda came along, the full family story may not have been considered her birthright… but a white identity surely was.

“I really don’t know if the silence came from race issues or not,” Brenda Gordon wrote. “It’s quite possible because my mother (also named Imogene) was shall we say ‘social minded.’ My birthday parties were announced in the newspaper and I went to social dancing school at the right age and on to belong to the Jr. Cotillion. My family didn’t have any money, but we appreciated nice things, were attractive and intelligent. … The emphasis seemed to be on the Pence surname rather than Johnson.”

And now that Gordon has dug up the truth? Well, this happened:

“I haven’t lived in Kentucky for over 40 years, but still have friends there and go back every few years…. However, I do know that race is still a big issue there whether or not they admit it. … A few years ago when I was there visiting friends and doing some research I told them about the family history, as I thought it would be of interest to native Kentuckians. However, one of the husbands definitely didn’t want to read or hear anything about it, and we had all been friends forever.”

Yep. That’s what you get for looking too deep in the woodpile.

“I certainly don’t have a problem with the heritage and just find the whole thing fascinating,” Gordon wrote. “Searching for more information has given me many hours of entertainment.” (I feel you, sister.)

Plus, Brenda has new insight on her middle name, “Gene,” which may be a “watered down” version of Imogene… a direct callback to her quintroon ancestor, Imogene Chinn Johnson. (Yes, “quintroon” is a word. At least it used to be. Times were different back then, you know.)


sherifffruitfly said...

Interesting - thanks!

Back to ESPN, where they all pick Brady Quinn over Jamarcus Russell, and yet never seem to have an actual *reason*...

quirkychick said...

Wow - so interesting. I had no idea that Lincoln held those opinions. What an amazing history this woman discovered in her own family. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea about those opinions of Lincoln's, either. Yikes!

UBM, not sure if you get Showtime or if you watch "Penn & Teller's Bullshit!" but they did an ep tonight about illegal immigration that was both informative and funny (and Auster-unfriendly, I hazard)!

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand is how you could tell someone was 'octoroon'; I've met people who were a quarter black before and had no idea until they told me, so I can't imagine that someone who was only 1/8 black would be easily identifiable as such.

re: Lincoln's opinions. Lincoln was a politician - do you think that in those days politicians were any less likely to say what they thought people wanted to hear?

Undercover Black Man said...

I was tripped-out by hearing those words from Lincoln's mouth too... that's what got me looking deeper into this peculiar thread of history in the first place.

Yes,Interghost, he was a politician. But he was also a man of his time. It's not fair to judge his racial attitudes by a 21st-Century standard.

My own bullshit analysis is this: White people didn't enslave black people because they hated them. They did it, first, for the money. But then they developed a hatred for black people, because that's the only way they could live with themselves, psychologically, as they profited from the brutality and injustice of the system.

Lincoln illustrates that it's not necessary for privileged white people in power to love black people in order to help black people. The best we can expect is for a person to do the right thing at the right time... and Lincoln did the right thing when it counted. That's what matters.

The rest of it is cool, because it shows just how intricately complex human history truly is.

Dez: I'm a big "Bullshit!" fan, but have been away from my cable. I'll have to catch up with the immigration episode down the road.

Anonymous said...


There was recently a review in the NYRB of James Oakes' The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics that you might find interesting. I haven't read the book, but reading Lincoln through Douglass' lens sounds like a fascinating (and daunting) conceit for a historical study.


Anna Laperle said...

Coming to a theatre near you: "Richard & Julia". He was a Vice President. She was a slave. In a world torn apart by hatred, their love broke all the rules. Starring Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Martin van Buren.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Marion Delgado said...

I completely defend lincoln - as the transformation of john kerry, hero of vietnam vets against the war and the brave, lonely investigator of Iran-Contra into the stammering coward of 2003 and 2004 can testify, nothing gets weaselier faster than a politician who isnt sure he has the votes.

The South already had its verdict on Lincoln in before the debate - that he was a South-hating abolitionist demagogue eager to take power and destroy "their way of life" and "independence" forever no matter what it took. Douglas was playing off that, as he had no choice but to do, and lincoln's response was predictable, "me? a race traitor? you're the one with the race mixing friend!"

The Southerners were paranoid, but Lincoln definitely had an abolitionist background and agenda (not sure it would have been any quicker than the southern apologists claim slavery would have gone away by itself). In any event his tactic in the debate and on the campaign trail of out-moderating everyone else did zero good: lincoln was still considered by all sides the abolition candidate. When he won the election, the south immediately declared independence, and when he took office, they shelled ft. sumter.

I don't mind his pandering. It was in a good cause.

By the way - the first president to use overnights in the lincoln bedroom to reward contributors and allies was, naturally, lincoln himself.

Janice said...

This story would make a great "History Channel" program....

>>>That’s what you get for looking too deep in the woodpile.

I feel your pain. I've done this a few times and the rest of the family is none too receptive to learning there are perhaps relatives or ancestors who do not "fit in" with their idealized version of our family tree.


Lola Gets said...

Ok, I am late on this one but...
what exactly did Lincoln do? "Free the slaves?" I think not! The Emancipation Proclimation only freed those slaves in the Confederacy, not the Union. And seeing as the Confederacy didnt recognize the Federal government...what did that document really do? Technically nothing.

BUT, slaves everywhere, when told of this document, took it to mean they were freed, and then took that freedom themselves. Now, if youre including Reconstruction in Lincolns good deeds, thats a whole other discussion, lol.

Anonymous said...

I am also a direct descendant of Richard M. Johnson. He is my (great great great great great great)Grandfather on my mother's side. I just found out today in one of my college classes that he was married to a "Mulatto" woman.
If anyone has anymore information about him or the woman who is also related to him please e-mail me at

Anonymous said...

Wow, Richard M. Johnson is my Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle on my moms side and I didn't even know he was a VP much less all the drama about Julia Chinn. I'm writing a family history paper for school and I'm basing most of my info on a family tree my aunt made a few years ago. Under Richard M. Johnson and Julia Chin there are two boxes, one saying son and the other daughter. Neither has any dates or information. Now at least I have the Daughters' names, but whats up with the son?

Marie McIntyre-Maupin said...

I am also a descendent of Richard Mentor Johnson, and have known it most of my life. I am still very happy that he was brave enough to stand up for his love and his beliefs in a time when that was not very popular. Marie

judalon said...

I wish I was a descendant of Richard and Julia! I fell so in love with them while preparing a US history lesson for my students that I began research for a work of historical fiction. My students are enthralled by the girls Imogene and Adaline - but only as I can imagine them - and I would like to give them more "real" flesh. If any of you actual descendants would be generous enough to share family lore, no matter how seemingly insignificant, I would be more than thrilled. And if you are also working on a book about them, as my husband ( a published author) assures me - the more titles on a book store shelf about the same topic, the better in a reader's mind. Please, please email me, and thank you in advance = and thank you Undercover Black Man for a fantastic blog! judalon

Darien said...

Lincoln was half Ethiopian. Check the Library of Congress - you'll find the cartoons they circulated to make fun of him. He knows what it's like to be a Mulatto and I'm sure he got tired of being thrown back and forth. In those days, Mulattoes were a means for whites to acceptably pursue their exotic African beauty, and Mulattoes were a means for blacks to "make it."

These quotes of Lincoln's only reinforce the fact that he was a realist. Being Mulatto means having two sides of races and both of them wanting you to pick a side. He didn't want to pick.

D W JazzLover said...

I know I am late on this topic,but I have just discovered the blog and I am now back reading.
On this subject though, this should be no surprise to anyone, just research the history of the New Orleans Ramparts. The Octoroon balls and what happened to the children of these unions, some were sent to France for education, some stayed in France some returned and moved into white society, and a large number just moved into the southern and northern society as white.
Passing is not a new issue...DNA testing today of most citizens would be very interesting as to who is my grandmother would say...
Thanks for this blog I love it.

Karl Johnson, Lacey Washington said...

Family lore has that we are somehow related to Richard Mentor Johnson, although my father's opinion is that we are related to one of his brothers. That would make sense if RM only had daughters as this article indicates. My great grandfather William Tecumseh Johnson lived in Colorado. My father has never been able to trace his ancestry beyond WT.

Barry Williams.......Phoenix, Arizona said...

Quite an interesting story. I just read about your ancestor in American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House. Actually the story was about Col. Johnson but they mentioned Julia Chinn. This is one story that we will never read in 'mainstream' American history and that is a shame.