Julia Chinn, the putative common-law wife of 9th US vice president Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850), was born an octoroon slave in Scott County, Kentucky. Her parents and exact date of birth are unknown, but she was raised and educated in Johnson’s household by his mother Jemima Suggett Johnson. By 1812, Julia had become Richard Johnson’s close companion and mother of their two daughters: Adeline J. Johnson (Scott) (ca.1812-1836) and Imogene Malvina Johnson (Pence) (1812-1885).
When Richard’s father Colonel Robert Johnson, one of the wealthiest landowners in Kentucky, died in 1815, Richard inherited Julia. Because interracial marriage was illegal in Kentucky and emancipation would have forced Julia to leave the state, Richard M. Johnson retained the title “bachelor” and Julia remained a slave. Rumors circulated, however, that the two had been secretly married by their Baptist minister and some contemporary newspapers referred to Julia as Johnson’s wife.
During Johnson’s many absences from home while representing Kentucky in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (1807-1819) and as a senator (1819-1829), Julia Chinn ran Johnson’s household with much the same authority and respect as the wife/mistress in other southern households. In 1825, she acted as Johnson’s official hostess during the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Blue Spring Farm, the Johnson home, where the Johnsons gave a barbecue for 5,000 guests. She ensured that their daughters received an elite education and married well-respected white men. Imogene, who married in 1830, and Adeline, in 1832, both received large properties and numerous slaves from their father. Julia Chinn was also entrusted during Johnson’s absences with oversight of his numerous business interests, including interactions with students and officials of Choctaw Academy, the Indian residential school established by Johnson.
Although Johnson’s open acknowledgment of his interracial family was tolerated at home and such practice was generally accepted in the South if done discreetly, it stoked “Amalgamationist” fears in Washington among those who held many slaves, and among northern anti-abolitionists who were offended by what they perceived as Johnson’s flaunting of miscegenation. Johnson’s Senate career ended in 1828 because of concerns that the controversy over Julia Chinn would ruin Andrew Jackson’s chances in the national election. Eight years later when Johnson was nominated as Martin Van Buren’s Democratic running mate in the 1836 presidential election, many considered his personal life a liability. The racist drawing An Affecting Scene in Kentucky ridiculed Julia Chinn and her daughters, and the Democrats attacked Chinn on an illustrated election ticket, Carrying the War into Africa: Jinnoowine Johnson ticket. Julia’s brother Daniel Chinn, Johnson’s longtime body servant, fled to Canada during this campaign.
Julia Chinn died in the cholera epidemic of 1833. Johnson subsequently took two of Julia’s nieces as his common law wives but later sold them. He died of a stroke in 1850 and left most of his estate to his surviving daughter and grandchildren who could not legally inherit. They and his favorite nephew, however, eventually received Johnson’s land.