Amrita Chakrabarti MyersOct 10, 2023
The Vice President's Black Wife
The Untold Life of Julia Chinn
University of North Carolina Press 2023
In The Vice President's Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn (UNC Press, 2023), award-winning historian Amrita Chakrabarti Myers has recovered the riveting, troubling, and complicated story of Julia Ann Chinn (ca. 1796–1833), the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, owner of Blue Spring Farm, veteran of the War of 1812, and US vice president under Martin Van Buren. Johnson never freed Chinn, but during his frequent absences from his estate, he delegated to her the management of his property, including Choctaw Academy, a boarding school for Indigenous men and boys on the grounds of the estate. This meant that Chinn, although enslaved herself, oversaw Blue Spring's slave labor force and had substantial control over economic, social, financial, and personal affairs within the couple's world. Chinn's relationship with Johnson was unlikely to have been consensual since she was never manumitted.
What makes Chinn's life exceptional is the power that Johnson invested in her, the opportunities the couple's relationship afforded her and her daughters, and their community's tacit acceptance of the family—up to a point. When the family left their farm, they faced steep limits: pews at the rear of the church, burial in separate graveyards, exclusion from town dances, and more. Johnson’s relationship with Chinn ruined his political career and Myers compellingly demonstrates that it wasn't interracial sex that led to his downfall but his refusal to keep it—and Julia Chinn—behind closed doors.
Katrina Anderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware.