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Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy


Before the Lovings, There Were the Johnsons: Interracial Relationships in the 19th Century

Georgetown Law Professor and legal scholar Sheryll Cashin's new book, "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy," traces the history of interracial marriage in the United States from colonial times to present, examining the legacy of longstanding efforts to preserve "whiteness" and invalidate mixed-race marriages and families. 


This excerpt illustrates the sometimes complex and tangled 19th-century attitudes toward race and interracial marriage, from a prominent southern politician's open interracial marriage to Lincoln's use of the N-word.


"Loving" was published by Beacon Press in June 2017, just before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia. – Schuster Institute

Excerpted from Loving: Interracial Intimacy and the Threat to White Supremacy by Sheryll Cashin (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


One of the most prominent nineteenth-century national conversations about race mixing involved Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States, who served with Martin Van Buren. Commentary on Johnson’s procreating with slaves attests to how common this practice was and to the widely shared, though unstable enterprise of trying to maintain a pure-white nation. But randy patriarchs often refused to abide by their own orthodoxy.


Johnson was a Kentuckian who gained fame as the person who reportedly slayed the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames. He rode this national notoriety from the US House to the Senate and then the vice presidency. Johnson also became notorious for fathering two daughters with Julia Chinn, an octoroon slave whom he had inherited. Johnson’s father was one of the largest landholders in Kentucky. This patriarch conferred on his sons many slaves and acres as well as a legacy of serving in high office and garnering perhaps more than the family’s fair share of government contracts. As a scion of a wealthy, powerful family, Richard Johnson may have felt insulated from the opinions of others when he fell in love with Chinn.17  Kentucky law may have barred him from marrying Chinn because she did not qualify as white. This proscription did not deter him; he lived with her openly as his common-law wife.


The relationship endured, and Johnson became a political star, though a controversial one. He spent three decades serving in the House and Senate, spanning five presidencies from Jefferson to Jackson. He was devoted to the principles of “Thomas Jefferson, the patriarch of republicanism,” as he called him, but as Andrew Jackson ascended to the helm of what would become the Democratic Party, Johnson became a steadfast Jacksonian. By working to abolish the practice of imprisoning debtors and opening his estate in Great Crossings, Kentucky, to constituents of any station and helping them with their problems, Johnson garnered great popularity in his state. He identified deeply with the non-rich farmers of his rural, agrarian district and railed against monopolist creditors.


As his star rose, Johnson was criticized for his relationship with Chinn. He defended his honor and that of Chinn: “Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He found no objections.” In pointing his finger at other political leaders suspected of having similar long-term relationships with their slaves, he was identifying the fault line that would contribute to his political problems. Southerners were well aware that masters might take a slave woman as a mistress, and they were used to pretending not to notice the pale-colored babes showing up in the master’s yard. But it was virtually unheard-of for a public figure to attempt to make such a relationship official, much less to thrust his mulatto children on polite white society.

Sheryll Cashin is a law professor at Georgetown University. Her new book, "Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy," was published by Beacon Press on June 6, 2017. 

“Unlike Jefferson, Clay, Poindexter and others I married my wife under the eyes of God, and apparently He found no objections.” – Cashin quoting Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States

Johnson doted on his daughters, Imogene and Adaline, gave them his surname, and educated them. He managed to marry them off to respectable white men, initially quietly, after giving his daughters large dowries, including land. Kentucky’s antimiscegenation law may not have been a barrier to his daughters’ marriage to white men, because, although they were one-sixteenth black, the law did not define the term Negro or mulatto. Social distinctions did stymie the family. When Johnson took Adaline to a Fourth of July barbeque at the home of neighboring whites in 1831, the action sparked controversy. He had been invited to give an Independence Day oration, but his hosts insisted that his lightly colored daughter leave the premises while they celebrated national freedom. The barbeque incident with Adaline and the surfacing of Imogene’s recent interracial marriage made the newspapers from Kentucky to Boston. William Lloyd Garrison was kinder than others when he commented on the family in his newspaper, the Liberator: “Col. Johnson deserves full condemnation, not for being the father of colored children . . . but for his avowed and shameless libertinism.” Garrison also agreed with another commentator that “at the present time mixed marriages would be in bad taste.”

A political cartoon from an 1864 series mocks Lincoln and his pro-abolition Republican Party, depicting a "miscegenation ball" with white and black men and women dancing together at Lincoln's campaign headquarters.

G.W. Bromley & Co, and Kimmel & Forster. Political caricature. No. 4, The miscegenation ball. New York New York City, 1864. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed June 13, 2017.)

When Adaline married the following year, Garrison did not miss an opportunity to attack Southern slavers. In the Liberator, he defended Adaline’s new spouse as virtuous in taking her as a bride. He compared the marriage with Southern “planters who do not scruple to prostitute their female slaves, and beget as many bastards as possible.” Perhaps he was alluding to Johnson. At the time, the Tecumseh slayer, as he was referred to, was one of the most prominent politicians in the United States. His partner, Julia Chinn, was not a tragic mulatto. Johnson empowered her to manage his estate, Blue Spring Farm, while he was away representing Kentucky in Washington. He had created the Choctaw Academy on the farm’s grounds—another profitable government contract for a Johnson son. This boarding school was devoted to educating and “civilizing” Choctaws. Johnson appointed a local minister to run it with Chinn’s assistance. Problems arose when some Choctaw students were discovered to be having sex with, and otherwise fraternizing with, the slaves. When Chinn succumbed to a cholera epidemic in 1833, Johnson was grief-stricken and spread thin. It was impossible for him or his agent to maintain order and separation among the red, black, and mixed-race people at Blue Spring.


The Choctaw students who copulated with slaves were not following the new racial postulates of the Choctaw Nation (or of the Cherokees and Creeks), which had cast aside their prior openness to adopting blacks and had taken on the whites’ disdain for mixing with them. After Chinn died, Johnson put another slave woman, Parthene, in charge of his household. He apparently also had a sexual relationship with her. When Parthene used her new position to stage an escape to Ohio with a Choctaw student and apparently another slave-Choctaw couple from the farm, Johnson took revenge. He sold Parthene at auction after she was captured and soon took up with another slave, reportedly Parthene’s sister. The press ridiculed him for having been “cuckolded” by his slaves and outsmarted by natives. Johnson would father more children with slave women, although he related to these children quite differently than he did to Adaline and Imogene. By 1840, he was excoriated in the antislavery press for producing children with three slave women and selling one mother and the children to another slave owner.


As Van Buren began his run for president in 1836, the entire nation continued to focus on the question of slavery. Southern Democrats supported Johnson as a candidate for vice president because he was a popular Southern slaveholder who assuaged their suspicions about the New Yorker, Van Buren. But Johnson’s amalgamating lifestyle was a source of public commentary and discomfort to all sides of the slavery debate. Historian Nicholas Guyatt says of the contretemps: “Defenders of slavery feared a conspiracy in which Johnson would smuggle the radical practices of his private life into the nation’s highest councils. . . . Immediate abolitionists [denied] that emancipation would lead to race mixing.”


Newspapers on all sides had something to say about him. “He is indeed the most powerful agent of amalgamation,” the Baltimore Chronicle wrote, “who, by giving fortunes to half-breeds, tempts men greedy of money, but insensible to shame, to mingle the white and African race in a union which merges the fair complexion and the bright intellect of one, in the darkness of color and inferiority of mind which are characteristics of the other.” The Chronicle argued that the “violent feuds” and instability of Latin American countries were a consequence of race mixing. With Johnson, the “practical amalgamator,” on the ticket, “what, we ask, is to prevent . . . a similar result in the United States?” Van Buren won the presidency despite the acrimony, but after he dropped Johnson as a running mate in 1840, Johnson receded from national prominence, except, perhaps, as the butt of jokes.

Abraham Lincoln made light of Johnson in debating Stephen Douglas for a US Senate seat for Illinois. It was one of several ways Lincoln attempted to establish his anti-amalgamation bona fides. “There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races,” Lincoln said in 1857. “Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself.”

“There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races,” (President Abraham) Lincoln said in 1857. 

Newspapers attested to this revulsion. “Mormonism is repulsive enough, but abolition-amalgamation makes the soul shudder with a sickening sense of indescribable disgust,” the Richmond Enquirer wrote with poetic intolerance the same year. The editorial concluded: “The people of this country very well know that there is ten times as much amalgamation under slavery [than] in the free states” and that the “South presented us with a Vice-President who had given us a life-long example of . . . concubinage.”


Slavery, abolition, and amalgamation remained prominent issues partly because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. Dred Scott was a slave who needed to be considered a citizen to bring his case in court. He wished to claim freedom for having lived with his owner for a period in free territory. Infamously, the court concluded that no black person, enslaved or free, could be a citizen. In doing so, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney relied on intentions and habits he imputed not only to the Founders but also to the people who ratified the Constitution.


Taney claimed that there had been a “fixed and universal” opinion “in the civilized portion of the white race” that black people were “altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” He cited the many laws prohibiting intermarriage in the colonies as evidence that “a perpetual and impassive barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one they had reduced to slavery.” Of course, these laws were necessary because some whites were mixing with the “unfortunate race,” and, hence, white attitudes could not have been fixed and universal. Taney also ignored evidence of citizenship rights enjoyed by some free blacks at the time of the nation’s founding. Taney and a majority of the court had an agenda, a hope of resolving the question of slavery permanently. The court could have declared Scott a noncitizen because he was a slave. It could have left free blacks out of the decision. But it chose to sweep broadly and also reached to essentially nullify the Missouri Compromise, by which Congress had insulated Northern free territories from slavery.


Thus, in 1858, as Lincoln and Douglas debated, the main issue between them was slavery and whether it would be expanded into new states. The two men put on an extraordinary reality show that rode into seven towns across Illinois. The debates, as transcribed by the press, captivated the nation. As slavery was the question at hand, so was amalgamation. Douglas relentlessly exploited the white public’s anti-black feelings. He called members of the grand new party “Black Republicans” and painted Lincoln as an abolitionist who supported extending political and social equality to the Negro, including the right to amalgamate with whites. The fight for the soul of America was engaged.

The fight for the soul of America was engaged.

Lincoln was not yet multicultural in his republicanism. He struggled to make sense of the divided house the Founders had created. In the fog of political warfare, which presaged civil warfare, the Declaration of Independence was one weapon Lincoln clung to. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans were not far removed from 1776 and its revolutionary values. Lincoln played to those values as well as to racism in the minds of voters. He was antislavery and procolonization—official planks of his party—and he clearly felt pressure to dispel the notion that he favored amalgamation or black citizenship. He believed that the Declaration of Independence, with its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, extended to Negroes, not as a social equals to whites but to free them and America of slavery. This was a nuanced position compared with Douglas’s proslavery popular sovereignty that would allow white men in each new state to decide the slavery question for themselves.


One way Lincoln attempted to gain trust with white crowds was to use the N-word in debate and speeches. For example, at the first debate in Ottawa, Illinois, he said, “When my friend Judge Douglas, came to Chicago . . . he made an harangue there . . . [and] draws out, from my speech this tendency of mine to set the States at war with one another . . . and set the niggers and white people to marrying together [Laughter].” Its cultural meaning clearly had become something different from the term “Negars,” which John Smith used in his Generall Historie of Virginia to describe the Bautista Angolans that landed in 1619. The astute Lincoln used the N-word himself in private, along with “darky,” and must have understood its efficiency in signaling that he stood, firmly, on the white side of the color line.


Excerpted from Loving: Interracial Intimacy and the Threat to White Supremacy by Sheryll Cashin (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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