The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn

Univ. of North Carolina. Oct. 2023. 304p. ISBN 9781469675237. $30. BIOG
Myers’s (history and gender studies, Indiana Univ.; Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston) biography of Julia Chinn (1790–1833) is the story of her lifelong, likely nonconsensual relationship with her enslaver, Richard Mentor Johnson, a powerful Kentucky politician who eventually served as the U.S. vice president after her death and during the administration of Martin Van Buren’s 1837–41 term. The book portrays Johnson as viewing Chinn as his common-law wife, although he never gave Chinn her freedom. Records show the two apparently exchanged “vows” before a Baptist preacher. Chinn gave birth to two daughters, who were well educated and who both married white men. Johnson entrusted Chinn to manage his extensive farm enterprises and school for Indigenous peoples in Scott County, KY, while he was in Washington fulfilling his congressional duties. Johnson’s relationship with Chinn was an issue for his family and his political campaigns.
VERDICT This book not only focuses on Chinn, but it also presents a complex, contested view of the social and moral ecology of the antebellum South and the nation. Myers extends that story to discuss current racial issues.
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