Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:
To appreciate the full import and the even fuller strangeness of the slavery debates roiling Congress, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the man who was presiding over the Senate as the chief representative of the administration. Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, had made his career as an Indian fighter—alleged to have killed Tecumseh—and was a loyal Democrat. Like Jackson and Van Buren, he had fought against debt imprisonment and was popular with Northern workers. He didn’t care too much for ceremony, or comb his hair, and Harriet Martineau wrote, “If he should become President, he will be as a strange-looking a potentate as ever ruled.” But the most striking fact in his personal background, an open secret in Washington, was his unusual domestic arrangement: Johnson was living openly with and was probably married to one of his slaves.
Early in his life, Johnson had fallen in love with a woman named Julia Chinn, a mulatto whom he inherited from his father. By her he had two striking daughters, Imogene and Adaline, and he treated all three as his family members, seating them at dinner with guests and traveling publicly in a carriage together. Johnson paid for his daughters’ tutoring “until their education was equal or superior to most of the females in the country,” and his wife ran his estate during his long absences on government business. But for all these progressive ideals, Johnson’s attempt to integrate his family with local society failed, and a local newspaper article reported hauntingly that “they never circulated among the whites.”
Julia died of cholera in 1833, but Johnson found a new consort, described in a remarkable letter from Amos Kendall to President Van Buren in 1839, recounting a visit to Johnson’s “watering establishment” in Kentucky. Kendall was amazed not only by the vice president’s happiness “in the inglorious pursuit of tavern keeping,” but that he was spending time in the presence of “a young Delilah of about the complection of Shakespears swarthy Othello,” said to be his third wife . . . some eighteen or nineteen years of age and quite handsome.” If anything had happened to Van Buren during his presidency, this young African-American woman would have become the first lady of the United States—if the nation could have withstood the shock, which of course it could not have.