"Turning Up Their Noses at the Colonel": Eastern Aristocracy, Western Democracy, and Richard Mentor Johnson
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"Turning Up Their Noses at the Colonel":
Eastern Aristocracy, Western Democracy, and Richard Mentor Johnson

In February 1849, the Kentucky legislature debated who would represent the state and fill the open seat in the U.S. Senate. At the completion of the election that followed the debate, the count stood at ninety-two for Whig leader Henry Clay and forty-five for the Democrat, Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson. After his defeat, the onetime Indian fighter and hero of the War of 1812, U.S. representative, senator, and vice president, finally retired from public life. Virtually unknown to the twenty-first-century public, Johnson remains best known to historians for his domestic life. The standard narrative, embraced since the mid-nineteenth century, asserts that Johnson maintained a slave mistress whom he regarded as his common-law wife. He acknowledged their two pretty daughters and introduced them into polite society. During the election of 1836, some genteel Southerners (Virginians especially, the story goes), offended by Johnson's scandalous domestic and racial situation, obstructed the democratic nomination process and sent the election of the vice president into the Senate, where the senators elected Johnson along party lines.

Historians painted Johnson's lack of support as an indication of southern displeasure over his relationship with Julia Chinn. In fact, it was Johnson's egalitarian politics that finally proved to be what aristocratic planters in the old southern states feared. Along with [End Page 525] openly engaging in miscegenation (what Johnson's contemporaries called amalgamation), Johnson championed radical policies aimed at politically displacing southern elites with yeomen farmers and workers. Carolina and Virginia patricians feared Johnson's brand of political egalitarianism. While Jefferson promoted the political aesthetic of being a simple farmer, he was, in fact, a Piedmont grandee. Jeffersonians ostensibly promoted agrarian equality, but certainly these supposed democrats were nothing more than planters who needed a political vehicle to protect agrarianism and their aristocratic prerogatives. Richard Johnson conceptualized Jacksonian democracy and subsequently the Democratic Party as a truly egalitarian institution where planters, small farmers, and even urban workers and immigrants found equal voice for their needs and concerns. While his relationship with Julia Chinn provided an acceptable public pretext to hamper Johnson's political aspirations, Tidewater Jeffersonian aristocrats feared the rise of frontier farmers, largely because these backwoods Americans considered merit and service more important than station and acreage. To coastal patricians, Johnson and western democracy represented a very real threat to the political preeminence of the Tidewater and Carolina planters.1

Jacksonian Democracy is somewhat inappropriately named. In the South and in the slaveholding West, large planters exercised an outsized influence in local and regional political matters during the so-called Era of the Common Man. And while Andrew Jackson exemplified the movement and served as its rallying figure, he did not "found" American democratic politics. In fact, many early Jacksonians were anything but common men. Andrew Jackson, James Polk, John Tyler, and other prominent Jacksonians garnered the political support of small farmers and workers, but each guarded the prerogatives of the planter class [End Page 526] jealously. As Edward Pessen pointed out in his magisterial Jacksonian America, a broadened suffrage allowed American farmers and wage laborers to vote for men who assumed the aesthetic of the common man for political purposes. Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin updated and nuanced Pessen's thesis, but their argument is simple: Democrats and Whigs were largely similar, and the terms democracy and aristocracy were more often than not political rhetoric. This statement is true, but not universally so.2

Jonathan Milnor Jones argued that Johnson's adherence to Jackson and his membership in the Democratic Party proved fatal to his political ambitions. While Jones's analysis is not inaccurate, it is far from complete. Democrats were the majority party throughout the antebellum era, and among Democrats (as well as the public at large) Johnson was exceedingly popular. He perfectly personified the type of candidate the Democratic and Whig leadership adored: he was a war hero, a farmer (although a wealthy one), and a committed friend of the common man. His western constituencies posed no problem either. Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and James...