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  • Editor’s Page
  • Nelson L. Dawson

The principle behind the old athlete’s claim that “the older I get, the better I was” is our tendency to imagine performance-enhancing alternate scenarios. All of us are inclined to assume, for example, that we would have done better in the past than those benighted people who actually lived in it. The articles in this issue of the Register, if we are not careful, could enable us to do it again, for they all deal, in various ways, with morally challenging transgressive behavior.

We are all aware of the challenges the Shakers posed for the orthodox Christians of the early nineteenth century with their divergent theology, communalism, and celibacy. Vickie Cimprich explores another challenge which they posed with their deeply principled racial egalitarianism. But, ironically, in this regard at least, they were far closer to St. Paul’s vision of an inclusive church than those rooted in the racial categories of their time.

Richard M. Johnson was another racial transgressive who lived openly with Julia Chinn, a mulatto slave from his father’s estate, and their two daughters, Imogene and Adaline. Johnson certainly paid a political price for this relationship, which was a public example of a type of relationship practiced covertly throughout the South at the time. Yet Miles Smith argues that it is simplistic to attribute all of the disapproval of Johnson to his domestic arrangement. Johnson was, he argues, a true Jacksonian who offended the eastern elites of the Democratic Party whose Jacksonianism was only “a political vehicle to protect agrarianism and their aristocratic prerogatives.” So Johnson’s domestic arrangement and his Western-style democracy made him a problematic figure in early-nineteenth-century America. [End Page 487]

The most obvious racial transgressives featured in this issue of the Register are the African Americans themselves. Stephen Rockenbach revisits the political complexities of Civil War–era Kentucky. His analysis shows that the divided Kentucky of the early Civil War more and more became the united Kentucky of the late Civil War as the policies of Abraham Lincoln shifted to emancipation and then, even worse, to the recruitment of African Americans. The understandable alacrity with which they seized opportunities to escape slavery by fleeing to Union lines and enlisting as Union soldiers caused mainstream white opinion to coalesce against them. It is a melancholy tale. African Americans experienced only “a brief period of independence towards the end of the war, including wartime military service.” The reunification of Kentucky under the aegis of white supremacy, however, changed brief liberation into ongoing subordination.

In light of this, the racial transgressiveness of the Shakers and Richard M. Johnson certainly enjoyed better consequences, for the tragedy of segregation was followed by a long struggle for civil rights, which has extended into our own time. Even so, we can prove our virtue only by acting in our present and not by getting better in some imagined, receding past. [End Page 488]



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pp. 487-488
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