On a Good Wife

History is filled with stories of women who “kept the home fires burning” while the men went off to war in the early days of our republic. However, we seldom hear the actual names of the women who managed the affairs back home while the men served in government positions. Abigail Adams comes to mind certainly. Another such home manager who ran the household while the husband worked in Washington was Julia, the wife of Richard Mentor Johnson. Johnson was a member of the House of Representatives, later he was a Senator from Kentucky, and he made his reputation as a hero of the War of 1812.

Julia and Richard grew up together. In fact, they lived on the same farm owned by Richard’s father, in Scott County, Kentucky. We aren’t sure when the pair got together, but we know that they were a couple by 1811. At that time, Kentucky was the frontier, and the Johnsons worked hard to carve out a large homestead that would eventually become a large plantation—and many African slaves were procured who worked that farm. When Richard’s father passed away, he inherited both the place and the people who lived and worked there.

Richard and Julia had their first child in 1812. Adaline C. Johnson brought great joy to her parents when she arrived in the world, and soon she was followed a few years later by Imogene C. Johnson. Richard insured that both daughters were educated at the best local academy in Scott County. Richard’s duty and success in the War of 1812 made him a national celebrity for reportedly having killed the native leader, Tecumseh. Even before the war, Johnson found himself holding elective office first in Kentucky and then in Washington, D.C.

While Richard was off serving his nation, Julia was left to run the place. And run it she did. And not simply the household only—Julia also ran all of Johnson’s businesses while he was away, and that included managing the slaves he owned. Most men of the day would have hired a male caretaker or manager, but Richard trusted Julia explicitly. Such was the trust he had in her. She even ran the tavern the couple owned on their land and the flour mill that was powered by a local stream. In all the time Johnson was gone from home, Julia never as much as lost a dime to mismanagement or poor choices. She proved to be an able, efficient manager, and that made Richard so proud of her.

What is more, Julia also found time to manage the academy where their daughters went to school. The couple opened education there to native tribes, and the school had over 200 students at one time, many of them from the Creek, Chickasaw, and other tribes of the area. In 1833, a Cholera outbreak attacked the school, and Julia worked tirelessly to treat the sick children and their families. Sadly, she herself caught the illness, and she died that year.

Richard M. Johnson never stopped grieving over the loss of his Julia. In 1836, when he was elected Vice-President of the United States, one of his great sorrows was that Julia was not around to see it.

There were others who were not so sad to see that Julia had passed. In fact, most of the Jacksonian Democrats in Johnson’s party were publicly thrilled that Julia was dead. And it wasn’t that she was a bad woman or inept or socially awkward or corrupt in any way.

You see, the reason so many in Johnson’s party disliked Julia Chenn, Richard Johnson’s common law wife, was because she was Johnson’s slave.

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