[“The Late Chapman Johnson, ESQ.,” Southern Literary Messenger, 15(November 1849): 674-675:]
[Themes: education; family economics—innkeeping as adjunct to agriculture,different or subdivided properties within same kinship-network; family life;transportation—tavern culture]
Chapman Johnson was born in the year 1779, in Louisa county, Virginia, on a plantation in the immediate neighborhood of “Branham’s” or “Boswell’s oldOrdinary.” He had four brothers—two of which were older than himself, and twoyounger—and three sisters. His mother died while he was still very young; but nevertheless old enough to recall distinctly a scene in which he owed his lifeto her exertions. His clothes had taken fire, and he was in imminent risk ofbring burnt to death, until his mother, not without injury to her own hands,succeeded in extinguishing the flames.
His father owned the plantation on which he lived, but thought himself too poor to afford his sons an education; and their boyhood, in consequence, was passed in a state of the most profound ignorance. Hoping at length to betterhis condition, by joining the profits of a tavern to those of the farm, he tookcharge of the inn already mentioned, and trusted in this way, to support his family with less difficulty. But the step was extremely ill-advised, so far asthe interests of his sons were involved. Without education, wild and untrained,at an age [that was] the most susceptible of impressions from those about them,they were thrown into daily contact with the idle, dissipated, and vicious company, which, at that day even more than at present, infested our taverns andother places of public resort throughout the country. Already deprived of a mother’sguardianship, they were destined to undergo, while yet of tender age, the lossof their surviving parent. Their father died at the Ordinary; and for some timethe orphan boys continued there, exposed without defence to all the mischievous influences of the place. That they did not wholly escape the contagion is nomatter of surprise: on the contrary, it is more wonderful, that under circumstances so adverse, the moral instinct and mental energy of nature should have sprung up and matured amid the noxious weeds by which they were surrounded. The eldest of the boys, as was natural, plunged more deeply into the current that the others; and the imminent danger of his ruin first awokethe fears and stimulated the efforts of his brothers, Richard and Chapman. By selling their portions of the small patrimony derived from their father, they raised the means of sending their eldest brother to William and Mary College.Their exertions, their sacrifices, were not in vain: they succeeded in detaching him from the dissipated coursed to which he was inclined, and in fitting him, by a competent education, to make his way in the struggle of life.Thus early did the subject of their sketch begin to exhibit towards hisrelations and connexions a generous regard, which throughout this life allowedno occasion for its exercise to pass by unimproved. Indeed, the benevolence ofhis disposition, not only to them, but to all who sought his aid, was almost a fault: for it accustomed him to forget the extent of his own resources, in hisdesire to supply their wants and promote their interests.
Not long after their father’s death, the brothers had returned to live uponthe farm; and when Chapman had sold his interest in it as already mentioned, he still continued to work upon it for regular wages. By the aid of these earningshe was enabled, at the age of nineteen, to enter the school of the Rev. Peter Nelson,* of Louisa county, with whom he continued for nearly two years. Duringthis period, he studied with an ardor and diligence peculiarly his own, andlaid the solid foundations, upon which his labor in after years built a massive superstructure. He always cherished a respectful and kindly attachment for hisold teacher, together with some humorous recollections of his old habits andquaint expressions.
Mr. Johnson, about this time also, derived considerable benefit from anintimate association with Mr. Patrick Michie, who had married one of hissisters, and who, after living some time in South Carolina, had returned to Louisa county, Virginia, and settled on a farm adjoining the old homestead. Mr.Michie’s collegiate education, and acquaintance with the world, made hissociety at once both agreeable and instructive to his young relatives; while his influence encouraged them in the efforts they were making to improvethemselves.
In 1801, Mr. Johnson went to William and Mary College,and commenced the study of law….
*This gentleman, under the more familiar title of “Old Parson Nelson” iswell recollected by many now living in Richmond,where he afterwards taught. He was a singular compound of shrewdness and simplicity: an upright man, a good scholar—but, although by no means sparing ofthe rod, ill calculated to manage a company of unruly boys. His pupils will never forget the pranks they played, nor the punishments he inflicted. He often referred with pride to Mr. Johnson, in whose fame and success he felt himselfin some sort a participant; and more than once the pretext that Mr. Johnson wasto speak at the Capitol, or the Court House, procured a holy day for the boys,when that gentleman was actually attending court in a distant county.