John Randolph of Roanoke
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Series: Southern Biography Series
His first public debate was with Patrick Henry. He was Jefferson’s ally, then opponent; the bitter enemy of Madison; critic of Monroe; unrelenting antagonist of “King John” Adams, then of John Quincy Adams, who had “outdone his [father’s] out doings”; curiosity to Andrew Jackson. He aimed
1. Keep Your Land
The motto of the Randolph family bespoke a perspective born of station and experience. John Randolph was born on June 2, 1773, into a family of privilege and power. His great-grandfather, William Randolph, emigrated from Warwickshire, England, to Virginia in 1673, settled at Turkey Island...
2. Macbeth Hath Murdered Sleep
The honor of serving as the nation’s first attorney general was diminished ever so slightly by its meager salary of nineteen hundred dollars. “With every frugality, almost bordering on meanness,” Edmund Randolph fumed, “I cannot live upon it as it now stands.” Thus the attorney general took in three...
3. Ask My Constituents
Randolph approached the Speaker’s dais on the opening day of the Sixth Congress to take his oath of office. Speaker Theodore Sedgwick, a Federalist from Massachusetts, glared at the “tall, gawky-looking flaxen-haired stripling,” no doubt wondering if this was the stuff of which republican...
4. Master of the House
What would they do—these radical Republicans—now that they commanded a majority in Congress? Fear-mongering Federalists painted them as reckless demagogues enslaved to the whims of the people, disdainful of tradition, and purveyors of extreme French egalitarianism. They believed...
5. An Evil Daily Magnifying
Amid the flurry of the historic seventh session, Randolph presented a routine committee report regarding the Indiana Territory. The report responded to a letter from William Henry Harrison, president of the Indiana Territory Convention (and future president of the United States), requesting...
6. Yazoo Men
Republican desire to reform—or control—the federal judiciary was not satiated with passage of the Judiciary Act of 1801. The Federalists, Jefferson wrote, had “retired into the judiciary as a stronghold. There the remains of federalism are to be preserved and fed from the treasury, and from that...
7. The Tertium Quid
It seemed all official Washington packed into the Senate chamber for the trial of Justice Samuel Chase. Republican House members who brought the charges sat alongside sullen Federalists anticipating another defeat. Intrigued cabinet officers sat next to intently interested Supreme Court...
8. Mystery of Affection and Faith
The leaders of the respective Republican party factions seemed undisturbed by the split. Thomas Jefferson exhibited characteristic calmness. “Republicanism,” he wrote to William Duane, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, was “as solidly embodied on all essential points, as you ever saw it on any occasion...
9. House Cynosure
As soon as the gavel dropped to begin the second session of the Ninth Congress, a move was made against Randolph. Willis Alston proposed that membership on standing committees be determined by House vote, not by appointment by the Speaker. The underlying presumption of Alston’s motion...
10. Of Roanoke
Congress repealed the Embargo Act three days prior to Madison’s inauguration. Jefferson’s “least bad” policy had nearly destroyed the nation’s economy. Exports from New England had dropped by 75 percent, those from the south by 85 percent. Shipbuilding had declined by two-thirds, and farm...
11. An Irreclaimable Heretic
“I have discharged my duty towards you,” Randolph wrote to his constituents, “lamely and inadequately, I know, but to the best of my poor ability.” Though Randolph believed four out of five of the citizens in his district opposed the war, patriotic fervor was edging into Southside Virginia, bringing...
12. Dying, Sir, Dying
Randolph took a meandering path home from New York. He lingered in Philadelphia until mid-January. While there, he ended speculation about his political future. “I have been requested in writing by more than one respectable freeholder,” he wrote, “to state explicitly whether or not ‘if the people...
13. The Moral Authority of My Heart
John Randolph’s diary is comprised mostly of short entries about the weather or travel. He left behind no memoirs, and his colorful public persona has cast a long shadow nearly eclipsing the private man. Yet when his voluminous correspondence is read together, the man behind the eccentricities...
14. Two Souls
On March 17, 1817, at Prince Edward Courthouse, Randolph announced he would not seek re-election. He told the shocked crowd that he was “incapable of discharging the duties of a representative.” He left them with a farewell toast: “The people of this district, when I forget them, may my God forget...
15. A Fig for the Constitution
Randolph was fifty years old. Twenty-four years had passed since he had snapped “ask my constituents” to Speaker Sedgwick. He had been a representative for all but four of those years and had outlasted or outlived most of his friends and foes. The new order he had so vigorously fought was firmly in...
16. The Puritan and the Blackleg
Martin Van Buren stands in history’s hollow, obscured by the regnant figure of Andrew Jackson. When remembered at all, it is usually as the dandified “sweet-sandy whiskers,” short in stature and achievement. This was not the Van Buren contemporaries knew in 1825. He was the shrewd senator...
Randolph walked away from one legislative body and into another one. Against his wishes, he was selected as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. “I’ll [have] none of it,” he snapped as his name was put forward, but ultimately agreed “with unutterable disgust” to “again become...
“I would not die in Washington,” Randolph once groused, “be eulogized by men I despise, and buried in the Congressional Burying Ground.” For the most part, his wishes were granted. His body was transported to Norfolk by the steamboat Pocahontas, then to Richmond on the Patrick Henry. A short...
I am indebted to Andrew Burstein, editor of the Louisiana State University Press Southern Biography Series, for his skillful guidance in taking this project from manuscript to publication. Andy shared freely of his unrivaled knowledge of the Jeffersonian era and repeatedly sharpened my focus. I am...
Appendix 1. Randolph Genealogy
Appendix 2. Randolph's Contemporaries