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John Randolph of Roanoke

David Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

One of the most eccentric and accomplished politicians in all of American history, John Randolph (1773–1833) led a life marked by controversy. The long-serving Virginia congressman and architect of southern conservatism grabbed headlines with his prescient comments, public brawls, and clashes with every president from John Adams to Andrew Jackson. The first biography of Randolph in nearly a century, John Randolph of Roanoke provides a full account of the powerful Virginia planter’s hard-charging life and his impact on the formation of conservative politics. The Randolph lineage loomed large in early America, and Randolph of Roanoke emerged as one of the most visible—and certainly the most bombastic—among his clan. A colorful orator with aristocratic manners, he entertained the House of Representatives (and newspaper readers across the country) with three-hour-long speeches on subjects of political import, drawing from classical references for his analogies, and famously pausing to gain “courage” from a tumbler at his side. Adept at satire and uncensored in his verbal attacks against colleagues, he invited challenges to duel from those he offended; in 1826, he and the then–secretary of state Henry Clay exchanged gunfire on the banks of the Potomac. A small-government Jeffersonian in political tastes, Randolph first entered Congress in 1799. As chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee he memorably turned on President Jefferson, once and for all, in 1805, believing his fellow Virginian to have compromised his republican values. As a result, Randolph led the “Old Republicans,” a faction that sought to restrict the role of the federal government. In this rich biography, David Johnson draws upon an impressive array of primary sources—Randolph’s letters, speeches, and writings—previously unavailable to scholars. John Randolph of Roanoke tells the story of a young nation and the unique philosophy of a southern lawmaker who defended America’s agrarian tradition and reveled in his own controversy.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series


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pp. 1-7

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

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1. Keep Your Land

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pp. 8-24

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...

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2. Macbeth Hath Murdered Sleep

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pp. 25-41

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...

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3. Ask My Constituents

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pp. 42-52

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...

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4. Master of the House

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pp. 53-67

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...

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5. An Evil Daily Magnifying

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pp. 68-74

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...

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6. Yazoo Men

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pp. 75-87

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...

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7. The Tertium Quid

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pp. 88-105

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...

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8. Mystery of Affection and Faith

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pp. 106-117

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...

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9. House Cynosure

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pp. 118-133

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...

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10. Of Roanoke

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pp. 134-149

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...

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11. An Irreclaimable Heretic

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pp. 150-164

“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...

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12. Dying, Sir, Dying

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pp. 165-175

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...

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13. The Moral Authority of My Heart

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pp. 176-181

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...

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14. Two Souls

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pp. 182-191

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...

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15. A Fig for the Constitution

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pp. 192-205

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...

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16. The Puritan and the Blackleg

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pp. 206-215

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...

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17. Remorse

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pp. 216-228

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...

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pp. 229-233

“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...

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pp. 235-237

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

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pp. 239-240

Appendix 2. Randolph's Contemporaries

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pp. 241-244


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pp. 245-317


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pp. 319-333


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pp. 335-343

E-ISBN-13: 9780807143988
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807143971

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Southern Biography Series