Source: This biographical essay was written by Quentin Taylor, Resident Scholar (2008-2009), Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana.
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John Randolph (June 2, 1773 – May 24, 1833) congressman, orator, and eccentric leader of the Old Republicans, was born into one of Virginia’s leading families on the eve of the American Revolution. His father, John Randolph, was a member of the slave-holding, planter elite in Prince George County, while his uncle, Edmund Randolph, was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention and became the nation’s first attorney general. Known as “John Randolph of Roanoke,” the precocious scion was raised by his mother, Frances Bland, and learned stepfather, St. George Tucker.
Impatient with formal schooling, Randolph was largely self-educated and among the most literate and well-read public figures of the time. Influenced by “whig” or “country” ideology, he had an innate suspicion of government and saw corruption in every compromise. A passionate defender of the agrarian-patrician world of his forefathers, he railed for three decades against decay and decline in economic conditions, political leadership, and cultural standards, particularly in Old Dominion.
First elected to Congress in 1799, Randolph proved his mettle in debate as a vociferous opponent of President John Adams and the Federalists. The election of Thomas Jefferson vindicated Randolph’s hostility and helped raise the young Virginian to a place of prominence in the House of Representatives. As majority leader and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Randolph facilitated the passage of Jefferson’s retrenchment legislation aimed at overturning Federalist policies. Far less successful was his performance at the impeachment trial of the Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was acquitted in 1804.
In the following year, Randolph broke with the Jefferson administration over its role in the notorious Yazoo land deal and its secret efforts to purchase Florida. As a political purist, Randolph condemned the former as rewarding fraud and the latter for what amounted to a bribe. He would remain in the opposition for the rest of his tenure in Congress, assailing presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe for abandoning the creed of small government, strict economy, and states’ rights. Although he supported the Louisiana Purchase, he later came to regret it and opposed westward expansion for diluting the power and coarsening the manners of “the good old thirteen United States.”
In the House of Representatives Randolph led a small group of Republican dissenters known as the Tertium Quids, which included John Taylor of Caroline. These “Old Republicans” were opposed to an active federal government, whether in the form of Jefferson’s Embargo or Henry Clay’s American System. The Quids stood for the agrarian values of an idealized past and fought a desperate rear-guard action to preserve a way of life that was doomed to extinction. Randolph was their most gifted and determined voice.
As war clouds gathered in Madison’s first term, Randolph warned of impending disaster and opposed an offensive conflict with Britain. Always looking past the surface into the deeper motives of policy, he attributed the push for war to the “agrarian cupidity” of the West and a desire to conquer Canada in the North. When war was declared, Randolph’s barbed opposition was unpopular and he lost is seat in Congress. He regained it two years later and held it continuously – with the exception of a short stint in the senate – until 1829.
With the passage of time, Randolph grew increasingly disillusioned with American democracy and bitterly pessimistic about the future of Virginia and the republic at large. His political isolation was aggravated by an illness that stunted his physical development and left him with a beardless face, a high-pitched voice, and an emaciated frame. His outward oddity was matched by peculiarities of dress, carriage, and speech that created a unique, if bizarre, impression.
Like Jefferson and Madison, Randolph was opposed to slavery in principle, hoped to keep it out of the territories, and called for the abolition of the slave trade, but vehemently denied the federal government could interfere with slavery where it existed. Randolph was among the first to explicitly link the issue of slavery to states’ rights and to characterize the South as an imperio in imperium with its own character and interests. With little faith in the capacity of the Constitution to constrain the growing power of the industrial North, he relied on a sense of shared identity and his own scrupulous consistency to defend what was left of the moribund South. His support for Andrew Jackson, a strong president who favored a passive government, wavered with the passage of the Force Bill during the South Carolina nullification crisis of 1833. While Randolph considered the doctrine of nullification “sheer nonsense,” he did call on Virginia to support South Carolina and insisted that secession was a legitimate, if desperate, remedy when the burdens of union outweighed its benefits.
In the decade following the War of 1812, Randolph was a marginal figure in Congress who opposed virtually every initiative to expand the size and scope of the federal government. His opposition was based on a strict reading of the Constitution, defense of state sovereignty, and an adherence to precedent. His political creed was that of a latter-day Antifederalist. “Love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealously of the state governments toward the general government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debt, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealously, Argus-eyed jealously, of the patronage of the President.” When the tariff policy of the mid-1820s appeared to validate his warnings of sectional discrimination, he emerged as an elder statesman for the Southern interest. His speeches, distinguished for their mixture of erudition, wit, sarcasm, and bracing logic, exercised an eerie fascination when delivered by the eccentric Randolph. He is believed to have influenced John Calhoun’s conversion to states’ rights and was quoted by Robert Hayne in his famous debate with Daniel Webster over the nature of the union. His duel with Clay in 1825 only added to his stature in the South.
After attending the Virginia Convention in 1829 – his last great performance in a losing cause – Randolph accepted an appointment from President Jackson to serve as minister to Russia. By 1831 he was back at Roanoke, retired from politics, but still brooding over the fate of his “country,” Virginia. Plagued by illness and bouts of madness for much of his life, Randolph led a solitary and rather bleak existence when not engaged in political activity. Shortly after breaking with Jackson, he died in Philadelphia while waiting to board a ship for England. A modern scholar has described John Randolph as an “aristocratic libertarian.” Randolph was aristocratic in his defense of tradition and order as well as his opposition to all social, economic, and political leveling. He was libertarian in his hostility to government interference and in his commitment to individual freedom under law. “I am an aristocrat,” he declared, “I love liberty, I hate equality.” Consistent to the end, he provided for the emancipation and resettlement of his slaves in his will. A man born out of time, Randolph is best remembered as Old Virginia’s prophet of doom, a self-styled Cassandra of America’s silver age.
Last modified April 13, 2016