About John Randolph
John Randolph (June 2, 1773 – May 24, 1833), known as John Randolph of Roanoke, was a planter and a Congressman from Virginia, serving in the House of Representatives (1799–1813, 1815–1817, 1819–1825, 1827–1829, 1833), the Senate (1825–1827), and also as Minister to Russia (1830). After serving as President Thomas Jefferson's spokesman in the House, he broke with Jefferson in 1803 and became the leader of the "Old Republican" or "Quids" faction of the Democratic-Republican Party who wanted to restrict the role of the federal government. Specifically, Randolph promoted the Principles of '98, which said that individual states could judge the constitutionality of central government laws and decrees, and could refuse to enforce laws deemed unconstitutional.
A quick thinking orator with a wicked wit, he was committed to republicanism and advocated a commercial agrarian society throughout his three decades in Congress. Randolph's conservative stance, displayed in his arguments against debt and for the rights of the landed gentry, have been attributed to his ties to his family estate and the elitist values of his native Southside Virginia. Randolph vehemently opposed the War of 1812 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820; he was active in debates about tariffs, manufacturing, and currency. With mixed feelings about slavery, he was one of the founders of the American Colonization Society in 1816, to send free blacks to a colony in Africa. While opposed to the slave trade, Randolph remained dependent on hundreds of slaves to work his tobacco plantation. He provided for their manumission and resettlement in Ohio in his will.
Voters enjoyed both his fiery character and his lively electioneering methods. Randolph appealed directly to yeomen, using entertaining and enlightening oratory, sociability, and community of interest, particularly in agriculture, that led to an enduring voter attachment to him regardless of his personal deficiencies. His defense of limited government appeals to modern and contemporary conservatives, most notably Russell Kirk (1918–1994).
Randolph was born at Cawsons, Virginia (now in Hopewell, Virginia), the son of rich tobacco planter John Randolph (1742–1775) and Frances Bland (1744–1788). His family was one of the prominent First Families of Virginia, he was the grandson of Richard Randolph and the great-grandson of William Randolph. He was the nephew of Congressman Theodorick Bland and Thomas Tudor Tucker, a half brother of Henry St. George Tucker, Sr. and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, and maternal cousin of Thomas Jefferson. His step-father, St. George Tucker, married his widowed mother in 1778.
An illness as a young man left Randolph beardless and high-voiced. First studying under private tutors, Randolph attended Walter Maury's private school, then the College of New Jersey, and Columbia College, New York City. He studied law in Philadelphia, but never practiced.
His interment was in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
At the unusually young age of 26, Randolph was elected to the Sixth and to the six succeeding US Congresses (1799 to 1813). Federalist William Plumer of New Hampshire wrote in 1803 of his striking presence:
Mr. Randolph goes to the House booted and spurred, with his whip in hand, in imitation, it is said, of members of the British Parliament. He is a very slight man but of the common stature. At a little distance, he does not appear older than you are; but, upon a nearer approach, you perceive his wrinkles and grey hairs. He is, I believe, about thirty. He is a descendant in the right line from the celebrated Indian Princess, Pochahontas. The Federalists ridicule and affect to despise him; but a despised foe often proves a dangerous enemy. His talents are certainly far above mediocrity. As a popular speaker, he is not inferior to any man in the House. I admire his ingenuity and address; but I dislike his politics.
Randolph was chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means in the Seventh through the Ninth Congresses, acting as the Democratic-Republican party leader. After breaking with his cousin the President Thomas Jefferson in 1806, he founded the Tertium quids, a faction of the Democratic-Republican Party that called for a return to the Principles of 1798 and renounced what it saw as creeping nationalism.
Although he greatly admired the political ideals of the Revolutionary War generation, Randolph, influenced by Southern anti-Federalism, propounded a version of republicanism that called for the traditional patriarchal society of Virginia's elite gentry to preserve social stability with minimal government interference. Randolph was one of the Congressional managers who conducted the successful impeachment proceedings against John Pickering, judge of the United States District Court for New Hampshire, in January 1804. Critics complained that he mismanaged the failed impeachment effort in December of the same year against Samuel Chase, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
In June 1807 Randolph was the foreman of the Grand Jury in Richmond, which was considering the indictment of Aaron Burr and others for treason. By the end of the review he was angry with Thomas Jefferson for supporting General James Wilkinson, Burr's chief accuser. He considered Wilkinson less than a reputable and honorable person.
Defeated for re-election in 1812 due to his opposition to the War of 1812, Randolph was elected in 1814 and 1816. He skipped a term, then was re-elected and served from 1819 until his resignation in 1825. Randolph was appointed to the US Senate in December, 1825 to fill a vacancy, and served until 1827. Randolph was elected to the Congress in 1826, chairing the Committee on Ways and Means.
Randolph was a member of the Virginia constitutional convention at Richmond in 1829. He was appointed United States Minister to Russia by President Andrew Jackson and served from May to September, 1830, when he resigned for health reasons.
Elected again in 1832, he served until his death in Philadelphia on May 24, 1833. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. He never married.
John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Randolph of Roanoke," although written after the Virginian had become a symbol of "slave power," captures his strange brilliance:
Mirth, sparkling like a diamond shower, From lips of life-long sadness; Clear picturings of majestic thought Upon a ground of madness While others hailed in distant skies Our eagle's dusky pinion, He only saw the mountain bird Stoop o'er his Old Dominion! All parties feared him; each in turn Beheld its schemes disjointed, At right or left his fatal glance And spectral finger pointed.
Eccentricity and outsider status
Despite being a Virginia gentleman, one of the great orators in the history of Caroline, and House leader, Randolph after five years of leadership became (1803) a permanent outsider. He had personal eccentricities as well, which were made worse by his lifelong ill health (he died of tuberculosis), his heavy drinking, and his occasional use of opium. According to Bill Kauffman, Randolph was “a habitual opium user [and] a bachelor who seems to have nurtured a crush on Andrew Jackson.” He once fought a duel with Henry Clay, but otherwise kept his bellicosity to the floor of Congress. He routinely dressed in a flashy manner, often accompanied by his slaves and his hunting dogs. "[W]hen Clay had set about making the speakership a position of true power upon his first election to that post in 1811, he had unceremoniously ordered Randolph to remove his dog from the House floor—something no previous Speaker had dared to do."
Together with Henry Clay, Randolph was one of three founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, a collaboration of slaveholders and abolitionists that planned to transport and resettle free blacks in a colony in Africa (this territory became Liberia). Like some other slaveholders, Randolph had long been opposed to slavery in theory. In the two decades after the Revolutionary War, so many planters freed slaves that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from less than one percent in 1782 to 13.5 percent in 1810.
In 1819, Randolph provided in his will for the manumission of his slaves after his death. He wrote, "I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one." Three years later, in 1822, in a codicil to that will, he stipulated that money be provided to transport and settle the freed slaves on land to be purchased in the free state of Ohio. Each slave above the age of 40 was to receive 10 acres of land. He provided for the manumission of hundreds of slaves in his will. Although the will was challenged in the courts, his slaves were finally ruled to be free. After a lengthy court case, his will was upheld. In 1846 three hundred eighty-three former "Randolph Slaves" arrived in Cincinnati, before settling in Rumley, Shelby County, Ohio.
Randolph was raised and remained within the Episcopal Church. Although he went through a phase of youthful irreligion, in 1818 he had a crisis ending in a conversion experience, all of which he recounted in letters to several friends. His life thereafter was marked with piety; for example, he wrote to John Brockenbrough that he was restrained from taking communion "by the fear of eating and drinking unrighteously."
"We all know our duty better than we discharge it."
"I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality."
"Time is at once the most valuable, and the most perishable of all our possessions."
(In reference to the Embargo Act of 1807:) "It can be likened to curing corns by cutting off the toes."
(In reference to President John Quincy Adams in 1826:) "It is my duty to leave nothing undone that I may lawfully do, to pull down this administration... They who, from indifference, or with their eyes open, persist in hugging the traitor to their bosom, deserve to be insulted... deserve to be slaves, with no other music to soothe them but the clank of the chains which they have put on themselves and given to their offspring."
Legacy and honors
A modern conservative political group, the John Randolph Club, is named after Randolph.
Randolph-Macon College and Randolph College also bear his name