Randolph of Roanoke and the War Party, 1806-2015

Randolph of RO

Few who encounter John Randolph of Roanoke in the pages of American history ever forget that inimitable, irrepressible figure. Randolph, a son of one of the “First Families” of Virginia, was the passionate, principled champion of the rights of the States and Virginia’s way of life, and the sworn enemy of nationalism, imperialism, mercantilism, abolitionism, and various other “isms” howling from the frozen North. Long before glancing back and forth between two teleprompters and reading words written by someone else was considered great rhetoric, Randolph was a spellbinding orator capable of extemporaneous eloquence which could entrance an audience for hours and possessed of a trenchant wit and profound wisdom belying his boyish appearance.

On January 29, 1806, Congressman Andrew Gregg introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives demanding the non-importation of British goods in response to British violations of American neutral rights. Congressman Randolph branded this resolution as “the forerunner of War” with Great Britain – which, in the end, it was: the War of 1812. On March 5, 1806, Randolph rose to denounce the Gregg Resolution as setting the United States on a course to an unnecessary, unwinnable war which would make her less safe and less free. The following are extracts from this historic speech:

Fighting wars for which the U.S. military is not suited

“I am not surprised to hear men advocate these wild opinions, to see them goaded on by a spirit of mercantile avarice, straining their feeble strength to excite the nation to war, when they have reached this stage of infatuation that we are overmatched for Great Britain on the Ocean. It is a mere waste of time to reason with such persons. They do not deserve anything like serious refutation. The proper arguments for such statesmen are a strict waistcoat, a dark room, water, gruel, and depletion.”

“I am averse to a naval war with any nation whatever. I was opposed to the naval war of the last administration, and I am as ready to oppose a naval war of the present administration, should they meditate such a measure. What? Shall the great Mammoth of the American forest leave his natural element and plunge into the water in a mad contest with the Shark? Let him beware that his proboscis is not bitten off in the engagement. Let him stay on shore – and not be excited by the muscles and periwinkles of the strand, or political bears in a boat, to venture on the perils of the deep.”

Wartime consolidation of power in the President

“But yet, Sir, I have a more cogent reason against going to war for the honour of the flag in the narrow seas, or any other maritime punctilio. It springs from my attachment to the principles of the Government under which I live. I declare in the face of day, that this Government was not instituted for the purpose of offensive war. No – it was framed (to use its own language) for the common defence and the general welfare, which are inconsistent with offensive war. I call that offensive war which goes out of our jurisdiction and limits for the attainment or protection of objects not within those limits and that jurisdiction. As in 1798 I was opposed to this species of warfare [the Quasi-War with France], because I believed it would raze the Constitution to its very foundation, so in 1806 am I opposed to it, and on the same grounds. No sooner do you put the Constitution to this use, to a test which it is by no means calculated to endure, than its incompetency to such purposes becomes manifest and apparent to all. I fear if you go into a foreign war for a circuitous, unfair trade, you will come out without your Constitution. Have you not contractors enough in this House? Or do you want to be overrun and devoured by commissaries and all the vermin of contract? I fear, Sir, that what are called the energy men will rise up again – men who will burn the parchment. We shall be told that our Government is too free, or, as they would say, weak and inefficient. Much virtue, Sir, in these terms. That we must give the President power to call forth the resources of the nation – that is, to filch the last shilling from our pockets, or to drain the last drop of blood from our veins. I am against giving this power to any man, be him who he may. The American people must either withhold this power, or resign their liberties. There is no other alternative. Nothing but the most imperious necessity will justify such a grant – and is there a powerful enemy at our doors?”

Posturing, pandering politicians

“Sir, I blush to see the record of our proceedings. They resemble nothing but the advertisements for patent medicines. ‘Here you have the worm-destroying lozenges’; ‘There, Church’s cough drops’; and to crown the whole, ‘Sloan’s vegetable specific,’ an infallible remedy for all nervous disorders and vertigoes of brain-sick politicians: each man adjuring you to give his medicine only a fair trial. If, indeed, these wonder-working nostrums could perform but one half of what they promise, there is little danger of our dying a political death, at this time, at least. But Sir, in politics as in physics, the doctor is oftentimes the most dangerously diseased – and this I take to be our case at present.”

“Sir, it is the statesman’s province to be guided by circumstances, to anticipate, to foresee them; to give them a course and direction, to mould them to his purpose. It is the business of a counting house clerk to peer into the Day Book and Ledger, to see no further than the spectacles on his nose, to feel not beyond the pen behind his ear, to chatter in coffee-houses, and be the oracle of clubs.”

“The greatest man whom I ever knew – the immortal author of the letters of Curtius [John Thompson, a Virginia Democratic-Republican] – has remarked the proneness of cunning people to wrap up and disguise in well-selected phrases, doctrines too deformed and detestable to bear exposure in naked words; by a judicious choice of epithets to draw the attention form the lurking principle beneath, and perpetuate delusion.”

The superiority of peace to war and the stupidity of reasons for war

“Are you not contented with being free and happy at home? Or will you surrender these blessings that your merchants may tread on Turkish and Persian carpets, and burn the perfumes of the East in their vaulted rooms? Gentlemen say it is but an annual million lost, and even if it were five times that amount, what is it compared with your neutral rights? Sir, let me tell them a hundred millions will be but a drop in the bucket, if once they launch without rudder or compass into this ocean of foreign warfare.”

“But the gentleman has told you that you ought to go to war, if for nothing else, for the Fur Trade. Now, Sir, the people on whose support he seems to calculate, follow, let me tell him, a better business. And let me add that whilst men are happy at home, reaping their own fields, the fruits of their labour and industry, there is little danger of them being induced to go sixteen or seventeen hundred miles in pursuit of beavers, raccoons, or opossums – much less of going to war for the privilege. They are better employed where they are. This trade, Sir, may be important to Britain; to nations who have exhausted every resource of industry at home – bowed down by taxation and wretchedness. Let them, in God’s Name, if they please, follow the Fur Trade. They may, for me, catch every beaver in North America. Yes, Sir, our people have a better occupation – a safe, profitable, honourable employment. Whilst they should be engaged in distant regions in hunting the beaver, they dread, lest those whose natural prey they are, should begin to hunt them – should pillage their property and assassinate their Constitution. Instead of prating about its confiscation, do not, I beseech you, expose at once your knavery and your folly. You have more lands than you know what to do with – you have lately paid fifteen millions for yet more [the Louisiana Purchase]. Go and work them, and cease to alarm the people with the cry of ‘Wolf,’ until they become deaf to your voice, or at least laugh at you.”

Projecting power abroad while indebted at home

“Sir, if they called upon me only for my little peculium to carry it on, perhaps I might give it: but my rights and liberties are included in the grant, and I will never surrender them while I have life. The gentleman from Massachusetts is for sponging the debt [defaulting]. I can never consent to it. I will never bring the ways and means of fraudulent bankruptcy into your committee of supply. Confiscations and swindling shall never found among my estimates, to meet the current expenditures of peace and war. No, Sir, I have said with the doors closed, and I say so when they are open: ‘pay the public debt.’ Get rid of that dead weight upon your Government, that cramp upon all your measures, and then you may put the world at defiance. So long as it hangs upon you, you must have revenue, and to have revenue you must have commerce, [and to have] commerce [you must have] peace. And shall these nefarious schemes be advised for lightening the public burdens – will you resort to these low and pitiful shifts – dare even to mention these dishonest artifices to eke out your expenses – when the public treasure is lavished on Turks and infidels, on singing boys and dancing girls, to furnish the means of bestiality to an African barbarian [the practice of paying tribute to the Barbary pirates]?”

Foreign fifth columns

“But the gentleman from Pennsylvania tells you that he is for acting in this as well as in all things, uninfluenced by the opinion of any minister whatever – foreign, or, I presume, domestic. On this point I am willing to meet the gentleman. I am unwilling to be dictated to by any minister at home or abroad. Is he willing to act on the same independent footing? I have before protested, and again protest against secret, irresponsible, overruling influence. The first question I asked when I saw the gentleman’s resolution was: is this a measure of the cabinet? Not of an open, declared cabinet, but of an invisible, inscrutable, unconstitutional cabinet – without responsibility, unknown to the Constitution?”

Trusting the people

“When I behold the affairs of this nation instead of being where I hoped, and the people believed they were, in the hands of responsible men, committed to Tom, Dick, and Harry – to the refuse of the retail trade of politics – I do feel, I cannot help feeling, the most deep and serious concern […] Are the people of the United States, the real sovereigns of this country, unworthy of knowing what, there is too much reason to believe, has been communicated to the privileged spies of foreign governments? […] Let the nation know what they have to depend upon. Be true to them, and (trust me) they will prove true to themselves and to you. The people are honest; now at home at their ploughs, not dreaming of what you are about. But the spirit of enquiry, that has too long slept, will be, must be, awakened. Let them begin to think; not to say such things are proper because they have been done – but what has been done? and wherefore? – and all will be right.”

Randolph might as well have been speaking in Washington, D.C. today. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Randolph, after listening to the delusional, deranged policies of the modern-day War Party, scoffing, as he did at the War Party of his own day, “This is stuff, Sir, for the nursery.”

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