This piece was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine in 1986.
Some miles beyond Charlotte Court House, in Southside Virginia, one may find his way to Roanoke Plantation, which seems almost as remote as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From the Revolution until 1810, scarcely a white man set foot on that plantation.- black overseers and perhaps two hundred slaves grew tobacco and wheat after a fashion. Then there shifted to Roanoke Congressman John Randolph, the plantation’s proprietor, disappointed in men and measures, preferring solitude. And solitude he found there in his simple cabin, among his negroes, “my only friends and companions,” until he died (though in Philadelphia) in 1833. Congress has not since seen his like for eloquence and political passion.
At Roanoke Plantation there still stands today the little building that was Randolph’s library and study, where the planter-statesman read everything. (The biggish white house nearby was built by Powhatan Bouldin, Randolph’s biographer, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.) From his cabin-fastness on the Staunton River, the mordant witty Randolph rode north to Washington, a long arduous journey, there every year to contend in the Capitol against centralizers, innovators, and enemies of Virginia and the South.
No man did more than Randolph to shape the mind of the South, down to recent years; and no man’s career in Congress was more lively and interesting than Randolph’s. Yet John Randolph of Roanoke has been thoughtfully neglected in the textbooks of American history, this past half-century, or at best mentioned merely as a startling eccentric. For mass democracy and gross materialism, Randolph expressed a burning contempt. The intellectual apologists of egalitarianism and the industrial discipline therefore have resolved, “Let him be anathema!”
It was somewhat otherwise before the triumph of Franklin Roosevelt and the ideological impulses that the New Deal incorporated. For in the high-school textbook in American history that my class read in 1936, some paragraphs had to do with Randolph, as the adversary of Jefferson: that manual had been written before FDR took office. Much taken, at the age of sixteen, by Randolph’s freedom from cant and pretense, I contrived to find two or three books about him, most notably Henry Adams’ short memorable biography. Five years later, in graduate school at Duke University, I wrote a master’s thesis about Randolph’s political thought; Randolph’s letters and other materials lay ready to hand at Richmond, Charlottesville, Raleigh, and the Duke collection, seldom consulted. By chance of providence, the nominal supervisor of my graduate studies was Charles Sydnor, a Virginian of the old school, a Hampden-Sydney man and a good scholar; I did not show him my thesis until it was completed and bound, but then he supported it kindly, despite the endeavors of a Rooseveltian professor of political science on my examination committee who would have denied Duke’s degree to any reactionary admirer of Randolph—my first encounter with what has been called the Holy Liberal Inquisition, this.
By 1951, after years in the army, I had revised my Randolph thesis into a book, which the University of Chicago Press published under the title Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought. This because of the approbation of a great scholarly editor, W. T. Couch (from North Carolina), who never had met me. The little volume was most cordially reviewed in both conventional and unconventional quarters, and the printing soon was sold out. In 1964, Regnery brought out a revised and much enlarged edition, under the title John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics, with Selected Speeches and Letters, a handsome piece of bookmaking. In 1978, Liberty Press, Indianapolis, published a third edition, yet more enlarged, which remains in print. Perhaps some other master’s thesis thus has gone through three separate editions by three separate publishers; but if so, I have not heard of any such in the discipline of political history.
Despite the critical success of my Randolph, there has followed no spate of Randolph scholarship. A few fairly recent books have touched incidentally, if in some detail, upon Randolph’s part in practical politics—notably Norman Risjord’s The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson (1965). Various historians have been bitterly hostile to Randolph—almost as if he were a living adversary, not a dead Congressman—in their studies of other figures of the past; one of the more extreme instances of this is Irving Brant’s life of James Madison.
Only one exercise in critical biography has been published in the past thirty-five years, indeed: Robert Dawidoffs The Education of John Randolph (1979). This book, as its title implies, draws an interesting parallel, incidentally, between Randolph and Henry Adams as Saint Michaels in American politics (Adams’ half-ironical description of Randolph); I found this endeavor at psychobiography intelligent, despite its condescending treatment of Randolph’s religious enthusiasm; but the book was very promptly remaindered. The only full-scale biography of Randolph remains Senator William Cabell Bruce’s two-volume John Randolph of Roanoke (1922). Henry Adams’ John Randolph (originally in the American Statesmen series) and my own Randolph study being the only books about Randolph now in print, and multi-volumed anthologies such as The Library of Southern Literature having vanished from public libraries’ shelves, even conscious and conscientious Southerners may be pardoned for knowing little more of Randolph than a few tales, vaguely recollected, about his oddities. So I set down below a summary account of what he did.
John Randolph was born three years before the Declaration of Independence, and he died during the great Nullification controversy. No man’s life displays more clearly the chain of events that linked the proclamations of 1776 and of 1832. Jefferson, whose early follower Randolph was, belonged to an earlier generation of natural-rights optimists; Calhoun—who, in considerable degree, was the disciple of Randolph—belonged to the later generation that put its faith in legal logic. At both, Randolph sneered; he fought the administration of John Adams, and slashed at the administration of Jefferson, and harried every other President of his time. In Randolph’s speeches, one finds at work the forces that brought on the events of 1832 and of 1861.
The heir to one of the greatest of Virginian families, John Randolph was born near the mouth of the Appomattox, on the eve of revolution. His life was turbulent from the first. Haughty, acutely sensitive, and animated by a darting passion, he was a natural champion of perilous causes. Although he was irregularly schooled at Princeton and Columbia, his delight in humane letters soon made him the most eloquent man of his time in America.
About his nineteenth year, his character was given a tragic bent by a series of mysterious events. He contracted some disease, by which he was racked for the rest of his long life. The young man was altered, outwardly and inwardly. In appearance, he long remained a kind of boy preserved in amber, youthful (though wrinkled) of face, lean and lank to the point of grotesqueness (but graceful and dignified in carriage). Suffering now and again shook his reason, so that for two or three short periods during his life he was next door to madness; yet even during those times he preserved not only his eloquence but a sardonic political realism.
All during his years of public success, this shadow and certain private disasters lay heavy upon Randolph. Yet at first, defying all handicaps, he mounted very high, as the world reckons achievement. In 1799 he debated the aged Patrick Henry; and his brilliance of mind, expressed with his mordant tongue, carried him into the House of Representatives. At the age of twenty-six, he was a hard hater of the Federalists, a partisan of revolutionary France; he smote hip and thigh the administration of John Adams. With the inauguration of Jefferson, picturesque Jack Randolph became the majority leader of the House of Representatives; in the mediocre House of Jefferson’s two terms he had no near rivals in talent within his party. Perhaps already emulating Edmund Burke, he endeavored to impeach the Federalist Justice Samuel Chase for misconduct on the bench, much as Burke had impeached Hastings; but his prosecution, like Burke’s, brought no conviction. This was the first of a series of reverses of political fortune that dogged Randolph throughout his congressional career—and to which, so far as a passionate man might, he became inured with the passing of the years.
Always suspicious of executive power, and uneasy at the tendencies of the Jeffersonians, Randolph began to break with Jefferson, Madison, and other principal leaders of the Republicans in 1805. The breach had two immediate causes: the Yazoo controversy, and the attempt of Jefferson and Madison to acquire Spanish Florida.
The Yazoo lands of the state of Georgia had been acquired by speculators, through bribery of the Georgia legislature. An indignant public elected new legislators, who proceeded to repudiate the corrupt bargain. But the Yazoo land companies appealed to the federal government for compensation for their losses, pleading that the claims had passed already from the original speculators to innocent purchasers in good faith.
Madison and Gallatin, backed by President Jefferson, advocated a compromise by which the Yazoo claimants would be paid some compensation from the federal Treasury, though only a fraction of the sums they desired. Randolph set his face against any payment—with success, until he was defeated temporarily in the congressional contests of 1813. Outraged at such circumventing of the will of a sovereign state, John Randolph never forgave the other Republican leaders for their dallying with the Yazoo men.
Also in 1805, the complex affair of Jefferson’s and Madison’s attempt to purchase Florida, through a secret appropriation of two million dollars, became the second cause of Randolph’s schism. Although he had supported the Louisiana Purchase, Randolph opposed with all his vigor the scheme to acquire Florida from the Spanish government. In effect, Randolph said, this would have been paying blackmail to Napoleon, for whom the Spanish regime was a mask. Irving Brant attributes this unyielding stand to Randolph’s dislike of Madison, and to his private frustrations.
But the reasons for Randolph’s attitude lie deeper far. As a champion of personal liberty, well before 1806 Randolph had become disillusioned with the French Revolution. Napoleon he detested and feared. Only for a brief while had he been a Gallophile; his real sympathies, all his life, lay with England. And Britain, in 1806, lay in grave peril. As much as any of the Federalists whom he condemned, Randolph took English society and culture for models. The abortive Florida purchase would have strengthened Napoleon; so Randolph went into opposition, his ties with the Jeffersonians already having been much weakened.
He denounced participants in the Yazoo scandals in January, 1805; he quarreled with Jefferson and Madison over the Florida scheme during December of that year. On March 6, 1806, he spoke against Gregg’s Resolution, which was designed to cut off commerce with Britain—here siding with the Federalists, although not joining their party. By August 15, his alienation from Jefferson was complete; and he formed the faction of the Tertium Quids, which little band of Southerners he led most of the remainder of his life.
Thus he forfeited the leadership of the House. And as the War Hawks—Calhoun, Clay, Grundy, and the rest—gained ascendancy over Congress, Randolph fought a rearguard action, foretelling ruin from war with Britain. Yet the War of 1812 came; and, unpopular for opposing it, Randolph lost his House seat in 1813. To Roanoke he retired, there meditating on Christian doctrine, lamenting the evils of the time, and losing himself in his library. As Virginia suffered from embargo and war, however, Randolph’s influence with his constituency revived, so that he was elected in 1815 to the Fourteenth Congress.
Ill health, capped by an interval of madness, made him decline re-election in 1817; but, better by 1819, he resumed his Southside seat. In the House he remained until the end of 1825, when he served a little more than a year in the Senate, having been appointed to fill a vacancy. He and his friends had tried to make Monroe president in 1808; but with Monroe in power they were keenly disappointed; and they fancied John Quincy Adams worse still. In 1828, Randolph came out for Jackson’s candidacy—which later he was to regret.
In both House and Senate, Randolph led an embittered group, chiefly Virginians and North Carolinians, of members devoted to state powers, the agricultural interest, economy in government, and freedom from foreign entanglements. He fought the drift toward war in 1811, the Bank of the United States in 1816, the Missouri Compromise in 1820, internal improvements at federal expense in 1824, increases of the tariff at all times, the Panama Mission proposal in 1826—and almost every other principal measure recommended by Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Adams. Occasionally he succeeded in blocking one scheme or another; but in most matters, as Randolph put it, he “was clean beaten down, horse, foot, and dragoons.”
Throughout these years in the political wilderness, Randolph’s health spiraled downward, though now and again, to the astonishment of friends and enemies, his powers would return to him as if by miracle. By 1829, when he retired from Congress, he wore the aspect of a corpse, and suffered pain almost constantly. And yet this strange man was not altogether undone.
For late in 1829, when the Virginia Constitutional Convention was convened, Randolph attended as a delegate—to denounce the entire notion of a new constitution. Confronted by this challenge, his brain reasserted its endowments of wit, logic, and fancy. At the Convention, Randolph’s speeches equaled his best of thirty years earlier—perhaps, indeed, they were better. Having raised his voice in warning against neoterism, he accepted Jackson’s offer of the post of minister to Russia.
St. Petersburg’s cold and damp promptly brought him low. He retreated to England, which land he knew and loved well, and by the autumn of 1831 he was back at Roanoke, surrounded by his blacks—whom he would emancipate, send to Ohio, and endow with his property upon his death. Calhoun and South Carolina were approaching their collision with President Jackson. Nullification was nonsense, Randolph declared realistically; but Jackson’s resort to force against South Carolina roused him to a final burst of fury, and at Charlotte Court House, in February, 1833, he poured his molten metal upon the head of Andrew Jackson.
“Dying, sir, dying,” had been his reply, for decades, when men asked him how he did. Political passion alone had kept vigor in his skeleton frame; and now that fire was flickering out. He commenced a fifth trip to England; but in a Philadelphia hotel, consumption mastered him at last. “Remorse, remorse!” he cried from the bed; and then he was gone into the mystery from which he had emerged sixty years before. Love and hatred, between which that wild strong personality had been torn since childhood, now were spent.
The ardent lover of the permanent things was buried, according to his wish, in the woods of Roanoke. But in 1879 his body was exhumed and taken to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Penetrating his coffin, the roots of a great tree had twined through the dead man’s long black hair and had filled his skull. So, doubtless, he would have wished to lie until Judgment Day.
His had been a career of negation, if you will. Yet the eloquence remains, and the love of ordered liberty, and the tragic sense of life that so few Americans of Randolph’s time apprehended. Clay and Webster are only textbook names, now; Madison and Monroe are not much more; but John Randolph, even in his torment, lives for us still. Sometimes ghostly enough when alive, he takes on a curious vitality when long dead.
Among a good many perceptive passages in Robert Dawidoff s The Education of John Randolph is this:
One important reason for Randolph’s interest to us remains, of course, the fact that to many Southerners he came to symbolize certain values and positions—a cause. He was the precursor of subsequent southern reaction…. Randolph had this kind of sensitivity to conditions in America, and in a sense interpreted them to the next generation of southerners. His own character, his immediate personal experience, fitted him to be a vehicle or example of the cultural shift he prefigured so eloquently. What was clear to him became in time clear to the rest of the South, it may have been the abnormal workings of his mind that caused him to see what he did so early and so intensely…. What became for future generations a myth of loss was to Randolph the experience of loss. He played the part of the eccentric southerner in protest against American culture, couched directly in the terms of what upset him…. His politics of espousal, as opposed to abstract criticism, exemplified the kind of protest that responds not only to the articulation of theory but to the social facts of American society.
Aye, Randolph both foresaw what would befall Southern society, and in considerable degree molded Southern resistance to Giant Innovation. In this he was like Edmund Burke, though less successful than Burke in the long run. From Burke, indeed, Randolph obtained reinforcement of his own convictions and sanction for his resistance. On January 28, 1814, from temporary retirement at Roanoke Plantation, he wrote to Harmanus Bleeker (a New York patroon) that he was reading the fifth volume of the newly published works of Burke:
It has been an intellectual banquet of the richest viands. What a man! How like a child and an idiot I feel in comparison with him. Thank God! however, I can understand and relish his sublime truths and feel grateful for the inspired wisdom which in the true spirit of prophecy he has taught to us poor blind and erring mortals.
On April 4, 1814, Randolph asked Bleeker, “You have read Burke’s first posthumous volume? What a treasure, what a mine of eloquence, sagacity and political wisdom! The rectitude of his feelings is not less conspicuous than the penetration and foresight of his understanding. He is the Newton of political philosophy. May he be their oracle.”
As the might of Napoleon failed in Europe, Randolph wrote to Bleeker on June 2, 1814: “…like you I have regretted that our great master Burke could not have lived to see this day. To have heard him pour forth his ejaculations and chant his nunc dimittis would have shed new glory and delight upon the august scene.”
On July 26 of the same year, he told Bleeker that he had been rereading several volumes of Burke. “The Thoughts on Scarcity and the third Regicide letter shew a minute acquaintance with matters of detail that is surprising,” Randolph observed. “Burke was not one of those who ‘talked of things in general, because he knew nothing of things in particular.’ Who but he would have hunted thro Doctors Commons to shew that there had not been in England one fifth of the number of divorces in a century, that had taken place in Paris alone, during three months?”
The Virginian who had professed himself a Jacobin and an ami des noirs in 1800 had become, fourteen years later, an expounder of Burke’s later writings and the shaper of the South’s conservatism. A decade more, and Randolph would be the preceptor of Calhoun. It was Randolph’s personal “experience of loss,” as Dawidoff expresses it, that had produced this profound change of conviction. The Virginia of his forefathers, the society of the Southern seaboard, was being swept away by egalitarians and economic opportunists; by the aggrandizing interests of the North and the West. What Burke had called the great civilizing forces of Europe, the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman, had been terribly enfeebled in the United States, driven back by the doctrines of rationalism and utilitarianism, and by the men who stood to profit from the triumph of such notions. “The country is ruined past redemption,” Randolph wrote to Dr. Brockenbrough in 1829; “it is ruined in the spirit and character of the people.”
Thus it was that Randolph, in Congress or out of it, made his life a protest against the erosion of the old moral and civil order of Virginia and the United States. It was a grand protest, effectual in the sense that he taught Southerners to give to their cause the last full measure of devotion; ineffectual in the sense that by 1865 force of arms and superiority of resources would crush to earth the planter-society for which Randolph spoke so skillfully.
“The sheer number of people and vast extent of modern America make any application of his views to the twentieth century theoretical at best,” Robert Dawidoff writes of Randolph. That is true enough, if we have to do with somebody’s notion that the life of the Old Dominion in the latter half of the eighteenth century might be restored or reproduced, somehow or other, in the first half of the twenty-first century. Randolph declared that any government whose sway might extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific would not be fit to govern him. We do not require professors at the Claremont Graduate School to impart such a truth to us: Heraclitus put it sufficiently well by his aphorism that we never step in the same river twice.
Yet as Dawidoff s argument runs, seemingly no public man of yesteryear would leave us any lessons of value, once the social and economic circumstances of that man’s time had given way to new. (On the same premise, the preachments of the Hebrew prophets ought not to be applied to the concerns of humankind nowadays.) One deduces from Dawidoff s paragraphs that history teaches the scholar only how things came to pass: everything being evanescent, it is profitless to fancy that the thought and experience of a past era might supply us moderns with some torch of illumination in the dark wood of our own time.
Circumstances now and again arise in the affairs of great states, Burke remarked, when “the file affords no precedent.” But we are lost altogether if we assume that all precedents and dogmata have been made worthless by the pace of social change. Would Dawidoff contend that Tocqueville’s analysis of the American democracy has no abiding worth except as fragmentary explanation of how the United States came to its present pass? Presumably not. Then why suggest that nothing said by John Randolph may be relevant in some degree to our present discontents?
Therefore I reaffirm here what I wrote on this subject of Randolph’s pertinence to political questions of our own era—three paragraphs written at Duke University forty-five years ago: “Randolph was not a democrat, not a nationalist, not a liberal. (He did believe ardently in equality of civil rights, in his country, and in liberty.) Unlike Webster and Clay, he did not speak grandiloquently of the tremendous future of the Union. It may be that he struggled against the stars in their courses. Surely his principles are out of fashion nowadays.”
“And still Randolph’s concepts of political honesty and of personal and local liberty remain valid. Randolph’s speech on Gregg’s Resolution (March, 1806), for instance, means more in these times of American incertitude than ever it did before; and Randolph’s despair at the transience of social institutions never was better illustrated than by the present reign of King Whirl.”
“Though the course of his life was as fantastic as any romantic novel, the great merit of Randolph’s political utterance is its merciless realism. For cant and slogan he reserved his most overwhelming scorn. Never equivocating, he spoke with a corrosive power un-equaled in the history of American politics. In this time when the United States no longer can avoid hard and irrevocable decisions, the imaginative candor of John Randolph of Roanoke deserves rescue from obscurity.”
It would be pleasant to report that Southerners nowadays have commenced that labor of rescuing Randolph from obscurity. Today the Southern states enjoy the benefits of huge charitable foundations and well-financed university presses, in addition to greater general prosperity than ever they have known before. Randolph’s letters— many of them of high historical and literary interest—ought to be published in a volume or two, with good notes; Randolph’s speeches—at present available only in the limited selection of my Randolph volume, or in dusty volumes of The Annals of Congress or of old Virginian newspapers hidden in the stacks of some big research library—ought to be printed and published as Calhoun’s papers are being made available by the University of South Carolina Press.
But I know of no such pious undertaking. Mr. Kenneth Shorey has edited the correspondence of Randolph with his Richmond friend Dr. John Brockenbrough, and Troy State University Press has accepted the letters for publication—but the years pass, and the promised volume does not come from the press, doubtless for lack of subvention.
The insights that an understanding of Randolph still provides may be suggested by this passage from a House speech of his in 1813, when Randolph was one of the most unpopular men in the United States:
I have said, on a former occasion, and if I were Philip, 1 would employ a man to say it every day, that the people of this country, if ever they lose their liberties, will do it by sacrificing some great principle of government to temporary passion. There are certain great principles, which if they be not held inviolate, at all seasons, our liberty is gone. If we give them up, it is perfectly immaterial what is the character of our Sovereign; whether he be King or President, elective or hereditary—it is perfectly immaterial what is his character—we shall be slaves. It is not an elective government which will preserve us.
The continuing relevance of that hard truth to our age is sufficiently illustrated by the ruin of the constitutions of most of the world at the close of the twentieth century. Yet men in high political office continue to preach “one man, one vote” democracy as if it were a cure for all the ills to which flesh is heir.
T.S. Eliot reminds us that we cannot follow an antique drum to some fancied Zion of the past. But neither should we follow an electronic fife to some delusory Zion of the future. It is the admonitions of such as John Randolph that help to dissuade us from the latter course; but these farseeing partisans of order and justice and freedom are not readily encountered in our time of troubles; while the ideologue, thinking in slogans and talking in bullets, conducts us toward the Terrestrial Hell on the pretense that it is the Terrestrial Paradise.
Randolph’s Tertium Quids, or Old Republicans, were no ideologues. Early in 1813, Randolph told the House of Representatives what the Republican party previously had stood for, and what he and the other Tertium Quids still maintained:
Is it necessary for men at this time of day to make a declaration of the principles of the Republican party? Is it possible that such a declaration could be deemed orthodox when proceeding from lips so unholy as those of an ex-communicant from that church? It is not necessary. These principles are on record; they are engraved upon it indelibly by the press and will live as long as the art of printing is suffered to exist. It is not for any man at this day to undertake to change them; it is not for any men, who then professed them, by any guise or circumspection, to conceal apostasy from them, for they are there—there in the book…. What are they? Love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealousy 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; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy, of the patronage of the President.
Such principles are not altogether outmoded. Yet quite beyond yesteryear’s or today’s political controversies, what Randolph of Roanoke gives us is a high example of political courage and candor, never obsolete.