The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

Randolph, John
Russell Kirk - 03/26/12
Lifespan: (1773–1833)

Virginian political leader and orator John Randolph of Roanoke entered public life as a radical and ended his career as a conservative. First in the federal House of Representatives and later in the Senate, he opposed the administration of every president of the United States from John Adams through Andrew Jackson.

Descended from two great Virginian families, the Randolphs and the Blands, the young Randolph, restless and talented, entered politics as a passionate opponent of the Federalists. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1799, he became the majority leader in the House during Jefferson’s first administration and continued to dominate the House even after he fell out with members of Jefferson’s cabinet and with President Jefferson himself. His opposition to the purchase of Florida and to settlement of the Yazoo land claims out of federal funds presently led him to become the leader of the faction in Congress called the “Old Republicans” or “Tertium Quids,” beginning in 1806; he and his allies, chiefly members of Congress from Virginia and North Carolina, set themselves against the “War Hawks” and the War of 1812. They held by strict construction of the Constitution, reproaching the “Virginia Dynasty” presidents for straying from that doctrine.

Aristocratic, fearless, a brilliant speaker, a remorseless adversary of corruption, Randolph in practical politics was a champion of the rural interest and of the society of the Southern states. He began his political career as a self-proclaimed ami des noirs and opponent of chattel slavery; he was active in the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and in attempts to settle free blacks in Africa; at the end of his life he bequeathed all his property to his slaves (whom he had inherited, together with his plantation of Roanoke, in southern Virginia), attempting to settle them in the free state of Ohio. As political pressure from the Northern abolitionists upon the South increased, however, he resisted with his sardonic eloquence the increasing political power of the North. The national controversy over statehood for Missouri, nationalist plans for “internal improvements” at federal expense, and his opposition to Henry Clay’s “Panama Mission” designs brought Randolph increased popularity as a sectional leader during the 1820s. Although Randolph mordantly criticized Vice President John C. Calhoun during Randolph’s year (1826) in the Senate, the Virginian’s speeches powerfully influenced Calhoun’s later political convictions and conduct. In that sense, Randolph was a forerunner of Southern nationalism; but his allegiance lifelong was rather the Old Dominion of Virginia. Occasionally he found political allies in New England and New York.

An ardent Anglican during his mature years, and strongly attached to the Virginia of yesteryear, Randolph looked with foreboding upon the westward expansion of the United States, saying that no government which should extend from Atlantic to Pacific would be fit to govern him. At the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–30, he denounced “King Numbers,” the notion of one man, one vote. He was the most conspicuous delegate to that convention, though many Virginians of mark were present; and on the floor he expressed memorably the conservative understanding of politics—which he had acquired, in part, from the study of Edmund Burke. Here he is on one proposal of the innovators at the convention:

Mr. Randolph said, that he should vote against the amendment, and that on a principle which he had learned before he came into public life; and by which he had been governed during the whole course of his life, that it was always unwise—yes, highly unwise—to disturb a thing that was at rest. This was a great cardinal principle that should govern all wise statesmen—never without the strongest necessity to disturb that which was at rest.

Unmarried, living solitary much of each year at his Roanoke plantation in a cabin, he was loved by some and feared by many. He made three trips to England, and from May 1830 to the autumn of 1831 was American minister to the Court of St. Petersburg. Possessing what was said to be the finest library in Virginia, he was an omnivorous reader (intimately familiar with the collections of the Library of Congress) and a master of English prose style. His Letters to a Young Relative, published at Philadelphia the year after his death, illustrate both his literary talents and the complexity of his character. “They will never love where they ought to love,” Edmund Burke had written, “who do not hate where they ought to hate”: Randolph both loved and hated earnestly. He fought at least two duels (one with Henry Clay, a combat memorably recorded by Senator Thomas Hart Benton); also he was capable of compassion and generosity.

Further Reading
  • Kirk, Russell. John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics, with Selected Speeches and Letters. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1978.
  • Randolph, John. Collected Letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812-1833. Edited by Kenneth Shorey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1988.
  • Risjord, Norman K. The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
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