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Stranger Than Fiction

A vivid -- and timely -- portrait of John Randolph of Roanoke.

By 5.11.12

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John Randolph of Roanoke
By David Johnson

(LSU Press, 343 pages, $45 hardcover, $38 epub)

Russell Kirk described John Randolph (1773-1833) as "the most singular great man in American history," an eccentric of "poetic fancy and wild temper… who lived like a knight-errant." In The Conservative Mind, Kirk paired Randolph with John C. Calhoun as architects of Southern Conservatism and the intellectual heirs to Edmund Burke. Their political views were rooted in the agrarian South and they possessed -- to paraphrase Victor Davis Hanson -- the chauvinism that comes from having both feet firmly planted in ancestral ground. Kirk's John Randolph of Roanoke concentrated on Randolph's principles and was biographical only to the extent necessary to amplify his political ideals, an omission Kirk readily acknowledged.

David Johnson has filled this gap with a meticulously researched and sympathetic, but objective, biography that merges the personal and political Randolph in a way that enhances both. William Faulkner could not have conceived a more faceted character. Randolph was, as Johnson notes, "a walking adjective" variously portrayed by contemporaries as a "flowing gargoyle of vituperation," "pale, meager, ghostly," "grotesque" and a "phenomenon amongst men." Hypersensitivity was obviously not the order of the day.

Randolph's oddly formed body, likely due to a genetic aberration (Klinefelter syndrome), invited such descriptions. His high pitched voice gave his acerbic wit a particularly cutting edge. He suffered badly from a number of maladies and resorted to then accepted medications -- magnesia, mercury, alcohol, morphine and opium -- which animated his native eccentricities. His speeches and actions demonstrated superior intellect, profound literacy, and, on occasion, simply being high. Peeling through the layers of myth surrounding Randolph was no small task for a biographer.

Randolph, at age 29, entered the political stage in the crisis precipitated by Alien and Sedition Acts. During his run for a seat in the 6th Congress, Randolph's speech followed that of the legendary Patrick Henry who, at age 63, was seeking return to Virginia's House of Delegates. George Washington had encouraged Henry to run, hoping that his voice would mitigate the controversy enflamed by James Madison's and Thomas Jefferson's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The party schism so feared by Washington was clearly evident.

Both were both elected, but Henry died before returning to Richmond. Their joint appearance neatly framed the generational change taking place at the turn of the century. In his willingness to aid the Federalists, Henry -- the great voice of the Revolution -- had arguably gone wobbly. From that point forward and for the remainder of his life, Randolph considered himself the champion of republican liberty and defender of the true Spirit of '76. He viewed the politics of interest and party as antithetical to liberty and never backed down.

"I am aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality." This is perhaps Randolph's most quotable pronouncement and made by the very definition of First Family of Virginia. He was a descendant of Pocahontas, and of William and Mary Isham Randolph, known to genealogists as Virginia's Adam & Eve. He counted among his many cousins Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. His widowed mother's marriage to St. George Tucker brought other connections. This heritage permitted a disregard of convention and the ability to act with independence. His relationship with extended family was complex, and Johnson suggests that Jefferson and Randolph each possessed a "style and temperament that bore little resemblance to that displayed by kinsmen."

The liberty advocated by Randolph was not that of Jefferson. Liberty without order is chaos, and while all may have been created equal, individual nature and stark reality guaranteed inequality. Randolph's was, according to Johnson, "an aristocracy of cultured and civilized citizens who respected tradition, defended established institutions, and adhered to duty." A dedication to the common good and devotion to republican principles separated Virginia's aristocracy from hereditary tyrants. Randolph found Edmund Burke "an intellectual banquet of the richest rewards," though Johnson points out that his reading of Burke took place in 1814, and so merely confirmed those values Randolph already held dear.

Randolph served in both houses of Congress and was involved in most of the major issues of the first third of the 19th century, from the Yazoo land controversy to the Embargo Act to the Bank of the United States to the Missouri Compromise. He was the prosecutor for the impeachment of Samuel Chase, indicter of Aaron Burr, supported and then split with Jefferson, duelist with Henry Clay, and had little use for either Madison or Calhoun. He did retain a small cadre of friends and close relations and, except for one election, held the loyalty of his constituency of freeholders.

Randolph was turned out of office only once, due to his opposition to the War of 1812. He spoke of his fellow Congressmen becoming "infatuated with standing armies, loans, taxes, navies and war," asking rhetorically "What Republicanism is this?" Ultimately he had little use for either political party, confessing to being an "irreclaimable heretic." Johnson writes:

He had at long last become a party unto himself, a republican purist who would sacrifice no principle for political success or collegial acceptance. He was the "third something" of American politics -- a Tertium Quid.

A faction of one, Randolph spared no vitriol in denouncing the foes of liberty in any of "their forms: tyranny, cant, idolatry, abstract theories, party hacks, placeholders, and the whirl of change," as Johnson puts it. Conciliation, accommodation, and the middle ground were unknown territories to Randolph. The pompous, posturing and preening politician enjoyed no quarter from Randolph, as he famously commented that Edward Livingston was "a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like a rotten mackerel by moonlight."

"Change is not reform" and "the lust of innovation has been the death of all republics." Randolph's last great public appearance in his beloved Virginia was during the Constitutional Convention of 1829. Joined by a host of luminaries -- Madison, Monroe and Marshall in attendance -- Randolph faced a final narrow defeat. The forces of democracy and seemingly unlimited expansion sweeping the nation were no less present in the Commonwealth. Population disparity in legislative districts motivated the reformers, though Randolph warned against the idea that "numbers, and numbers alone, are to regulate all things in political society." To him, deference to tradition and established order was far better than living under "King Numbers."

The principled and disinterested aristocrat, who spoke his mind without regard for the consequences, harkens to another age. Today's flaccid political discourse is reduced to debating who will best preserve the petty public sinecures of individual constituents. Randolph reminds us that when republican liberty yields to democratic impulses, the result is centralized power and spendthrift government. Maybe David Johnson's restoration of John Randolph to the public sphere is timely, after all. 

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About the Author

Thomas M. Moncure Jr. is University Counsel for George Mason University.