John Randolph of Roanoke

John Randolph of Roanoke
John Randolph of Roanoke
Randolph as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
8th United States Minister to Russia
In office
May 26, 1830 – September 19, 1830
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by Henry Middleton
Succeeded by James Buchanan
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
December 26, 1825 – March 4, 1827
Preceded by James Barbour
Succeeded by John Tyler
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1833 – May 24, 1833
Preceded by Thomas T. Bouldin
Succeeded by Thomas T. Bouldin
In office
March 4, 1827 – March 4, 1829
Preceded by George W. Crump
Succeeded by Thomas T. Bouldin
In office
March 4, 1823 – December 26, 1825
Preceded by John Floyd
Succeeded by George W. Crump
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 16th district
In office
March 4, 1819 – March 4, 1823
Preceded by Archibald Austin
Succeeded by James Stephenson
In office
March 4, 1815 – March 4, 1817
Preceded by John W. Eppes
Succeeded by Archibald Austin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 15th district
In office
March 4, 1803 – March 4, 1813
Preceded by John Dawson
Succeeded by John Kerr
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 7th district
In office
March 4, 1799 – March 4, 1803
Preceded by Abraham B. Venable
Succeeded by Joseph Lewis, Jr.
Personal details
Born June 2, 1773(1773-06-02)
Cawsons, Virginia
Died May 24, 1833(1833-05-24) (aged 59)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Political party Democratic-Republican
Profession Planter
Religion Episcopalian
Gilbert Stuart painting of a youthful Randolph

John Randolph (June 2, 1773 – May 24, 1833), known as John Randolph of Roanoke,[1] 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[citation needed]. 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.[2][3] 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.

Autographed portrait of John Randolph

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.”[4] 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."[5]

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.[6]

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."[7] 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.[7] He provided for the manumission of hundreds of slaves in his will.[8] Although the will was challenged in the courts, his slaves were finally ruled to be free.[9] 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.[10] (See List of ghost towns in the United States).


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.[11] 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."[11]


"We all know our duty better than we discharge it."

"I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality."[12]

"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


See also


  • Randolph, John. Letters of John Randolph, to a Young Relative, 1834, 254 pp. (Available online.)
  • Randolph, John. Collected letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812–1833, edited by Kenneth Shorey; foreword by Russell Kirk, Transaction Books, 1988. ISBN 0-88738-194-4


  1. ^ Roanoke refers to Roanoke Plantation in Charlotte County, Virginia, not to the city of the same name.
  2. ^ Page, Richard Channing Moore (1893) "Randolph Family" Genealogy of the Page Family in Virginia (2 ed.) New York: Press of the Publishers Printing Co. pp. 249–272 
  3. ^ Glenn, Thomas Allen, ed. (1898) "The Randolphs: Randolph Genealogy" Some Colonial Mansions: And Those Who Lived In Them : With Genealogies Of The Various Families Mentioned 1 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Henry T. Coates & Company pp. 430–459 
  4. ^ McCarthy, Daniel (2008-05-05) Fewer Bases, More Baseball, The American Conservative
  5. ^ Borneman, Walter R., Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York: Random House, 2008 ISBN 978-1-4000-6560-8. p. 25
  6. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, p. 81
  7. ^ a b David Lodge, "John Randolph and His Slaves", Shelby County History, 1998, accessed 15 March 2011
  8. ^ Peter Finkelman, "Thomas Jefferson and Anti-Slavery: The Myth Goes On", Virginia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 102, No. 2 (April 1994), p. 222, accessed 14 March 2011
  9. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Randolph, John". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  10. ^ David Lodge, "Randolph Slaves Come to Ohio", Untitled article, Cincinnati Gazette, 2 July 1846, at Shelby County History, 1998, accessed 15 March 2011
  11. ^ a b Garland, Hugh A. (1874). "IX: Conversion". The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke. II (13th ed.). New York: D. Appleton and Co.. pp. 94–104. 
  12. ^ Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953), p. 130.


  • Adams, Henry. John Randolph (1882); New Edition with Primary Documents and Introduction by Robert McColley, 1996, ISBN 1-56324-653-8; negative assessment. (Available online.)
  • Bruce, William Cabell. John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773–1833; a biography based largely on new material, in 2 volumes; New York, London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1922 (2nd revised edition in 1 volume 1939, reprinted New York, Octagon Books, 1970); exhaustive details. (Available online: Vol. I, Vol. II.)
  • Dawidoff, Robert. The Education of John Randolph, New York: Norton, 1979. ISBN 0-393-01242-5
  • Devanny, John F., Jr. "'A Loathing of Public Debt, Taxes, and Excises': The Political Economy of John Randolph of Roanoke," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2001 109(4): pp 387–416.
  • Garland, Hugh A. The Life of John Randolph of Roanoke; New York: Appleton & Company, 1851. (Available online: Vol. I, Vol. II.)
  • Johnson, Gerald W. Randolph of Roanoke: a Political Fantastic New York: Minton, Balch & Co., 1929
  • Kauffman, Bill. Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, Metropolitan, 2008.
  • Kirk, Russell. Randolph of Roanoke; a study in conservative thought, (1951), 186 pp. Short essay; recent editions include many letters. (Available online.)
  • John Randolph of Roanoke: a study in American politics, with selected speeches and letters, 4th ed., Indianapolis, IN : Liberty Fund, 1997, 588 pp. ISBN 0-86597-150-1; focus on JR's political philosophy
  • Risjord, Norman K. The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson (1965); the standard history of the Randolph faction.
  • Tate, Adam L. "Republicanism and Society: John Randolph of Roanoke, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and the Quest for Social Order." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2003 111(3): 263–298.
  • Weaver, Richard M. "Two Types of American Individualism," Modern Age 1963 7(2): 119-134; compares Randolph with Henry David Thoreau online edition

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Abraham B. Venable
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 7th congressional district

March 4, 1799 – March 4, 1803
Succeeded by
Joseph Lewis, Jr.
Preceded by
John Dawson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 15th congressional district

March 4, 1803 – March 4, 1813
Succeeded by
John Kerr
Preceded by
John W. Eppes
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 16th congressional district

March 4, 1815 – March 4, 1817
Succeeded by
Archibald Austin
Preceded by
Archibald Austin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 16th congressional district

March 4, 1819 – March 4, 1823
Succeeded by
James Stephenson
Preceded by
John Floyd
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1823 – December 26, 1825
Succeeded by
George W. Crump
Preceded by
George W. Crump
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1827 – March 4, 1829
Succeeded by
Thomas T. Bouldin
Preceded by
Thomas T. Bouldin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1833 – May 24, 1833
Succeeded by
Thomas T. Bouldin
United States Senate
Preceded by
James Barbour
United States Senator (Class 1) from Virginia
December 26, 1825 – March 4, 1827
Served alongside: Littleton W. Tazewell
Succeeded by
John Tyler
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Henry Middleton
United States Ambassador to Russia
May 26, 1830 – September 19, 1830
Succeeded by
James Buchanan

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