There was a time in the political history of the United States when men stood for principle, even when it meant breaking from their pals and their party. One of the men once most recognized for his steadfast refusal to retreat from republican values today has been all but forgotten. His name was John Randolph of Roanoke.
So staunchly conservative was Randolph that he has been described as an enemy of both Thomas Jefferson — of whom he was once the most ardent ally — and John Adams. This was the essence of John Randolph: He was possessed of a fierce Southern spirit that would brook no centralization of power that would encroach upon his plantation. In defiance of the stereotype, however, he was a cosmopolitan bon vivant who displayed in his writings and his speeches an unparalleled fluency in the language of prose and poesy.
Randolph was born in 1773 in Virginia, and as such is too young to be counted among the generation grouped together as Founding Fathers. He knew many of those luminaries and regularly ran in the same circles, but he was not one of them. He was a man whose adult life and contributions fell between two eras: the era of the War for Independence and the era of the Civil War. Randolph grew up under the Constitution of the late 1780s and died during the constitutional crisis of the late 1830s. As such, his words and deeds are of extraordinary interest to Americans anxious to understand how we got to a place in our contemporary history where the country seems once again to be straining at the seams.
According to Russell Kirk’s biographical sketch of John Randolph, he was the scion of a prominent Virginia family and was stricken in his late teens with a disease that left him impotent for the rest of his days. Kirk, quoting an unpublished thesis written by William E. Stokes, Jr., reckons that it was probably scarlet fever.
Regardless of whether or not it was, it apparently affected not only Randolph’s body but also his personality, one already “proud, acutely sensitive, and animated by a darting passion,” leaving the young man given to gaps in his reason that lasted months. As Kirk points out, though, even during these periods of irrationality, Randolph retained “not only his eloquence, but a sardonic political realism.” It is this political tenacity that alternately enraged and enthralled all who rotated in Randolph’s personal and political orbit.
After Randolph died, one of his relatives wrote a poignant summary of his elder cousin’s inscrutable nature:
The truth and beauty of the eastern allegory, of the man endowed with two souls, was never more forcibly exemplified than in his case. In his dark days, when the evil genius predominated, the austere vindictiveness of his feelings toward those that a distempered fancy pictured as enemies, or as delinquent in truth or honor, was horribly severe and remorseless.
Under such circumstances of mental alienation, I sincerely believe (if it may not appear irreverent) that had