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"Consensus Politics,” 1800–1805
The idea goes back to the very beginnings of our national history. Then as now, it was built upon human relationships, and these—as Mr. Jefferson found to his sorrow—make a fragile foundation.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
We hear a great deal these days, during an intensely political Presidency, about “consensus politics,” but it is no novelty of modern times. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Thomas Jefferson was its inventor and master practitioner. Time has all but canonized this Founding Father, so that few associate him with either guile, ruthlessness, or skill in political maneuver. Yet he had all three, and he knew how to use them.
Jefferson founded the Democratic party upon the base of an alliance between the Virginia planters and New York’s professional politicians, a partnership affording accommodation between the rival sectional giants, the North and the South. He lured members of the opposition Federalist party in droves into his own Democratic-Republican party. “We are all republicans—we are all federalists,” he declared in his first inaugural, and took as his own the financial system of the Federalist hero, Alexander Hamilton. Business prospered; the Louisiana Purchase was enormously popular; the country kept out of the widening Napoleonic wars. Jefferson was overwhelmingly re-elected, with the Federalists offering only token resistance.
The sunny landscape of Jeffersonian consensus had its squalls and storms, but most of them passed. One that would not blow over was the lashing opposition of Jefferson’s former political partner, John Randolph. For the first five years of the administration, Randolph was Jefferson’s able floor leader in the House of Representatives, manager of the President’s abundant list of successes in the Congress. To that list Randolph contributed as much as anyone save Jefferson himself and his first lieutenant, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Then, in the high season of their co-operation, Jefferson and Randolph cooled toward one another, and soon were embroiled in a titanic struggle. By every means at his command the President sought not merely to depose Randolph from his majority leadership but to remove him from political life altogether. This sudden disunity within Republican ranks was exacerbated by growing Federalist discontent over Jefferson’s foreign policy, and his administration ended on a note of anticlimax; the era of good feeling, which Jefferson’s consensus politics had earned for his administration, was postponed to another Presidency.
John Randolph was a man possessed by many furies. For sheer lacerating effectiveness, his invective, a clue to his inner turmoil, remains unexcelled in American politics. “He is a man of splendid abilities,” he once said of Edward Livingston, “but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.” Randolph could provoke a similar black eloquence in those he flayed. “Randolph,” wrote his enemy John Quincy Adams, “is the image and superscription of a great man stamped upon base metal. His mind is a jumble of sense, wit, and absurdity.”
Randolph’s life was a tissue of contradictions. Although he devoted his years to politics, he despised it as one of the baser trades. It tends, he said, “to bring forward low and little men, to the exclusion of the more worthy.” There were always only two parties, the “ins” and the “outs,” one gorging on patronage and wealth, the other striving to.
Randolph, carrier of demons, was the scion of one of Virginia’s oldest and most illustrious families; its traditional avocation was politics and its ancestry could be traced through Pocahontas to the red-skinned emperor Powhatan. Thanks to relentless intermarriage among Virginia’s first families and to Randolphian fertility, John possessed an enormous and eminent local cousinry that included such lights as John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson himself. By the eighteenth century, the Randolphs were so numerous, an English visitor noted, “that they are obliged, like the clans of Scotland, to be distinguished by their places of residence.” John styled himself “John Randolph of Roanoke,” the estate on which he eventually settled.
He was born June 2, 1773, in Prince George County, on a family estate overlooking the confluence of the Appomattox and the James. Of his father, also named John, little is known; he died before the boy was three. Fittingly, the elder Randolph had adopted as the family motto Nil admirari (“Wonder at nothing”), to which the son added, aptly enough, Fari quae sentias (“Do what you feel”).