- Historic Sites
"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
John’s mother, Frances Bland, was also of good family, and after the death of John’s father she married St. George Tucker, Revolutionary War hero and future federal judge. She died at the age of thirty-five, when John was only fourteen, but in their few years together she exerted a powerful influence over her son. She superintended his religious upbringing and taught him to read so well that by his eleventh year he could engross himself in Plutarch’s Lives, Pope’s Homer, Voltaire’s Charles XII, and Shakespeare. “Only one human being ever knew me,” John once exclaimed. “She only knew me.”
Wrenched from his mother’s tutelage, John made a tormented peregrination from one school and college to another, including stops at Princeton and Columbia. In his own eyes, at least, the results were meager. “Except the Latin and Greek grammar,” he said, “I never learnt anything at school, or college, whatever.” At Princeton, where he set his heart on winning an elocution contest, he lost to “mouthers and ranters,” which brought him to despise “the award and the umpires in the bottom of my heart.” “I believe,” he concluded, “that there is nowhere such foul play as among professors and schoolmasters.”
In 1790, John briefly read law with his cousin Edmund Randolph, Washington’s Attorney General, and dabbled in medicine. While shopping among the professions, he felt the nibblings of an interest in public affairs. Cousin Edmund provided access to the Washington administration, and an uncle, Congressman Theodorick Bland, nurtured John on a diet of Antifederalism, which cherished local liberty and distrusted central power.
Still pondering his future, Randolph returned to southern Virginia to manage his inherited estate at Roanoke, in Charlotte County on the willow-fringed Staunton River. Roanoke was in the heart of a thickly forested country, one hundred miles from Richmond, the nearest town of any size, and twelve from the post office at Charlotte Court House. “In the heart of Africa,” Randolph once complained, “I could hardly be more removed from society than where I am.” The forest reached to his door. The trees were unpruned, for to cut a branch or twig, Randolph believed, was an offense against nature. The climate, especially oppressive in the long summer months, he likened to “Milton’s description of hell.”
Roanoke had no mistress, for Randolph never married, probably because of an endocrine imbalance that manifested itself in his high-pitched, almost feminine voice and his beardless face. At Roanoke, he raised tobacco and corn, hunted and fished, read fine literature, and maintained a circle of friends chiefly from among the Virginia gentry. At his best, he could be brilliantly entertaining. One of his close friends remembered warmly an evening of Randolph’s “copious wit and classic allusion—a perfect scattering of the diamonds of the mind.”
Roanoke’s isolation engrossed its master in concern for his health, to the point of hypochondria. He passed not a day, he said, “without pain or disquietude.” Once when asked how he felt, he answered, “Dying, sir, dying. This continent was not made for the white man, but the red man.” Among his complaints he listed raw nerves, gout, diarrhea, a “church-yard cough,” and “a general decay of the whole system.” Insomnia was a constant scourge. Guests at Roanoke came to learn that sitting up most of the night was a price of their visit. One houseguest, the author James Bouldin, retired late one night, only to be aroused suddenly a few hours later. It was Randolph, up and about, straightening his books and singing in his high voice:
In 1799, driven by the importunities of friends, as well as by family tradition, personal inclination, and a desire to escape the confinements of plantation life, Randolph agreed to stand as an Antifederalist candidate for Congress. Patrick Henry, peerless orator of Virginia and now a Federalist, was imported to debate against him. An anxious citizen asked Creed Taylor, Randolph’s friend and sponsor, if he didn’t intend “to appear for that young man today.” “Never mind,” Taylor replied, “he can take care of himself.” The confidence was not misplaced. Young Randolph’s wit and fluency sustained him and assured his election. In 1799, at the age of twenty-six, he appeared for induction into the House of Representatives. The Speaker, Theodore Sedgwick, was so struck by the youthfulness of the tall, pale, meager ghost who had walked into his presence that he was moved to ask Randolph if he was old enough to be eligible. “Ask my constituents,” Randolph snapped, and raised his hand to take the oath.