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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
Randolph quickly acquired a status far above that of the ordinary freshman congressman. His illustrious name, his reputation for forensic talent, and a fastbuilding friendship with the House Republican leader, Albert Gallatin, quickly elevated him to a privileged place in the inner councils of his party. The kindly, aristocratic Swiss admired the Virginian’s abilities, and the trust which grew between them was cemented by the enjoyment of each other’s company in the capital’s sparse social life, which Randolph with some justification likened to that of a garrison in Siberia. And when cousin Thomas Jefferson became President, the friendship assumed special importance. Gallatin, the newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, meant to be more than a finance minister. Like his illustrious predecessor, Alexander Hamilton, he intended to be a legislative leader whose domain was the general sweep of policy. In young Randolph he saw the instrument of that ambition in the House of Representatives.
Equally important in Randolph’s rise was Sedgwick’s successor as Speaker, Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina. A rural, economy-minded, states’-rights Republican, Macon too was a friend of Randolph’s, indeed one of the few who ever invoked the unstinting praise of that severe judge of men. Macon, Randolph came to say, was “the best and purest, and wisest man I ever knew.” Randolph managed Macon’s campaign for the speakership, and the new Speaker acknowledged his gratitude by appointing his friend to the second most powerful and coveted post in the House: chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. The elevation of Macon and Randolph was known to be unwelcome to Jefferson, who doubtless suspected that these southern colleagues would prove too restrictive in their view of the central government’s power.
In those days the chairmanship of Ways and Means was equal to the modern-day post of majority leader. The chairman was the administration’s chief manager and advocate in the House, his pre-eminence stemming from the unique breadth of the committee’s charge—“to take into consideration all such reports of the Treasury Department as may be referred to them by the House; to inquire into the state of the public debt, of the revenue and of the expenditures; and to report from time to time their opinions thereon.” A Secretary of the Treasury as ambitious as Albert Gallatin would be sure to provide the committee with so much business that its influence would continue to be unsurpassed.
Although Macon and Randolph were not Jefferson’s choices, they discharged their new duties with impeccable loyalty to the administration. Randolph was the efficient and unfaltering champion of its legislation. He promptly established himself in the administration’s graces by guiding through the House one of its most cherished projects, a bill providing for the abolition of “the midnight judges,” a quantity of district judges, all good Federalists, appointed by the outgoing administration of John Adams. The judges not only held jobs that were rightfully Republican plums; from the bench they could assert Federalist doctrine against the Republican administration (see “Marbury v. Madison: The Case of the ‘Missing’ Commissions” in the June, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Randolph, who could not bear judges and lawyers anyway, led the fight. The nation, he once remarked, was perpetually harassed by the “ad seriatim opinions” of “armies of judges … hammering at the fundamental law.”
Randolph also fashioned a series of triumphs for the Republican principles of minimum government and strict construction of the Constitution. Happily, these coincided with the articles of his own political faith. He put through a reorganization of the military, resulting in a cutback of the naval program: Republicans held commerce in low esteem and viewed the Navy as a Federalist device for defending it. Any reduction in the armed forces enlisted Randolph’s own complete enthusiasm, for he took an incurably jaundiced view of them. He objected to “maintaining idlers … out of the proceeds of my property … I never see one of those useless drones in livery crawling on the face of the earth that my gorge does not rise—that I do not feel sick.”
Randolph delivered on another key plank in Jefferson’s platform by overseeing legislation abolishing internal taxes, including the tax on whiskey; this gladdened the hearts of the back-country farmers, pillars of Republican strength. Intertwined with tax reduction was a reduction in political patronage, another Jeffersonian pledge. That fewer taxes meant fewer tax collectors deeply delighted Randolph. Office-holding and patronage were high on his list of loathings. Patronage—the knowledge “that with one bone I can call 500 dogs”—repelled him, for he felt that the power of making appointments to public office had a tendency “to debauch the nation, and to create a low, dirty, time-serving spirit.”