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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’s most singular achievement, however, and one that aroused Jefferson’s fullest pleasure and gratitude, was his promotion of the Louisiana Purchase. Congressional approval and financial support of the transaction was vital; and masterfully Randolph guided the several necessary legislative enactments through the Ways and Means Commitee and around the reefs of partisan discussion on the House floor. In the later stages of the diplomatic negotiations, Napoleon began reconsidering the wisdom of the sale, plunging Jefferson and his aides into the depths of anxiety. Speed became a precious commodity, and Randolph kept the legislative machinery churning.
In backing the great purchase, Randolph was also the good soldier, serving a cause that he placed even above his conscience. Committed to a strict construction of the Constitution, to the inviolability of states’ rights, and to the permanent limitation of the number of states in the Union to the original thirteen, he nevertheless supported the treaty, though it violated all three of these basic tenets.
Randolph’s successes were the result of three great assets: his sure grip on the mass of legislative facts and figures, his powerful array of friends well placed in House positions, and his pre-eminence in debate. Washington Irving did not exaggerate when he said, “There is no speaker in either House that excites such universal attention as Jack Randoph.” The excitement would begin upon his entrance on the House floor. To heighten the attention, he invariably arrived late, after the business had begun. In he would stride, booted and spurred, whip in hand—a perfect imitation, his critics said, of the British Member of Parliament. But the great sensation was caused by the dogs, usually one or two of his favorite pointers, that accompanied their swaggering master. As he opened the door of the House, in the dogs would rush, running in all directions and thrusting their noses among the members.
When he began to speak, it was in a style as individual as his personality. Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts called it “elevated conversation,” for Randolph did not prepare his speeches but developed them on the impulse of the moment, which gave them an element of discursiveness. He was master of the telling phrase, the numbing sarcasm, the suggestive pause; his discourse was an arresting combination of common sense and classical oratory. He could sink the Navy with a single phrase—”a moth in the public purse,” he called it. He could bring spendthrift colleagues up short by reminding them that they were indulging in “the most delicious of privileges—spending other people’s money.” His colleagues Robert Wright and John Rea (pronounced Ray), were sheer anomalies, he said: “A Wright always wrong; and a Rea without light.” One day Congressman Philemon Beecher of Ohio tried to cut Randolph off by recourse to a parliamentary device. Randoph rose to the challenge magnificently. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “in the Netherlands a man of small capacity, with bits of wood and leather, will, in a few moments, construct a toy that, with the pressure of the finger and thumb, will cry ‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’ With less of ingenuity, and with inferior materials, the people of Ohio made a toy that will, without much pressure, cry, ‘Previous question, Mr. Speaker! Previous question, Mr. Speaker!’ ”
But the most potent ingredient in Randolph’s rise was the warm approval of Thomas Jefferson. The lengthening skein of Republican victories prompted the President to observe that the party’s legislative majority was working “very smoothly” and “harmoniously.” But there were flaws that could lead to trouble. However generous Randolph was toward Jefferson in supporting the Louisiana Purchase, toward his legislative colleagues he was sometimes lacking in the arts of accommodation and compromise, the politician’s everyday tools. Jefferson himself was well aware of the failing.
Randolph could alienate not only congressmen of the opposing party, but those of his own as well. He was quick to mete out the insult and the jugular thrust. Pointing to one offender, he imperiously ordered him not only to quiet down, but to leave the House at once—and by the back stairs. He let fly incendiary insults not merely at individual members, but at whole groups at once. After a sharp argument with three tenacious opponents he declared, borrowing from William Shakespeare, “The little dogs and all,/Trey, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see they bark at me.” As he mentioned each dog, Randolph pointed his bony finger at one of his tormentors.