"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 ready truculence was to some extent a psychological compensation for his effeminacy. By communicating irritability, he asserted a kind of strength that was at least a partial substitute for masculinity. Legislative colleagues perceived that there were actually two John Randolphs. “At times,” wrote Elijah H. Mills of Massachusetts, “he is the most entertaining and amusing man alive, with manners the most pleasant and agreeable; and at other times, he is sour, morose, crabbed, ill-natured and sarcastic, rude in manners and repulsive to everybody.” Randolph’s fiercest moments came on those occasions when he felt called upon to expose moral weakness. It was as if by proving his moral superiority over others he could cover up his own physical deficiency. “We are so full of the ass’s milk of human kindness,” he once wrote, “that we shall soon learn to speak of Judas Iscariot as an unfortunate man.” When John Quincy Adams, who had been elected President with Henry Clay’s indispensable support, appointed Clay Secretary of State, there was muttering of a bargain. Randolph memorably articulated this sentiment when he denounced what he called “the coalition of Blifil and Black George,” a combination “of the puritan with the blackleg.”
Randolph’s effeminacy may also have deepened his devotion to the code of gentlemanly honor, for that too was a badge of manliness. He was an ever-ready duellist. His comment on Clay, for example, led to a challenge. Both men missed on the first shot; on the second, Clay missed again, and the Virginian fired away from his opponent, an act that was both a physical and a moral triumph. In his time, Randolph challenged Daniel Webster, who declined; engagements with two fellow legislators were narrowly averted.
But Randolph’s truculence proved, at least during Jefferson’s first term, no substantial liability to his effectiveness as legislative leader. The administration’s circumstances were far too favorable to be injured by the occasional lapses of a lieutenant: its legislative enterprises were widely appealing, the Republican majority in the House was large, and John Randolph’s positive qualities overshadowed the negative.
If a graph were drawn of Randolph’s relative status in the esteem of Jefferson over the eight presidential years, the high point would coincide with the Louisiana Purchase and its radiant afterglow. His descent from grace, which began in 1805, had all the proportions of a plunge. Its impetus was Randolph’s bumbling management of the impeachment trial of Associate Justice Samuel Chase of the United States Supreme Court.
The judiciary was the last stronghold of the waning Federalist party, of which Chase was a staunch supporter. In a charge to a federal grand jury in Baltimore—Supreme Court justices then heard cases in lower federal courts—Chase particularly incensed Republicans by declaring the Jefferson administration to be, among other things, “weak, relaxed and not adequate to a discharge of their functions”; he added that “their acts flowed not from a wish for the happiness of the people but for a continuance in unfairly acquired power.” The Republican press erupted with indignation. So did Jefferson. “Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution and on the proceedings of the State to go unpunished?” he asked Congressman Joseph Nicholson, Randolph’s right-hand man on the Ways and Means Committee. Leading Republican legislators conferred at once upon the impeachment of Chase.
Randolph was at their head, and it was he who undertook to present the case against Chase to the Senate, sitting in trial of the impeachment. The defense was entrusted to a formidable battery of lawyers led by the eminent Luther Martin. On the appointed day—January 3, 1805—before an expectant Senate and packed galleries, the trial began.
Randolph’s effort was something less than distinguished. His argument was desultory. He branched off upon lengthy diatribes against persons having no connection with the trial, and complained continuously of having lost his notes. He insulted one senatorial judge, John Quincy Adams, by indulging in a long passage of gratuitous abuse of his father. He burned the ears of the presiding officer, Vice President Aaron Burr, then under indictment after his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton, with an extended digression on the subject of murder. Interspersed with these flights was a quantity of groans, tears, and sobs punctuated occasionally by painful pauses for recollection. Upon concluding, Randolph sat down, put his feet upon the table and, in the opinion of William Plumer, Federalist Senator of New Hampshire, “distorted his features & assumed an appearance as disgusting as his harangue.” As the trial proceeded, Randolph did not improve and was shown up badly by the deft footwork of Chase’s brilliant counsel. Randolph was not a lawyer and, although he excelled at debating the principles of legislative questions, his habit of not preparing beforehand and his tendency toward discursiveness now served him ill. The case against Chase, irrespective of the quality of its advocacy, was flimsy. Chase was a good judge, and his indulgence in political commentary from the bench—the basis of the charges against him—was an old American judicial habit. Above all, Federalist strength in the Senate assured Chase’s ultimate acquittal.