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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 went on to embarrass Jefferson by dragging his scheme out of the shadows of secrecy into the light of public discussion. House rules forbade disclosure of business transacted—like the Florida question—in a committee’s executive session. But Randolph, in speeches and under the pretext of correcting the Journal, hinted broadly at what was going on. Despite Randolph’s crusade, a solid phalanx of Republicans voted Jefferson his appropriation.
In 1806 the President had another confidential assignment to make. He wanted a congressional resolution approving an embargo on British goods as a means of pressuring England into stopping her impressment of American seamen. But, knowing that the embargo would be unpopular with American maritime interests, he wanted the resolution introduced in the House without accepting personal responsibility for it. This time he did not even inform Randolph of his intentions but entrusted the job to Congressman Andrew Gregg of Pennsylvania, a proven Republican work horse. Though the Gregg resolution was defeated and a milder one substituted, Jefferson was clearly tolling the death bell for his floor leader’s tenure, and Randolph knew it. To the House he exclaimed that the leadership belonged either to him or “to Tom, Dick and Harry, to the refuse of the retail trade of politics.” How deeply he felt the hurt of rejection he showed a moment later in petulance toward a colleague who sought to speak: “Sit down, sir, pray sit down, sir, learn to keep your proper level.”
There was now no doubt that Thomas Jefferson had had enough of John Randolph. Not only must Cousin John be driven from the leadership; he must be shorn of his several trappings of office, his influence must be crushed, his political career must be exterminated. The President and his deputies pursued these purposes in a series of moves that reveal Jefferson’s prowess as a political manipulator and party manager.
First Randolph had to be discredited. Jefferson himself wielded the tarbrush in candid private statements that were bound to be widely circulated. To Senator John Smith of Ohio he observed that Randolph’s conduct was “wild and impracticable.” To Senator John Adair of Kentucky he spoke of Randolph as an “enemy.” An administration spokesman, James Sloan, rose in the House to accuse Randolph of incompetence in operating the Ways and Means Committee, of holding back reports and arbitrarily pocketing bills. Congressman Thomas Mann Randolph, the President’s son-in-law, John’s cousin, and a formidable debater, rounded out the degradation by condemning John’s political conduct in general, especially his tendency to excite clamor and to leak secrets. To the verbal attacks was added social ostracism.
Next Randolph had to be officially ousted from his several offices. As the new House leader, Jefferson settled upon Barnabas Bidwell of Massachusetts, a newcomer to Congress. At Bidwell’s maiden speech, Randolph, knowing what the future held for his own fortunes, determined to humble the President’s candidate. Soon after the speech began, Randolph deliberately put on his hat and walked slowly out of the House, striking the handle of his whip emphatically on the palm of his hand. As he passed poor Bidwell, he leered with insolent contempt. Although Bidwell served competently for a term, he resigned before the Tenth Congress assembled, and Jefferson had again to search for a floor leader.
Whenever possible, Jefferson and his aides bypassed Randolph’s Ways and Means Committee and resorted to select or special committees controlled by the administration’s agents. When Randolph approached Secretary of State Madison, armed with a committee resolution requesting information upon the extent to which American commerce had been injured by war between Britain and France, he became the victim of subtle sabotage. Not until six weeks had elapsed did the Secretary of State reply, explaining that he had been engrossed in other business. There was a further hostile act, in actuality the coup de grâce: Before the reply was received, Randolph’s committee, which could not report to the House until it heard from the Secretary of State, was discharged from its assignment by a repealing resolution.