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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
Having replaced Randolph as floor leader, Jefferson now sought to unseat him from the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. The President pointed out to his legislative lieutenants that Randolph could be gotten out of the way if committee chairmanships were henceforth filled, as they could be, by ballot instead of by appointment of the Speaker—who was Nathaniel Macon, Randolph’s staunch friend. Jefferson’s man Sloan moved to appoint committees by House ballot, but the motion, after brisk debate, was defeated. The House was repelled, no doubt, by the President’s interference, however covert, in a matter it considered its own affair. But Jefferson was undeterred by momentary rebuff. He now proceeded to attack the very base of Randolph’s strength in the House—his alliance with two wonderfully efficient potentates, Macon and Representative Nicholson, Randolph’s Ways and Means Committee colleague. Jefferson offered Nicholson a judgeship, which, with its superior tenure, was an irresistible plum to a congressman with a growing family. Macon could not be bought. He could, however, be defeated. When the next Congress convened, Macon lost his race for reelection as speaker by one vote. His successor, Joseph B. Varnum, described by Josiah Quincy as “one of the most obsequious tools of the administration,” quickly utilized his prerogative of appointing the House’s committees and omitted Randolph from his list for Ways and Means.
Jefferson and his friends did not restrict their warfare against Randolph to the capital’s battlegrounds. As the elections of 1806 drew near, they moved upon him in his home territory, his congressional district in Virginia. A gathering of constituents at Prince Edward was arranged by Jefferson’s lieutenants to choose a candidate to unseat Randolph. The press thundered against the embattled congressman, and the mails, just before election day, were flooded with handbills bearing what Randolph termed “the grossest libels.” “The ministerial pack,” as Randolph called it, was in full cry and nipping at his heels, bound upon tearing him to bits; it possessed, he noted, “Power, Patronage, the Press, the Yazoo Squad, & every villainy & every villain whom I have endeavoured to expose & bring to justice.” But its efforts failed. Randolph triumphed at the polls with his usual majority. John Quincy Adams noted with displeasure that the voters of Randolph’s district “are as much enamored with him as the Queen of the Fairies was with the ass’s head of Bottom after the drop of juice from love-in-idleness had been squeezed upon her eyelids in her sleep.”
Randolph, his floor leadership and committee chairmanship gone, his circle of influence narrowing around him, nevertheless refused to give up. On the contrary, he kept up a running gunfire against the administration. His most profitable target was Jefferson’s vacillating foreign policy toward Britain and France, locked in their widening war and trampling freely upon American interests and rights. In lieu of Jefferson’s mild responses, Randolph proposed to do far more against Britain, the worse offender—recall our minister, demand redress, and, if that were refused, invade Canada and Nova Scotia and descend upon Jamaica, holding the first two as pledges for Britain’s future good conduct.
But Randolph’s purpose was more than opposition to the President’s foreign policy. He intended, as John Quincy Adams observed, “to prevent Mr. Jefferson from consenting to serve again, and Mr. Madison from being his successor.” To foil Jefferson’s presumed aspirations for Madison, Randolph put forward James Monroe, popular negotiator of the purchases of Louisiana and Florida, and an old friend. Should Monroe become President, Timothy Pickering predicted, Randolph “must be his Prime Minister.”
As early as March 20, 1806, Randolph was writing to Monroe of the probable push for Madison as Jefferson’s successor in 1809, and holding that “the Old Republicans” (Randolph and a growing body of dissidents) and New York would never accept him. “The Old Republicans,” Randolph added, “are united in your support.” Jefferson meanwhile was remaining silent, which permitted Madison’s personal weakness in the Virginia Republican organization to become increasingly apparent. Republicans south of the James heavily favored Monroe. So did other Old Republicans elsewhere in the South. Their solidarity quickly crumbled, however, when Jefferson came out clearly for Madison. Thereupon Jefferson and Randolph competed sharply for Monroe’s co-operation. “The great body of your friends,” Jefferson wrote to Monroe on May 4, 1806, “are among the firmest adherents to the administration; and in their support of you, will suffer Mr. Randolph to have no communications with them. … You must not commit yourself to him.” Randolph praised Monroe elaborately on the House floor as “that able and eminent man, that faithful and illustrious public servant.” But after some backing and filling, Monroe threw in with Jefferson and party regularity.