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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
Thomas Jefferson’s administration completed its course, and James Madison duly succeeded him. Monroe was richly rewarded with the foremost gift of office at the new President’s disposal, the post of Secretary of State. The Secretary-designate gained another distinction, although not a rare one. He was added to the list of John Randolph’s enemies. So was the incoming President Madison. So was Monroe’s successor as President, John Quincy Adams, for Randolph had come to choose as his highest purpose that of representing “the interests of stockholders against presidents, directors, and cashiers.”
At length the Jackson administration shrewdly enticed him away from his watchdog post and bundled him off as minister to Russia. The mission proved almost as disastrous as Napoleon’s march upon Moscow. Randolph’s health sagged in the rigorous Russian climate, and with it his effectiveness. He returned to private life but continued to decline, physically and mentally. He drank excessively and resorted to opium; for a time he was demented. He rallied sufficiently, however, to be elected to Congress again, where he served from March 4, 1833, until death, which he had anticipated for so long, overtook him in May. He succumbed (probably to tuberculosis) in Philadelphia, where he had gone to take a boat for England.
Before leaving Washington he had made his peace with Henry Clay, but with Thomas Jefferson he apparently never became reconciled, either personally or politically. Haunting questions persist: Why could not the conflict have been contained? What made the tolerant, magnanimous Jefferson undertake to annihilate a lieutenant who had served him well? What led John Randolph to abandon the great chieftain who held the key to his political future? He had supported the Louisiana Purchase; why could he not put scruples aside to back the Yazoo settlement and the purchase of the Floridas?
There were important distinctions between these several events, to be sure. The Louisiana Purchase had its compensating features: it enlarged the nation’s territory and improved its defense; as policy it was honorable, although its legality was questionable. Nothing, in Randolph’s estimation, could be said for the Yazoo and Florida deals; as policy they were dishonorable, one being built upon corruption and the other upon weakness.
And in his own mind, the drawing of such distinctions was encouraged by their coincidence with shifts in Randolph’s personal political fortunes. In 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, he was at the crest, his future resplendent with promise. In 1805, year of Yazoo and Florida, he suffered two personal political disasters: He was refused a coveted appointment as minister to Great Britain when Secretary of State Madison informed Randolph’s friends, with some justice, that their candidate was unfit for diplomacy; and he saw Madison emerge as Jefferson’s successor.
Certainly the major ingredient of the conflict between Jefferson and Randolph was that circumstance had brought into impossible union a political pragmatist and a political purist. Both men started from agreement on basic Republican principles. But, as events proved, Randolph was a stauncher Jeffersonian than Jefferson. The President had to govern the country and, despite his own stout idealism, had to effect compromises and resort to expedients. He chose to steer the ship of state, as Charles Beard once put it, “by the headlands, not by distant and fixed stars.” Randolph, as his career both during and after the Jeffersonian era demonstrates, had an exceedingly low tolerance for compromise; he abhorred indirection and intrigue and was distressed when the administration saw fit to take them up. “The example of John Randolph,” Jefferson observed three years after his administration ended, “is a caution to all honest and prudent men to sacrifice a little of self-confidence and to go with their friends, although they may sometimes think they are going wrong.”
As for Randolph, he once acknowledged his joy in “the glorious privilege of finding fault—one very dear to the depraved condition of human nature.” But there was also a higher and more rational basis for his continual opposition. “Ours is not a government of confidence,” he once observed. “It is a government of diffidence and of suspicion, and it is only by being suspicious that it can remain a free government.”