February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
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.
We hear a great deal these days, during an intensely political Presidency, about “consensus politics,” but it is no novelty of modern times. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Thomas Jefferson was its inventor and master practitioner. Time has all but canonized this Founding Father, so that few associate him with either guile, ruthlessness, or skill in political maneuver. Yet he had all three, and he knew how to use them.
Jefferson founded the Democratic party upon the base of an alliance between the Virginia planters and New York’s professional politicians, a partnership affording accommodation between the rival sectional giants, the North and the South. He lured members of the opposition Federalist party in droves into his own Democratic-Republican party. “We are all republicans—we are all federalists,” he declared in his first inaugural, and took as his own the financial system of the Federalist hero, Alexander Hamilton. Business prospered; the Louisiana Purchase was enormously popular; the country kept out of the widening Napoleonic wars. Jefferson was overwhelmingly re-elected, with the Federalists offering only token resistance.
The sunny landscape of Jeffersonian consensus had its squalls and storms, but most of them passed. One that would not blow over was the lashing opposition of Jefferson’s former political partner, John Randolph. For the first five years of the administration, Randolph was Jefferson’s able floor leader in the House of Representatives, manager of the President’s abundant list of successes in the Congress. To that list Randolph contributed as much as anyone save Jefferson himself and his first lieutenant, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. Then, in the high season of their co-operation, Jefferson and Randolph cooled toward one another, and soon were embroiled in a titanic struggle. By every means at his command the President sought not merely to depose Randolph from his majority leadership but to remove him from political life altogether. This sudden disunity within Republican ranks was exacerbated by growing Federalist discontent over Jefferson’s foreign policy, and his administration ended on a note of anticlimax; the era of good feeling, which Jefferson’s consensus politics had earned for his administration, was postponed to another Presidency.
John Randolph was a man possessed by many furies. For sheer lacerating effectiveness, his invective, a clue to his inner turmoil, remains unexcelled in American politics. “He is a man of splendid abilities,” he once said of Edward Livingston, “but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.” Randolph could provoke a similar black eloquence in those he flayed. “Randolph,” wrote his enemy John Quincy Adams, “is the image and superscription of a great man stamped upon base metal. His mind is a jumble of sense, wit, and absurdity.”
Randolph’s life was a tissue of contradictions. Although he devoted his years to politics, he despised it as one of the baser trades. It tends, he said, “to bring forward low and little men, to the exclusion of the more worthy.” There were always only two parties, the “ins” and the “outs,” one gorging on patronage and wealth, the other striving to.
Randolph, carrier of demons, was the scion of one of Virginia’s oldest and most illustrious families; its traditional avocation was politics and its ancestry could be traced through Pocahontas to the red-skinned emperor Powhatan. Thanks to relentless intermarriage among Virginia’s first families and to Randolphian fertility, John possessed an enormous and eminent local cousinry that included such lights as John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson himself. By the eighteenth century, the Randolphs were so numerous, an English visitor noted, “that they are obliged, like the clans of Scotland, to be distinguished by their places of residence.” John styled himself “John Randolph of Roanoke,” the estate on which he eventually settled.
He was born June 2, 1773, in Prince George County, on a family estate overlooking the confluence of the Appomattox and the James. Of his father, also named John, little is known; he died before the boy was three. Fittingly, the elder Randolph had adopted as the family motto Nil admirari (“Wonder at nothing”), to which the son added, aptly enough, Fari quae sentias (“Do what you feel”).
Wrenched from his mother’s tutelage, John made a tormented peregrination from one school and college to another, including stops at Princeton and Columbia. In his own eyes, at least, the results were meager. “Except the Latin and Greek grammar,” he said, “I never learnt anything at school, or college, whatever.” At Princeton, where he set his heart on winning an elocution contest, he lost to “mouthers and ranters,” which brought him to despise “the award and the umpires in the bottom of my heart.” “I believe,” he concluded, “that there is nowhere such foul play as among professors and schoolmasters.”
In 1790, John briefly read law with his cousin Edmund Randolph, Washington’s Attorney General, and dabbled in medicine. While shopping among the professions, he felt the nibblings of an interest in public affairs. Cousin Edmund provided access to the Washington administration, and an uncle, Congressman Theodorick Bland, nurtured John on a diet of Antifederalism, which cherished local liberty and distrusted central power.
Still pondering his future, Randolph returned to southern Virginia to manage his inherited estate at Roanoke, in Charlotte County on the willow-fringed Staunton River. Roanoke was in the heart of a thickly forested country, one hundred miles from Richmond, the nearest town of any size, and twelve from the post office at Charlotte Court House. “In the heart of Africa,” Randolph once complained, “I could hardly be more removed from society than where I am.” The forest reached to his door. The trees were unpruned, for to cut a branch or twig, Randolph believed, was an offense against nature. The climate, especially oppressive in the long summer months, he likened to “Milton’s description of hell.”
Roanoke had no mistress, for Randolph never married, probably because of an endocrine imbalance that manifested itself in his high-pitched, almost feminine voice and his beardless face. At Roanoke, he raised tobacco and corn, hunted and fished, read fine literature, and maintained a circle of friends chiefly from among the Virginia gentry. At his best, he could be brilliantly entertaining. One of his close friends remembered warmly an evening of Randolph’s “copious wit and classic allusion—a perfect scattering of the diamonds of the mind.”
Roanoke’s isolation engrossed its master in concern for his health, to the point of hypochondria. He passed not a day, he said, “without pain or disquietude.” Once when asked how he felt, he answered, “Dying, sir, dying. This continent was not made for the white man, but the red man.” Among his complaints he listed raw nerves, gout, diarrhea, a “church-yard cough,” and “a general decay of the whole system.” Insomnia was a constant scourge. Guests at Roanoke came to learn that sitting up most of the night was a price of their visit. One houseguest, the author James Bouldin, retired late one night, only to be aroused suddenly a few hours later. It was Randolph, up and about, straightening his books and singing in his high voice:
In 1799, driven by the importunities of friends, as well as by family tradition, personal inclination, and a desire to escape the confinements of plantation life, Randolph agreed to stand as an Antifederalist candidate for Congress. Patrick Henry, peerless orator of Virginia and now a Federalist, was imported to debate against him. An anxious citizen asked Creed Taylor, Randolph’s friend and sponsor, if he didn’t intend “to appear for that young man today.” “Never mind,” Taylor replied, “he can take care of himself.” The confidence was not misplaced. Young Randolph’s wit and fluency sustained him and assured his election. In 1799, at the age of twenty-six, he appeared for induction into the House of Representatives. The Speaker, Theodore Sedgwick, was so struck by the youthfulness of the tall, pale, meager ghost who had walked into his presence that he was moved to ask Randolph if he was old enough to be eligible. “Ask my constituents,” Randolph snapped, and raised his hand to take the oath.
Equally important in Randolph’s rise was Sedgwick’s successor as Speaker, Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina. A rural, economy-minded, states’-rights Republican, Macon too was a friend of Randolph’s, indeed one of the few who ever invoked the unstinting praise of that severe judge of men. Macon, Randolph came to say, was “the best and purest, and wisest man I ever knew.” Randolph managed Macon’s campaign for the speakership, and the new Speaker acknowledged his gratitude by appointing his friend to the second most powerful and coveted post in the House: chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. The elevation of Macon and Randolph was known to be unwelcome to Jefferson, who doubtless suspected that these southern colleagues would prove too restrictive in their view of the central government’s power.
In those days the chairmanship of Ways and Means was equal to the modern-day post of majority leader. The chairman was the administration’s chief manager and advocate in the House, his pre-eminence stemming from the unique breadth of the committee’s charge—“to take into consideration all such reports of the Treasury Department as may be referred to them by the House; to inquire into the state of the public debt, of the revenue and of the expenditures; and to report from time to time their opinions thereon.” A Secretary of the Treasury as ambitious as Albert Gallatin would be sure to provide the committee with so much business that its influence would continue to be unsurpassed.
Although Macon and Randolph were not Jefferson’s choices, they discharged their new duties with impeccable loyalty to the administration. Randolph was the efficient and unfaltering champion of its legislation. He promptly established himself in the administration’s graces by guiding through the House one of its most cherished projects, a bill providing for the abolition of “the midnight judges,” a quantity of district judges, all good Federalists, appointed by the outgoing administration of John Adams. The judges not only held jobs that were rightfully Republican plums; from the bench they could assert Federalist doctrine against the Republican administration (see “Marbury v. Madison: The Case of the ‘Missing’ Commissions” in the June, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Randolph, who could not bear judges and lawyers anyway, led the fight. The nation, he once remarked, was perpetually harassed by the “ad seriatim opinions” of “armies of judges … hammering at the fundamental law.”
Randolph also fashioned a series of triumphs for the Republican principles of minimum government and strict construction of the Constitution. Happily, these coincided with the articles of his own political faith. He put through a reorganization of the military, resulting in a cutback of the naval program: Republicans held commerce in low esteem and viewed the Navy as a Federalist device for defending it. Any reduction in the armed forces enlisted Randolph’s own complete enthusiasm, for he took an incurably jaundiced view of them. He objected to “maintaining idlers … out of the proceeds of my property … I never see one of those useless drones in livery crawling on the face of the earth that my gorge does not rise—that I do not feel sick.”
Randolph delivered on another key plank in Jefferson’s platform by overseeing legislation abolishing internal taxes, including the tax on whiskey; this gladdened the hearts of the back-country farmers, pillars of Republican strength. Intertwined with tax reduction was a reduction in political patronage, another Jeffersonian pledge. That fewer taxes meant fewer tax collectors deeply delighted Randolph. Office-holding and patronage were high on his list of loathings. Patronage—the knowledge “that with one bone I can call 500 dogs”—repelled him, for he felt that the power of making appointments to public office had a tendency “to debauch the nation, and to create a low, dirty, time-serving spirit.”
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.
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.”
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.
The President was not pleased, and his partnership with his floor leader was dealt a further reeling blow by the Yazoo land frauds, one of the grosser scandals of American political history. In 1795 a Georgia legislature, all of whose members but one had been “bought,” had sold to speculators some thirty-five million acres of land in the Yazoo River country, situated chiefly in what later became the states of Mississippi and Alabama, for the outrageously low price of less than a cent and a half an acre. A new Georgia legislature, elected by indignant voters the following year, rescinded the sale and later, in 1802, ceded the Yazoo country to the United States government. Meanwhile the unprincipled speculators unloaded their holdings on other purchasers. The latter, organized as the New England and Mississippi Land Company, collectively pressed their claims. A cabinet committee looked into the claims and found them dubious, but recommended a settlement to avoid a lengthy and costly lawsuit. In 1805 Randolph was asked to push the necessary legislation through the House.
The request ran head-on into the ivory-pure morality of Randolph; the spark that ignited his wrath was the interesting coincidence that the chief lobbyist of the New England and Mississippi Land Company turned out to be Gideon Granger, who was also Jefferson’s Postmaster General. In that capacity, Granger of course had a barrel of patronage to distribute, as members of the House were well aware.
Randolph concentrated his fire on Granger, recalling his involvement in another unsavory land scheme, the Connecticut Reserve in Ohio. “His gigantic grasp,” Randolph said of the Postmaster General, “embraces with one hand the shores of Lake Erie and stretches with the other to the Bay of Mobile. Millions of acres are easily digested by such stomachs … The retail trade of fraud and imposture yields too small and slow a profit to gratify their cupidity. They buy and sell corruption in the gross. …” Randolph was casting off his mantle as party leader and donning the role of independent moral crusader. Northern Republicans rejected Randolph’s lead and united with northern Federalists (to whose party most investors in the New England and Mississippi Land Company belonged); eventually, once the War of 1812 was over, the landowners’ claims were paid.
Although Randolph’s stand was enormously popular in the South (“Mr. Jefferson himself would lose an election in Virginia, if he was known to favor [the Yazoo compromise],” said Congressman William B. Giles), he paid a high price for his moral display. He had virtually abdicated his leadership position and sacrificed the possibilities of higher office. With one blow he had struck at Jefferson, Madison, his old friend Gallatin, and leading northern Republicans who could not be affronted with impunity. Madison in particular, his eye on the presidential succession, possessed a vital interest in what we would call today the “image” of the Jefferson administration.
Things grew worse rather than better between Randolph and Jefferson. Their relations got badly snarled in some presidential sleight-of-hand, an occasional element in Jefferson’s political style. In 1804 and after, Jefferson was involved in complex secret negotiations with Talleyrand and Spain for United States acquisition of the Floridas. There were ample grounds for contending, as the United States often did, that West Florida had been included in the Louisiana Purchase. Talleyrand appeared to speak for Spain as well as for France; in fact he saw in the proceeds of the sale an opportunity to recover some of the money Spain owed his country. He let it be known that the Floridas could be acquired—if the United States would come up with more cash.
In effect, Jefferson, who desperately wanted the territory, was being asked to repurchase what he had already paid for. To limit the potential political embarrassment, he resorted to subterfuge. He dispatched a vigorous public message to Congress boldly recommending military preparations, presumably against Spain. Next, he sent to a select House committee, of which Randolph was chairman, a secret and confidential message saying that what he really wanted was an appropriation of two million dollars to purchase the Floridas. When he first learned the substance of the message—in a meeting with the President—Randolph was appalled. Bluntly he told Jefferson that he could not agree to support the appropriation: it had not been requested in any public message, and Randolph would not shift to his own shoulders or those of the House a responsibility that properly belonged to the Executive.
Jefferson anxiously sent Madison, and then Gallatin, to bring Randolph around. But Randolph would not sacrifice principle to friendship. With utter candor, he pointed out to Gallatin that the administration had taken good care of its own reputation in Jefferson’s bellicose public message, and was now trying to browbeat Congress into assuming responsibility for playing Talleyrand’s dirty game. He had a reputation of his own, Randolph said, that he did not propose to jeopardize for the administration’s convenience.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”