John Randolph of Roanoke was a second cousin of Edmund Randolph, President Washington’s first Attorney General and second Secretary of State. It would be difficult to say which of the two careers was the more tragic. There could have been no more striking contrast than that between the two men—the elder, gentle and reflective, his endowments promising happiness and success: the other pursued from childhood by his inner furies. Edmund suffered from the sudden impact of events outside himself. John's defeat came from within.
As a child John had a slim body and beautiful face. But before long the skin tightened and the eyes protruded. His face became and remained the face of a sallow youth, adolescent yet wrinkled, his voice shrill and piercing, his eyes burning as he gestured. His body and fingers grew elongated. Apparently his voice never changed from that of a child. That his impotence followed an attack of scarlet fever, or of measles or mumps, as his biographers have variously suggested, is doubtful. An endocrine imbalance could have caused this failure to develop normally. All these symptoms, frequently accompanied by abnormal brilliance, would seem to indicate that he had never been potent.
John’s father died when John was two years old; and his mother, Frances Bland of Cawsons—whom he adored, the only creature he continued to love—in three years was married again to St. George Tucker. She died when John was fourteen.
He learned to hate himself as bitterly as he hated those who attacked him where he was weakest. Once he threatened to kill a man who called him a eunuch. Yet on another occasion, taunted about his impotence, he could say: ”Why should a man take pride in a quality in which a jackass is infinitely his superior?” The traces of sweetness and tenderness in his disposition which his associates remembered when he was a youth soon disappeared. He longed for affection even while he continued to repel everyone he came in contact with, from the days when as a child at school he was flogged regularly every Monday morning and frequently through the week, until, an old and dying man, he was carried into the Senate to shake Henry Clay by the hand before he collapsed. He detested those who tried to teach or to discipline him. He accused his stepfather, St. George Tucker, who was generosity itself to his stepson and advanced money to pay his gambling debts, of misappropriating slaves who, John insisted, should have come to him. When he studied law with his cousin Edmund in Williamsburg, John insisted that his instructor had embezzled funds which should have been applied to his support. At Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) he accused the president of the college, Dr. John Witherspoon, of making away with his pocket money.
He trusted no man nor any woman. He had rows with all his contemporaries—with President Jefferson, whose floor leader he had been in the Congress; with Calhoun, Clay, Daniel Webster, John Q. Adams, Edward Livingston. He lashed his political opponents with such brilliant insolence that the House was continually in fear of his mordant tongue. Once when Calhoun was presiding, Randolph addressed the Chair: “Mr. Speaker—I mean Mr. President of the Senate and would-be President of the United States, which God in his infinite mercy avert!”
To the proud and disdainful motto over the Randolph coat-of-arms, Nil admirari, “Wonder at nothing”—John added for his own use Fari quae sentias, “Do what you feel.” He always signed his name John Randolph of Roanoke to distinguish himself from “Possum” John, his cousin.
In 1826, toward the end of his life when he was in the Senate, Randolph in an attack on the Administration referred to President Adams’ association with Henry Clay as a combination of the “puritan with the blackleg.” Clay challenged him to a duel, which was fought on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Clay’s bullet went through Randolph’s coat. Randolph deliberately fired wild, and as Clay rushed forward to shake his hand: “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay,” he said. Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri remarked that it was the “highest toned” duel he had ever witnessed—and the Senator was present at a good many.