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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 328

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This is the grave of John Randolph of Roanoke.

Born in what is today Hopewell, Virginia in 1773 to one of Virginia’s most elite families, Randolph spent his life defending the interests of that wealthy landed gentry. He was healthy, but also had a genetic condition–largely thought today to be Kleinfelter syndrome–that meant his boyhood voice never lowered and he could not grow facial hair. Basically, he talked like a 10 year old boy his entire life, which, combined with his many personal eccentricities, led to one of the oddest and more unique people in all of American political history.

Being a member of the elite, Randolph, also very intelligent, rose in Virginia politics very quickly and was elected to Congress at the age of 26. A talented speaker, despite his voice, he immediately became a leader of the Jeffersonians and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. A huge supporter of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Jefferson and Madison in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, this sort of state-centered government with no nationalism to speak of would define Randolph’s career, even as it became increasingly anachronistic in an expanding new nation.

Randolph broke with Jefferson in 1805 when he believed the president was breaking with republican principles. He became the leader of the reactionary guard in the House that believed any use of the central government was a violation of constitutional principles. In particular, Randolph and his followers held on to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions as the central tenet of government that would give states nullification power over any legislation they did not like. As he grew older, this reactionary conservatism would grow deeper. Opposing the War of 1812 was at least sensible, but opposing the Missouri Compromise as an unreasonable expansion of the federal government was madness that would have torn the nation apart.

Of course, that opposition to the Missouri Compromise was rooted in Randolph’s ultimate goal: protecting the interests of the Virginia elite. While he expressed some of the philosophical misgivings about slavery that fit people such as Jefferson and supported the American Colonization Society and its efforts to relocate free blacks to Liberia, ultimately Randolph believed slavery was right for Virginia, saying, for instance, “The question of slavery, as it is called, is to us a question of life and death …You will find no instance in history where two distinct races have occupied the soil except in the relation of master and slave.” Randolph himself was a major slaveholder, with a few hundred slaves. On his death, he did emancipate them all so long as they moved to Ohio and even provided them money to get started. Some of them founded the town of Rossville, Ohio.

Randolph actually paid a political price for opposing the War of 1812, which was popular in the South. It was quite unusual that he would oppose it, as that war was quite sectional and it made little political sense for Randolph to ally with Federalists, who he hated. But he feared the growth of debt and the possibility of higher taxes, which were larger principles for him. He lost his re-election bid, but came back in 1814, was reelected in 1816, stepped down for a term, then came back and served until 1825. He was then appointed to the Senate to fulfill a term of someone who resigned, and he stayed there for two years, leaving in 1827, when he returned to Congress and once again was named Ways and Means chairman. During this era, he emerged as the top opponent of John Quincy Adams, who nationalistic policies that included transportation investment and a national university Randolph saw as apostasy against the Constitution. Andrew Jackson of course loved him for this and named Randolph minister to Russia, a cap to his long career. Randolph stayed in St. Petersburg until 1830, when he retired for health reasons. He once again returned to the House in 1832, but died the next year in Philadelphia of tuberculosis. It really wasn’t surprising that Randolph was sick. He was a heavy drinker and opium user on top of his other health issues. By all accounts, Randolph was also a real jerk of a person, a very aggressive arguer who took any insult extremely personally and was bellicose to others. He even once fought a duel with Henry Clay. He also once beat a Congressman to a bloody pulp with his cane on the House floor, after they had argued at the boarding house they both lived in while in Washington.

Randolph remains somewhat influential in modern conservative circles (of course), especially with the postwar conservative intellectual (if such a thing even existed then, not to mention now) Russell Kirk.

John Randolph of Roanoke is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, with his remains moved from their original burying place in 1879. I’m not really sure why, but given that Hollywood became such a center of Confederate leaders and that Randolph was so influential to them, it’s at least fitting, if I have no idea if it is why he was moved. This grave visit was supported by LGM contributors and I think such an individual is a good use of those resources. So thanks! If you would like this series to visit other political leaders of the Early Republic, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Madison is buried at Montpelier in Virginia while Willis Alston, who Randolph beat on the House floor, is buried in Littleton, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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