Thursday, July 19, 2012

John Randolph of Roanoke

Virginia Gentleman: Tell us the name of your new book on John Randolph, and how can someone go about buying it?

David Johnson:
“Thanks for having me as a guest David.  I’m always delighted to talk about John Randolph.  The book is titled John Randolph of Roanoke and was released by LSU Press in May.  It is available at most bookstores, online at Amazon, and directly from LSU Press.  Thanks for asking that question up front – authors like to sell books.”

Virginia Gentleman:
My understanding is that Randolph and Jefferson had a falling out.  And Randolph memorably turned on President Thomas Jefferson, once and for all, in 1805, believing his fellow Virginian to have compromised his republican values?  What happened?

David Johnson: “Many things happened, but the basic answer to your question is that the split between the two men was based on Randolph’s belief that Jefferson strayed from republican principles.  Randolph was a purist, Jefferson less so.  That fundamental difference caused the breach.

At the start of Jefferson’s administration, Randolph was the president’s confidant and majority leader.  He either drafted or managed all of Jefferson’s major legislative initiatives:  elimination of internal taxes, payment of the national debt, financing for the Louisiana Purchase, rollbacks in the size of government, and repeal of the Federalist Judiciary Act.  Then came the Yazoo land fraud.

The Yazoo case began in 1795 when the Georgia legislature transferred thirty-five million acres -- known as the Yazoo land -- to four land companies at a cost of one and a half cents per acre.  The land giveaway was stunning in itself, but amazement turned to outrage when it was discovered that every member of the legislature who voted for the transfer had been bribed with shares in the Yazoo land companies.

The citizens of Georgia voted out every corrupt legislator and rescinded the land transfer.  But that presented a question:  who owned the land?  The state of Georgia by rescinding the corrupt transfer?  Or the numerous purchasers who bought land from state established land companies?  Secretary of State James Madison crafted a settlement under which Georgia would cede the Yazoo territory to the United States for $1,250,000 and a reserve of five million acres to satisfy other claimants.

Randolph opposed this “bailout” and was shocked Jefferson would support it.  He saw no authority in the Constitution for such action and he believed the state of Georgia had the right to reverse a fraudulent act.  Shortly after the Yazoo issue came the failed impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase.  Randolph believed – as did Jefferson – that impeachment was the constitutional mechanism for removing judges.  He believed that impeachment of judges was unlike presidential impeachment – which is for high crimes and misdemeanors – and was the sole check the legislature had on judges.  So when Justice Chase starting advocating for Federalist policy positions from the bench, Randolph brought a bill of impeachment.  The House impeached Chase, but the Senate did not convict.  And at some point during the process, Jefferson backed off and left Randolph alone in the fight.  James Madison, who did not like Randolph, also gave Republicans cover for not voting to convict.  Randolph rightly felt betrayed – he also lamented that Jefferson had effectively taken away the only check the legislature had on the court. 

Finally, Jefferson made a secret attempt to purchase Florida.  Randolph believed that if Jefferson wanted to purchase Florida he should present the matter to Congress, not attempt to do it behind closed doors.  Various other issues compounded the breach.  Randolph believed Madison was a Federalist hiding behind republicanism – he turned out to be right in many regards – and he thought Jefferson listened too much to Madison.  He opposed Jefferson’s embargo, believing the federal government had no authority to restrict trade in this manner.  So it was a numerous events that brought about the break.  Jefferson believed Randolph was finished.  “The example of John Randolph, now the outcast of the world,” he wrote, “is a caution to all honest and prudent men to sacrifice a little of self-confidence and to go with their friends although they sometimes think they are going wrong.”  Randolph would not go along.”

Virginia Gentleman: Randolph led a faction called “Old Republicans,”.  What were they?  What did they believe?

David Johnson: The “Old Republicans” were that remnant of Jeffersonian Republicans who split with Jefferson over the issues I listed above and stood with Randolph.  They were called the “Tertium Quids” – Latin for “third something” – because they were not Republicans or Federalists.  Randolph was the chief Quid.  Principal members of the Quids included James Garnett, Christopher Clark, Phillip Thompson, Edwin Gray of Virginia, Joseph Bryan of Georgia, Joseph Nicholson of Maryland, and Richard Stanford of North Carolina.  The philosophy of the Quids is answered in your next question.

Virginia Gentleman:
  Describe the agrarian tradition that Randolph sought to defend?

David Johnson: That question requires a fairly detailed answer, but I think it is critical in understanding Randolph.

The tradition and culture Randolph sought to defend consisted of much more than just the agrarian tradition.  The philosophy that emerges from his life, letters, and speeches is rooted in a distaste for alteration, love of local rights, and assertive individualism.  These impulses were quickened by his belief “that a democratic passion for legislating is a menace to liberty.”  Randolph was no democrat, believing in limited suffrage lodged firmly in a landed gentry.  He was not a nationalist, but the strictest of states’ rights advocates.  He was a champion of individual liberty, though not of the natural rights espoused by Locke.  He had a lifelong distrust of centralized power, hence his opposition to entanglements abroad and spend-thrift government at home.  He was a mix of realist and purist, disdainful of cant, yet displaying a consistency that was best expressed in his most famous declaration:  “I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty, I hate equality.”

The aristocracy to which Randolph referred was not a hereditary one based on birth or wealth.  It was an aristocracy of cultured and civilized citizens who respected tradition, defended established institutions, and adhered to duty.  It was an aristocracy symbolized on the Great Seal of Virginia by Virtue with her foot on the body of Tyranny.  The virtue represented on the seal is the Latin translation of the Greek word arête, a word that expresses those characteristics of the self-determinative and self-reliant citizen.  Thus it was civic virtue – not equality – that defeated tyranny.  Civic virtue required a rejection of the Lockean notion that all men were created equal in favor of the language of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which declared that all men were “created equally free and independent.”  By stressing the equality of freedom and the necessity of civic virtue, Randolph sought to prevent the only state of life in which anything resembling equality of condition actually prevails:  a state of savagery. 

Rejection of abstract equality, however, was not sufficient in itself.  To Randolph every political issue touched on the nature of the human soul.  That soul, he believed, best flourished in a state of liberty.  Therefore he viewed his role as liberty’s advocate.  An advocate so dedicated, Russell Kirk wrote, recognizes “no rights to equality at the expense of others, no rights to political power regardless of ability and integrity,” no rights to overthrow the traditions of culture and heritage.  An advocate so dedicated thus can speak:  “I love liberty, I hate equality.”

Virginia Gentleman:
My understanding is that Randolph was related to Jefferson.  Is that true?

David Johnson:
“Yes, second cousins.  They shared a great-grandfather, William Randolph.”

Virginia Gentleman: Did his opposition to the war of 1812 hurt him?

David Johnson:
“Yes, it cost him his seat in the House for one term.  But he was returned to the House two years later when the public saw the truth of what he had warned about the war.

Virginia Gentleman:
  Despite spending some time in the leadership Randolph seems at least temperamentally to be more of a back bencher.  Is that a fair assessment?

David Johnson
: “Well, many of his fellow congressmen wished he was a back bencher.  Randolph displayed the same characteristics, the same leadership traits, the same oratorical flourishes when he was in leadership as when he was in a minority of one.  As I mentioned above, Randolph believed the human soul best flourished in a state of liberty.  So any action – no matter how trivial – that diminished liberty had to be opposed.  He was in opposition so often because there were so many instances in which public policies or proposed legislation diminished liberty.

Randolph did not believe the freeholders of Virginia sent him to Washington to pass bills, gain seniority, or accept half-a-loaf.  His purpose – their purpose – was only to secure freedom.  So he denounced liberty’s foes in all their forms:  tyranny, cant, idolatry, abstract theories, party-hacks, place-holders, and the whirl of change.  Government attracted these anti-principles, funded them by oppressive taxation, consolidated them in burgeoning agencies, and facilitated them by opportunism and chicanery.  There could be no compromise, no “go along to get along” with such forces.  “I challenge any man,” he said, “to put his finger upon any vote or act of mine that contravenes [the liberty of the citizen] or to show the vote given by me that tends to abridge the rights of the States, the franchises of the citizen, or even to add to his burdens in any shape.”  There is no need to look.  No such act will be found.

So what seems to be a back-bencher temperament is in reality a consistent philosophical stance.  In the omnipresent struggle in political life between principle and pragmatism, Randolph unhesitatingly and repeatedly chose principle.”

1 comment:

Susan said...

Headed to Amazon to buy the book. Greatly enjoyed the interview. Randolph is one "founding father" I knew very little bit about but always did think he was a "back bencher" when actually his message was consistent. We could use more of that these days.