Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Other J.R.R.

It turns out that John Taylor of Caroline doesn't hold a candle to John Randolph of Roanoke. I recently finished Russell Kirk's biography of the latter and he has become the new embodiment of every political virtue I admire.

Randolph was afflicted with some malady that left him in a perpetual state of physical adolescence. His tall, stork-like frame and high, squeaky voice would have left him a joke and the subject of coarse jesting apart from the sheer power of his oration (Kirk's book includes full texts of several of Randolph's mesmerizing speeches). From the time he entered the U.S. Congress in 1803 (temporarily booted out when he vociferously opposed the ill-conceived War of 1812; when Virginia's economy was ruined by that conflict we has swept back into office) till the end of his career as the American envoy to Russia, Randolph was the undisputed champion of strictly-limited federal government and leader of the "old republican" faction that split from Jefferson after the Yazoo scandal.

His girlish voice and slight frame notwithstanding, Randolph was fearless and once fought a duel with Kentucky politician Henry Clay, the arch-proponent of Alexander Hamilton's "American system" of corporate welfare and central banking -- the very things Randolph most despised. Randolph's thin profile saved his life as Clay's first shot narrowly missed, leaving a bullet hole in Randolph's coat. Randolph graciously fired his shot into the air, then coolly approached Clay and said, "Sir, you owe me a coat."

He once declared that it would be a good omen if the Congress met and adjourned without passing once piece of legislation. He drew a sharp distinction between change and reform, willing to entertain the latter where crisis demanded it, but absolutely opposed to the former as useless tinkering that would invariably lead to worse conditions. We know how to start governments, he lamented; but he defied anyone to know how to control them once they got started. Randolph appealed to God's ways, which in holy writ and throughout history seemed to move at a glacial pace, slowly but permanently altering courses, in contrast to the work of the Devil, always restless and hurried. Randolph dreaded westward expansion, for he foresaw that with it would come federal expansion. "No government, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, can be fit to govern me or the people I represent." He grew to despise the French and their radical democratic revolution, and loved English institutions (he enthusiastically identified himself as a member of the Church of England). "I am an aristocrat; I love liberty and hate equality." Randolph's conservative Christian realism stood in contrast to Jefferson's liberal Deist optimism.

The aristocratic, non-egalitarian Randolph also hated the institution of chattel slavery. It was no small irony that he, as the scion of the wealthy Virginia family, inherited a large number of slaves and farmland on the banks of the Roanoke River in Charlotte County in Virginia's southern Piedmont. Randolph was as practical as he was conservative; knowing that it was against state law (at the time) to manumit his slaves, he opted to keep them and care for them in ways that surpassed all the apostle Paul could have hoped for from Christian masters. Randolph bowed to them, gave them the best of what he could provide, refused to separate family members, and only threatened to sell an unruly hand as a means to correcting insubordinate behavior (it appears he never sold any of them). Once asked who the greatest orator was in America, Randolph confounded an inquirer by asserting that it was a slave woman he had heard as a boy pleading from the auction block. Her eloquence, he declared, was unsurpassed.

At the end of his days Randolph made provision for the freedom of his slaves and bought land for them in Ohio. Ever distrustful of the West, he was buried facing in that direction so that he "could keep an eye on [Henry] Clay and the west." He must have grieved to see his former servants mistreated and forced off their land by the neighboring whites.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

Thanks for helping to bring his story back to life.