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Randolph, Edmund (1753–1813), revolutionary army officer and politician in the United States of America, was born on 10 August 1753 in Williamsburg, Virginia, the son of John Randolph (d. 1784), lawyer, and Arianna Vanderheyden Jennings (d. 1782). By all odds Edmund should have achieved an important place in American history. Since the 1680s, when his great-grandfather had emigrated from England, his forebears had played a prominent part in Virginia's affairs. His grandfather , the only native Virginian ever knighted, his father, John, and his uncle, Peyton Randolph, had all been king's attorneys and members of the Virginia house of burgesses. Peyton was also speaker of the house in the 1770s. After leaving the College of William and Mary in 1771, Randolph followed family tradition by reading law in his father's office in Williamsburg and being admitted to the bar in 1774. On 29 August 1776 he married Elizabeth (1753–1810), daughter of , the first Virginia state treasurer. They had five children.

Not only was Randolph born into the charmed circle, but he came to manhood during the American War of Independence, a time when reputations could be made on a Virginian and a national stage. Even his father's loyalism and exile did not prevent him from assuming a high place in the inner circle of the American patriot leadership. Peyton Randolph adopted Edmund as his heir and George Washington appointed him as an aide-de-camp in 1775. But he had served only a few months when his uncle's death forced him to return to Virginia. During the next several years Randolph was elected mayor of Williamsburg, was chosen as a delegate to the May Virginia convention where he was assigned to the committee that drafted the declaration of rights and the state constitution, and was selected to be the state's first attorney-general, a post he held for ten years (1776–86). Randolph also served two terms (1779, 1781) in the continental congress.

In 1786 the 33-year-old Randolph was elected governor of Virginia. As the governor of the most populous state he was in a position to shape events. A leading advocate of a new national constitution, he was instrumental in persuading Washington to attend the constitutional convention in 1787. It was Governor Randolph who opened the proceedings with a lengthy speech denouncing the defects of the articles of confederation, the temporary document that bound the states together, and the existing state constitutions. Yet, despite his early advocacy, Randolph refused to sign the completed document because he thought it insufficiently republican. By the time the battle for ratification began in Virginia, Randolph had reversed his position once again. Responding to charges of inconsistency, he insisted that his objections were as strong on 4 June 1788 as they had been in September 1787. But he had come to believe that if Virginia did not accept the constitution, the union would be disrupted, perhaps dismembered. ‘The accession of eight states’, he declared to the convention, has ‘reduced our deliberations to the single question of Union or no Union’ (Elliot, 652).

With the formation of the new federal government, Randolph was appointed the nation's attorney-general. Then, when Thomas Jefferson resigned as secretary of state, Washington appointed Randolph to the post in 1794. Randolph's most serious problem as attorney-general and secretary of state was the growing conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson within the cabinet. Holding tenaciously to the tradition that a public man should take a stand on specific issues, but never tie himself permanently to any faction, proved extremely difficult. Caught in a crossfire between warring elements in Washington's cabinet, his friend Jefferson felt that Randolph should always support him, and on most issues he did. However, he did not hesitate to differ whenever the occasion seemed to justify it. In frustration Jefferson characterized Randolph as ‘the poorest chameleon I ever saw, having no colour of his own, and reflecting that nearest him’ (Bemis, 100).

The problem was that Randolph was hardly the ‘chameleon’ Jefferson imagined him to be. With the rest of the cabinet aligned with Hamilton, and with Randolph determined to play the non-partisan, disaster was assured. He had advised the president against acceptance of the controversial Jay treaty (1794), which attempted to ease post-war British–American tensions, while the rest of the cabinet urged acceptance. Naturally both the Hamilton faction and the British government were anxious to discredit Randolph. In July 1795 a British man-of-war intercepted a letter written by the French minister Joseph Fauchet to his government, a rambling account in which he seemed to imply that Randolph had made improper revelations to him and had indicated that French money would be welcome. The British minister George Hammond delivered it in July 1795 to the secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott. When Randolph was called in and questioned by Washington and the cabinet under humiliating circumstances, he angrily resigned. There can be little doubt that Randolph was innocent of any wrongdoing, but there was no one willing to defend him. It was James Madison who most accurately summarized Randolph's political obituary: ‘His greatest enemies will not easily persuade themselves that he was under a corrupt influence of France, and his best friends can't save him from the self-condemnation of his political career’ (Brant, 197).

With his resignation from office, Randolph returned to Virginia and re-established his law practice. He concentrated primarily on cases in the Virginia court of appeals, although he also helped to represent Aaron Burr in Burr's 1807 treason trial. Much of his free time Randolph spent on writing his History of Virginia. Although not published in its entirety until 1970, the work was read by many in manuscript. Although not represented as autobiographical, his story of the Virginia past and present was a personal tale. The story of the Randolph family, as he told it, was the story of Virginia in microcosm as the story of Edmund Randolph was that of revolutionary Virginia. As he outlined it, his ideal system of ‘responsible’ politics depended upon conditions peculiar to Virginia, a set of social circumstances ‘favorable to the propagating’ of a ‘spirit of freedom’. That ‘spirit’ was enhanced by an extensive social intercourse. According to Randolph, there was in Virginia an easy intimacy between governors and governed. Social rank was fluid. Frequent elections ‘afforded opportunities or unreserved interchange of ideas between candidates and electors and among electors themselves’.

Randolph drew, then, from Virginia's past and his personal experience a metaphor for contemporary Virginia. He had gone from an honoured career in Virginia to a disastrous failure at the national level. Virginia's excellence—its remarkable political system, within which he and his family had been such successful practitioners—depended on a social geography and an intimacy that, according to Randolph, was being undermined by national politics. From his perspective the Virginians' tenure on the federal stage represented a systematic if unwitting abandonment of their ideals in practice but not in principle. The characteristics of Virginia's ruling gentry that he celebrated in his history were the very characteristics that were being compromised at the federal level. Increasingly the Virginians' concern for a viable federal republic cut them off from their roots in the local community. The demands of professional political organization also made untenable their commitment to amateur politics. The addition of new political processes served to elevate the ‘representative’ style of politics over the ‘responsible’ style. Ultimately, the very qualities of statesmanship which had hitherto been the prerequisites for office in Virginia became a disqualification at the federal level. Randolph died on 12 September 1813 in Millwood, Virginia, and was buried there in the Old Chapel graveyard.

Arthur H. Shaffer

Sources  

E. Randolph, History of Virginia, ed. A. H. Schaffer (1970) · J. J. Reardon, Edmund Randolph: a biography (1974) · I. Brant, ‘Edmund Randolph, not guilty!’, William and Mary Quarterly, 7 (1950), 179–98 · S. Elkins and E. McKitrick, The age of federalism (1993), 424–31 · J. G. Clifford, ‘A muddy middle of the road: the politics of Edmund Randolph, 1790–1795’, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 80 (1972), 286–311 · M. K. Bunsteel Tachan, ‘George Washington and the reputation of Randolph’, Journal of American History, 73 (1986), 15–34 · J. Elliot, ed., Debates in the several state conventions on the adoption of the federal constitution (Philadelphia, 1861), vol. 3 · S. F. Bemis, ed., The American secretaries of state and their diplomacy, 2 (1927)

Archives  

L. Cong., Jefferson papers · L. Cong., Madison papers · L. Cong., Washington papers


Likenesses  

C. Brumidi, portrait, L. Cong. · F. J. Fisher, portrait (after original portrait, now lost), State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia