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John Randolph (June 2, 1773 – May 24, 1833), known as John Randolph of Roanoke, was a Congressman from Virginia, serving in the House of Representatives (1799–1813, 1815–1817, 1819–1825, 1827–1829, 1833), the Senate (1825–1827), and also as Minister to Russia (1830). He was a leader of and spokesman for the "Old Republican" or "Quids" faction of the Democratic-Republican Party that wanted to restrict the role of the federal government.


He was born at Cawsons, Virginia (now in Hopewell, Virginiamarker), he was the son of rich tobacco planter John Randolph (1742–1775) and Frances Bland (1744–1788). A peculiar illness as a young man left Randolph beardless and high-voiced (possibly Klinefelter's syndrome). He was the nephew of Theodorick Bland and Thomas Tudor Tucker and a half brother of Henry St. George Tucker, Sr. and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker.

He studied under private tutors, at Walter Maury's private school, then College of New Jerseymarker, and Columbia College, New York City. He studied law in Philadelphiamarker, but never practiced. At an unusually young age Randolph was elected to the Sixth and to the six succeeding Congresses (1799 to 1813). Federalist William Plumer of New Hampshiremarker wrote in 1803 of his striking presence:
Mr. Randolph goes to the House booted and spurred, with his whip in hand, in imitation, it is said, of members of the British Parliament. He is a very slight man but of the common stature. At a little distance, he does not appear older than you are; but, upon a nearer approach, you perceive his wrinkles and grey hairs. He is, I believe, about thirty. He is a descendant in the right line from the celebrated Indian Princess, Pochahontas. The Federalists ridicule and affect to despise him; but a despised foe often proves a dangerous enemy. His talents are certainly far above mediocrity. As a popular speaker, he is not inferior to any man in the House. I admire his ingenuity and address; but I dislike his politics.

Randolph was chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means in the Seventh through the Ninth Congresses, acting as the Democratic-Republican party leader. After breaking with President Thomas Jefferson in 1806, he founded the Tertium quids, a faction of the Democratic-Republican Party that called for a return to the Principles of 1798 and renounced what it saw as creeping nationalism.

Although he greatly admired the political ideals of the Revolutionary War generation, Randolph, influenced by Southern anti-Federalism, propounded a version of republicanism that called for the traditional patriarchal society of Virginia's elite gentry to preserve social stability with minimal government interference. Randolph was one of the Congressional managers who conducted the successful impeachment proceedings against John Pickering, judge of the United States District Court for New Hampshiremarker, in January 1804. Critics complained that he mismanaged the failed effort in December of the same year against Samuel Chase, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker.

In June 1807 he was the foreman of the Grand Jury in Richmond Va., which was considering the indictment of Aaron Burr and others for treason. By the end of the review he was angry with Thomas Jefferson for supporting General James Wilkinson, Burr's chief accuser. He considered Wilkinson less than a reputable and honorable person.

He was defeated for re-election in 1812 due to his opposition to the War of 1812, but elected in 1814 and 1816, skipped a term, and served from 1819 until his resignation in 1825. Randolph was appointed to the Senate in December, 1825 to fill a vacancy, and served until 1827. Randolph was elected to the Congress in 1826, chairing the Committee on Ways and Means.

Randolph was a member of the Virginia constitutional convention at Richmond in 1829. He was appointed United States Minister to Russia by President Andrew Jackson and served from May to September, 1830, when he resigned for health reasons. Elected again in 1832, he served until his death in Philadelphia on May 24, 1833. He is buried at Hollywood Cemeterymarker in Richmond, Virginiamarker. He never married.

Autographed portrait of John Randolph
John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Randolph of Roanoke," although written after the Virginian had become a symbol of "slave power," capture his strange brilliance:

Mirth, sparkling like a diamond shower,
From lips of life-long sadness;
Clear picturings of majestic thought
Upon a ground of madness
While others hailed in distant skies
Our eagle's dusky pinion,
He only saw the mountain bird
Stoop o'er his Old Dominion!
All parties feared him; each in turn
Beheld its schemes disjointed,
At right or left his fatal glance
And spectral finger pointed

A modern conservative political group, the John Randolph Club, is named after Randolph. Randolph-Macon Collegemarker and Randolph College also bear his name.

Eccentricity and outsider status

Despite being a Virginia gentleman, one of the great orators in the history of Caroline, and House leader, Randolph after five years of leadership became (1803) a permanent outsider and eccentric. He had personal eccentricities as well, which were made worse by his lifelong ill health (he died of tuberculosis), his heavy drinking, and his occasional use of opium. He once fought a duel with Henry Clay, but otherwise kept his bellicosity to the floor of Congress. He routinely dressed in a flashy manner, often accompanied by his slaves and his hunting dogs.

In 1819, John Randolph wrote in his will a provision for the freedom of his slaves after his death. Three years later, in 1822, in a codicil to that will, he stipulated that money be provided to transport and settle these freed slaves in some other state (Ohio). (A group of the former "Randolph Slaves" settled in Rumley, Shelby County, Ohiomarker. See List of ghost towns in the United States).


Randolph was raised and remained within the Episcopalian Church. Although he went through a phase of youthful irreligion, in 1818 he had a crisis ending in a conversion experience, all of which he recounted in letters to several friends. His life thereafter was marked with piety; for example, he wrote to John Brockenbrough that he was restrained from taking communion "by the fear of eating and drinking unrighteously."

A paper by David Barton published on the occasion of Keith Ellison's swearing-in to congress referred to Randolph's youthful rooting for the Muslim side when reading about the Crusades and that he at that time "imbibed an absurd prejudice in favor of Mahomedanism and its votaries". This was expanded upon in the Washington Times to a claim that Randolph actually was a Muslim, an assertion uniformly rejected by historians. There is no evidence that he ever owned or read a Qur'an, said daily prayers facing Meccamarker, or fasted in Ramadan (which are the basic requirements of a convert).


"We all know our duty better than we discharge it."

"I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality."

"Time is at once the most valuable, and the most perishable of all our possessions."

(In reference to the Embargo Act of 1807:) "It can be likened to curing corns by cutting off the toes."

See also


  • Randolph, John. Letters of John Randolph, to a Young Relative, 1834, 254 pp.
  • Randolph, John. Collected letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812–1833, edited by Kenneth Shorey; foreword by Russell Kirk, Transaction Books, 1988. ISBN 0-88738-194-4



  • Adams, Henry. John Randolph (1882); New Edition with Primary Documents and Introduction by Robert McColley, 1996, ISBN 1-56324-653-8; negative assessment.
  • Bruce, William Cabell. John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773–1833; a biography based largely on new material, in 2 volumes, New York, London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922 (2nd revised edition in 1 volume 1939, reprinted New York, Octagon Books, 1970); exhaustive details
  • Dawidoff, Robert. The Education of John Randolph, New York, Norton, (1979), ISBN 0-393-01242-5
  • Kirk, Russell. Randolph of Roanoke; a study in conservative thought, (1951), 186 pp. Short essay; recent editions include many letters
  • John Randolph of Roanoke: a study in American politics, with selected speeches and letters, 4th ed., Indianapolis, IN : Liberty Fund, 1997, 588 pp. ISBN 0-86597-150-1; focus on JR's political philosophy
  • Risjord, Norman K. The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson (1965); the standard history of the Randolph faction.
  • Tate, Adam L. "Republicanism and Society: John Randolph of Roanoke, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and the Quest for Social Order." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 2003 111(3): 263–298.

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