John Randolph: Aristocrat for Liberty

John Randolph of Roanoke, the early 19th century Virginia planter and statesman who served three decades in Congress, presents a problematic figure today on several fronts. His outlook and career doubtless triggers the woke, perplexes many self-described conservatives, and antagonizes would be authoritarians. An agrarian suspicious of commercial society, Randolph opposed strong government in the United States. He notoriously declared “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.” But Randolph held no brief for aristocratic society in the British Isles where the condition of tenant farmers—especially in Ireland—appalled him. An awkward colleague who often aligned with Federalists against fellow Democratic-Republicans, he never held executive office and had a reputation for erratic behavior. Indeed, some might ask whether a figure like Randolph could be considered a statesman at all.

Russell Kirk, a principal figure in the conservative intellectual revival in the United States after World War II, certainly thought so. He took Randolph as the subject for his MA thesis at Duke University and later a first book. Originally published in 1951 by the University of Chicago Press, John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics offers a portrait of its subject’s thinking rather than full biography encompassing a life and career. Kirk calls it “an account of the lively mind of a radical man who became the most eloquent of American conservatives” framed mainly “to describe his opinions and to suggest their significance.” Randolph’s personality looms large in a career of negation spent opposing measures, along with an internally consistent pattern of politics that appealed to tradition against chaotic change. The revised Liberty Press edition in 1963, reissued in 1978, doubled the length by adding major speeches and selected correspondence to provide a fuller picture of its subject.

Randolph’s personality and ideas appealed to Kirk as an alternative to the regimentation, conformity, and technocratic ethos he despised in the mid-20th century. Studying them also introduced him to the more prominent figure of Edmund Burke who had also made a career of political opposition. Kirk, as his biographer Bradley Birzer notes, saw his work on Randolph as an act of piety that brought the dead back to instruct the living. It anticipated the larger project of tracing a conservative mind from the 18th century as both guide and lineage for a revived conservatism in the United States after World War II. The useable past Kirk revealed supported a political movement that took shape in the 1950s and 60s. America had a conservative tradition and conservative ideas were far more than the irritable mental gestures Lionel Trilling imagined them to be.

A New Conservatism

A revived interest in conservatism preceded Kirk’s own efforts though it also reflected trends in his own thinking. The poet Peter Viereck claimed the label in a 1940 article railing against conformity and the reigning progressivism’s rejection of moral and aesthetic values in favor of science and efficiency. Richard Weaver made a related case in Ideas of Have Consequences a few years later. These critiques paralleled a backlash against the New Deal and wartime regulation that strengthened executive power against localities and engaged the work of traditionalists like Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and the Nashville Agrarians. Conservatism began attracting readers seeking an alternative to dominant trends in midcentury American life.

What did that alternative mean? Where Kirk framed conservatism around tradition and representative thinkers, Samuel Huntington treated it as a political ideology best understood in positional terms. Lacking “what might be termed a substantive ideal,” he defined conservatism as “justifying the established order,” against critics. Huntington disparaged Kirk as “out of tune and out of step in modern America” by drawing upon “malcontents” for his conservative tradition. True conservatism would uphold the technocratic liberal order of the midcentury United States forged by earlier progressives. Conservatism’s impetus, the Harvard political scientist insisted “comes not from the outworn critiques of third rate thinkers, but from the successful performance of first rate institutions.” Readers can look back and rate for themselves the performance of those institutions along with the American liberalism Huntington lauds.

Kirk agreed that conservatism responded to the shock of events, but custom and ideas carried over generations shaped the response. Randolph had drawn him to Edmund Burke whose writings opened further doors that led to The Conservative Mind in 1953 which sought to make explicit implied ties among key figures leading to the present. An audience for higher middlebrow or low highbrow writing that barely exists today encouraged serious writing pitched to a general audience. Kirk stressed the critic’s role—which Huntington also recognized in describing how conservatives diagnosed threats from radicals and the psychology behind them—in defending permanent things. Malcontents like Randolph, Kirk believed, had insight conformist insiders lacked, especially those with horizons limited to the immediate present or the narrow parameters of social science.

Randolph’s Education

A unique character “with the sparkle and torment of eccentricity,” Randolph also reflected the 18th century culture of Virginia that marked his formative years. It grounded authority in material independence and social rank while making truth, courtesy, and responsibility moral absolutes. Liberty itself, as Burke noted, was a kind of rank or privilege, but it also carried the expectation that a free man would be master of himself and a gentleman the servant of his duty. These assumptions differed from those of New England or the Delaware Valley and underpinned resistance to British authority that led to the American Revolution. Royalists of the Old Dominion had become Whigs by the generation before Randolph’s birth.

Kirk describes the Revolution as “essentially a struggle for the preservation of old American ways” with Jefferson’s later reforms aiming to preserve an agrarian society of freeholders. Such was the order Randolph upheld. He considered substantial citizens—men of property or skill with a stake in their communities—the foundation for stable governance. His belief that representatives must share their constituents’ interests and feelings to serve them rejected the British idea of virtual representation and differed sharply from later progressive understandings of public administration. A prudential strain in Randolph’s thinking opposed momentary enthusiasms, notably for the War of 1812, and kept an eye on risk. His, Kirk writes, “was the liberty prescribed by tradition and delimited limited by expediency, not the absolute freedom of the philosophes.”

Randolph had read Enlightenment thinkers, though he later rejected their religious skepticism and political metaphysics. Reading shaped him more than schooling, which he detested. The jurist St. George Tucker, his stepfather, introduced him to William Blackstone’s commentaries, and he later studied law under an uncle, Edmund Randolph, who had been Washington’s Attorney General. Besides immersion in the Greek and Roman classics and important later works on philosophy and history from Machiavelli and Hobbes through Voltaire, he read more recent popular authors. Henry Fielding gave him the allusion to “Blifil and Black George” he used to charge John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay with corruption in a famous speech that ended in a duel with the latter. Kirk describes his taste as more encompassing than Jefferson, except for science, or Adams. Randolph came to view Burke as “the Newton of political philosophy,” but originally thought James Mackintosh had the better case on the French Revolution. Experience and further knowledge changed his views on that score along with religion. Wide reading that even critics recognized made Randolph more than a Virginia squire of strong opinions.

While Randolph argued that slavery would decay over time as economic conditions emancipated slaves by making the system unprofitable, he resisted federal interference and the intensity of debate on the issue made him defend a practice he abhorred. He put his views into practice: in his lifetime, he refused to sell any of his slaves, and not only emancipated them, but provided them funds in his will to purchase land in Ohio and resettle there. After twelve years of litigation, his executor freed them and bought 2,000 acres for their home.

It also formed him as a formidable spokesman for Old Republicans who broke with Jefferson as a third force defending strict construction of the federal constitution to limit the sphere of government. Jefferson, Randolph complained, had exchanged Republican principles for Federalist ones by using executive authority to compensate defrauded land speculators and try to bus Florida from Spain. A powerful rhetorician who relied on vivid illustration to drive home propositions, he eschewed dialectical reasoning as too mechanical and concerned with process over meaning. Randolph looked beyond the point immediately in question to the larger precedent that might be set. Once sacrificed to temporary passion, great principles of free government could not be easily regained. He sided at times with New England Federalists over Jefferson’s embargo and later the War of 1812 before laying down arguments John Calhoun drew upon later to defend states’ rights. Randolph’s speech against supporting the Greek Revolt took a broader view than Adams’ more famous July 4th oration to make the same warning about foreign intervention. No pacifist, Randolph saw war as a risky last resort with higher costs than rewards. The same applied to secession, which he accepted as a right, but not a public good, whether by New England or cotton barons of the lower South. Sometimes his extravagant rhetoric overlaid a deeper prudence concerned to check power lest it be abused.

Randolph also defended an agrarian society of independent smallholders as most conductive to liberty. His arguments here complemented the Old Republic commitment to local control and divided power. They also drew on longstanding English attacks on the fiscal-military state as a source of corruption by Country Whigs that had deeply influenced American political culture. Randolph saw a complex economy based on credit as subordinating real property to bankers and setting up finance as a power within the state no less dangerous than military despotism or temporary majorities. Debt encouraged extravagance whether private or public, and he made “pay as you go” a guiding principle of public finance. Randolph, as Kirk notes, understood comparative advantage and the value of international trade from reading Adam Smith and David Ricardo. While opposing tariffs for transferring wealth from agriculture to industry and trade, he also feared extensive foreign trade could draw the United States into war that would expand the state as the price of liberty. Restraint, independence and hard money offered greater security.

It may surprise current readers that Kirk does not make race and slavery a central theme. Although a slave owner, Randolph opposed slavery on principle while simultaneously seeing it as an almost insoluble problem in the South. He called it a cancer in an 1826 speech from which Kirk takes the title for the relevant chapter, but feared that quack remedies would bring catastrophe by encouraging revolts likely to end with bloodshed. Haiti provided a warning confirmed by other uprisings. While Randolph argued that slavery would decay over time as economic conditions emancipated slaves by making the system unprofitable, he resisted federal interference and the intensity of debate on the issue made him defend a practice he abhorred. He put his views into practice: in his lifetime, he refused to sell any of his slaves, and not only emancipated them, but provided them funds in his will to purchase land in Ohio and resettle there. After twelve years of litigation, his executor freed them and bought 2,000 acres for their home. But resistance in Ohio that drove the freedmen to other parts of the state ironically thwarted Randolph’s original plan.

An Oppositional Character

What made Randolph so intriguing to a Michigander of humble origins like Kirk? Standing in opposition to all the trends of his age made the Virginian an intriguing example. The contrast Weaver drew between Randolph and Henry Thoreau as epitomes of two kinds of individualism—social and anarchic—highlight the appeal. Randolph accepted the obligations of being part of society and faced the world as he found it rather than seeking escape by denial. Weaver saw his approach as compatible with institutions and the best hope for preserving human personality in civil society during a conformist age. Kirk found Randolph a model whose personality and principles fit together. Exploring them anticipated later historical work by Caroline Robbins, Douglass Adair, and Trevor Colbourn that framed the American Founding around a British intellectual tradition shaped by religion and history. It also provided the start for recovering a conservative tradition that became Kirk’s career.

Kirk points out that an acerbic temper and indifference to popularity limited Randolph’s effectiveness as an opposition leader, but he commanded public attention—“like a necromancer fascinating a snake”—as no contemporary could. If his principles lost support during his own life, the defense he mounted preserved them to influence later generations which gave them more hearing than appreciated. Burke showed how the critic can be as much a statesman as those who manage or forge institutions. Indeed, he left a greater stamp in opposition than many who held office. Randolph blazed a similar path in the United States a generation later that still captivates. The malcontent made his mark.