Jacksonian Miscellanies, #27: September 2, 1997

Topic: John Randolph - Home Reminiscences

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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Home Reminiscences


John Randolph




Powhatan Bouldin

Danville, VA.

Published by the Author

Richmond, VA

Clemmitt & Jones, Printers


QUERY: I'd like to hear from anyone interested in a small-scale reprinting of this book, done in 19th century "subscription" style, for something in the neighborhood of $20.

No well-known 19th century American is as much like a character out of Dostoevsky as John Randolph. If he were to meet Nicholai Stavrogan, of The Possessed, one would expect them either to embrace, or try to kill each other in a duel. Such compounds of nobility, cruelty, brilliant wit, and madness, a staple of Dostoevsky and Gogol, are extremely rare in American history or fiction. Is this an enlightening observation? I wonder.

Powhatan Bouldin grew up and lived among the neighbors of John Randolph, and was the son and nephew of the next two men to serve in Randolph's congressional seat. John Randolph, of Roanoke, as he styled himself (the "of", having the sense of the French "de", or German "von", I expect) exerted a remarkable psychic power over those around him, as shown in Bouldin's memoir of Randolph.

Though widely regarded as mad, or at least the "strangest man who ever lived", he was returned to congress time after time, and, according to Bouldin, only defeated once, by

The following passage gives, I think, a better sense of the method to Randolph's madness (and the "secret of his success") than anything else I have read (though there is a lot I haven't read).


IN one respect, Mr. Randolph's life may be regarded a perfect success. From the time that he made his first appearance upon the political arena, to the last year of his life, he held high and responsible positions in the affairs of the nation.

"For more than thirty years," says Mr. Benton, "he was the political meteor of Congress, blazing with undiminished splendor during the whole time. His parliamentary life was resplendent in talent, elevated in moral tone, always moving on the lofty line of honor and patriotism, and scorning everything mean and selfish. He was the indignant enemy of personal and plunder legislation, and the very scourge of intrigue and corruption." "During the first six years of Mr. Jefferson's administration," adds the same high authority, "he was the Murat of his party, brilliant in the charge, and always ready for it, and valued in the council as well as in the field. In England we are informed that "his company was sought after by the nobility and gentry, and on one occasion royalty itself condescended to admit him within the same tent." Lord L. was forced to acknowledge that his conversations were most dazzling even in London.

His example of lofty purpose, untarnished honor and manly bearing, was worth a great deal to the nation. It is true that there are few great measures of civil polity which his admirers can lay their hands upon, and say: "This is Randolph's work!" Mr. Baldwin says: "None." Mr. Sawyer admits that "there were some important measures for which the nation is indebted to his oratorical powers, as the originator and successful defender;" and he mentions the substitution under the appropriate heads, of specific, instead of general and indefinite appropriations, which he brought about after a warm and extremely powerful discussion with Mr. Lowndes, of South Carolina, who advocated the old system. The standing appropriation of $200,000, for arming the whole body of the militia, is also placed to his credit.

The reader doubtless remembers that in his speech at Halifax Court­house, in 1827, he plead guilty to the charge of "trying to pull down other men's work," and boasted that "it was the brightest feather in his cap." "My whole aim," he said, "has been to prevent not to promote legislation."

But it is to Mr. Randolph at home that we wish to devote ourself mainly. He exerted an influence which no other man in his district or any other district ever did. His power was almost supreme. We stated that he never was defeated but once before the people, and that was by Mr. Eppes, who he charged was imported like a stallion, for the purpose of being run against him.

Mr. Baldwin, in his Party Leaders, says "he was defeated, and without a murmur bowed his head to the stroke."

We say emphatically that is not Mr. Randolph. He may have gone about in a more pleasing shape than that of a roaring lion, but he certainly sought whom he might devour. His resentment was high and lasting. He never did forgive those who voted against him. Mr. Baldwin invests him with a degree of Christian patience, which he was far from possessing. Of all the men upon the face of the earth, we should say he was the least disposed to bow to a stroke of that sort. One of his old constituents once told us that he frequently alluded to the canvass with Eppes, in which he was defeated, and in no pleasant manner. We were forcibly reminded of this remark when we read the manuscript report of the last speech he made to the people of Charlotte nearly twenty years after the canvass with Eppes. This speech, as reported by one who heard it, and took it down at the time, is now before us; and in it we find him cutting at those who assisted in returning him, "to be discharged from the confidence of his old constituents." We once heard one of the keenest observers of human nature say, that notwithstanding Mr. Randolph visited on terms of friendship at her brother's, she fancied she could see in his eye, beneath all that was superficial, that he remembered her father's political opposition long years before.

The question is sure to rise in the minds of intelligent readers, how did Mr. Randolph gain such continued support of the people? What made them vote for him?

We have the greatest respect for Mr. Benton's "Thirty Years" view of Mr. Randolph in Congress; but not much value could be placed upon a picture of Mr. Randolph at home, taken from his observatory at Washington. In our estimation, the likeness drawn by Hon. James W. Bouldin, who saw him in his house, on his plantation, and on the court green, is much more valuable.

When Mr. Benton informed us that he never saw Mr. Randolph affected by wine, we were somewhat surprised; but we were still more so when he intimates that his popularity was founded upon the love and affection of his people. A member of Congress for sixteen years with him, and who afterwards published a biography of him, after speaking of his strong and lasting friendship for Mr. Tazewell, says: "So with many others, and preeminently so of his constituents- the people of his congressional district-affectionate and faithful to him, electing him, as they did, from boyhood to the grave."

Again, Mr. Benton says, his friendship with Mr. Macon was historical. It is true that his friendship for a few, very few, of his neighbors, and constituents in the different counties composing his district, was proverbial; but it is equally true that his capacity for friendship was very small.

In conversing with the old men of Charlotte, they will talk a long time about how Mr. Randolph flattered this one to carry his point; how he barbecued another for merely differing with him in opinion; how he drove men clean out of the country who offended him; how ridiculous he sometimes made his acquaintances appear; we say they will entertain you a long time in this way, before they will mention one word about his friendship for anybody, or anybody's for him.

The means which a master spirit employs in gaining his influence and establishing himself firmly upon his throne, must ever be a subject for curious speculation. This is particularly the case in regard to Mr. Randolph. But, really, we should never get at the secret of his success if we relied on the books that have been written; they being inconsistent with themselves and with one another upon this point.

His first biographer attributes his popularity to his "acts of neighborly kindness," and his "free and easy manners." Another says, "his want of charity was his greatest defect;" and laments that, "to the constancy and intrepidity of Mr. Randolph were not allied the suavity and gentleness of manner, which had made those stern attributes to be beloved as well as admired."

Mr. Baldwin states that Mr. Randolph was "eminently unsocial, proud, reserved, uncommunicative," and that "he never made a speech that he did not make more enemies than converts. How then did he manage always but once to be elected? And what becomes of Mr. Benton's theory of the affection of his constituents, electing him, as they did, from boyhood to the grave? And there is something almost laughable in the idea that Mr. Randolph owed his success to "his acts of neighborly kindness." He did not owe it to his "free and easy manners," nor to his "imposing presence," nor to the affection of his constituents gained by any means; but he owed it to his commanding genius, to the force of his will and the great strength of his moral and physical courage. And it was chiefly by flattery, by domineering, by bullying, that he obtained his unparalleled sway. But his was not the fulsome adulation applied without discrimination; nor was he an ordinary street bully. In all his acts he was infinitely above ordinary men. His knowledge of human nature was miraculous, and he had the greatest facility for applying his knowledge. He had unwavering supporters; but for the most part they were men who had no affection for him, who had never received any favors at his hands. Some voted for him because he was an able and fearless exponent of their principles; but it was, as we stated, chiefly by arts of flattery and bullying that he obtained his almost supreme power in his district. There is much truth in what Miss Mary Bouldin replied, when we asked her how Mr. Randolph gained his position in society: "By kicking every body else out of their places and getting in himself," she said. She went on to state, that if there was a man who stood high in the community before Mr. Randolph came to the county himself, a man of great talents and virtue, he soon gave him to understand that he, Randolph, must be foremost, and that he did not intend to join in the worship of him. If a citizen of his county held a prominent position and opposed him, he immediately set to work to pull him down-and that must have been a solid foundation which his destructive hand could not demolish.

No one flattered more his friends than he did; none were capable of doing it in finer style. Few could resist his arts. A young man of talent and promise, upon whom he chose for some cause or other to lavish his favors, might be conscious of his insincerity, might have received the solemn warnings of his friends, still he would remain under the spell of his influence. Nor could he be led away from the snare by his father even, until the tempter changed his better nature, and "by some devilish cantrap slight," suddenly forced him from his presence. Then followed tears of repentance, for having neglected the advice of his parent who, from long observation, had discovered how easily Mr. Randolph's friendship was estranged, and how deadly his resentment against those he once pretended to love.

When he chose to make himself agreeable, there was a charm about him which was irresistible. The pious old lady, who religiously observed the second commandment, never having seen Mr. Randolph, might grieve to find her husband worshiping an idol below, but when she too came to know him well, found herself kneeling at the same idolatrous shrine. We should like to know how many of those he determined to win ever failed to be won. The only way of escape, we imagine, was to flee. To remain within the sound of that voice, when in tune, to gaze upon that eye when "the fire was quenched," was certain and hopeless captivity. It is curious how that eye and that voice could be made at one time the instrument of such pleasure, and at another of such pain; how his presence should be so fascinating to his friends, and so terrible to his foes. But it is no wonder that with these extraordinary physical advantages and his genius he "raised emotions never felt before," and produced effects which the world despaired of ever witnessing again.

But, like Swift, Mr. Randolph coveted the fear of his fellow man more than his love or admiration. His genius was idolized, but the man was not beloved. He possessed the art of making people in love with themselves, but not with him. He mixed very little with society at home, and had none of those qualities which drew his supporters near. He looked upon mankind in the light in which they are represented in the Scriptures, but without charity. Hence he preferred to govern by fear rather than by love; to drive, instead of leading them gently by the hand.

We are not mistaken in saying that he possessed an influence in his district which no other man ever did. During a long career of public service, as stated before, he was never defeated before the people but once. His conduct, in consequence of that defeat, his never forgetting it, his high resentment against those who voted against him, and the means he adopted of repairing his loss and ensuring his next election, lets us into the secret of his great success, and utterly dispels the illusion about his "bowing his head to the stroke without a murmur."

In some places we are informed the people voted for his opponent en masse. He found out the leading men in all the neighborhoods which went against him. It is astonishing what a knowledge he had, not only of the public affairs of others, but of their private concerns. It seemed he knew everything that was going on, heard everything to be heard, and saw everything in sight, and what he could neither see nor hear, he had some one to tell him, even if it was a negro.

So it was one court day he sought out a certain Mr. S., who he knew had carried a certain precinct almost unanimously for Mr. Eppes. He met him with malice prepense, but with all the forms of the greatest politeness and friendship.

Now let the reader bear in mind that whenever Mr. Randolph stopped for a moment on the street, the people began to collect around him, and if he remained long at a place talking politics to any one, the whole court green was gazing at him, and eagerly catching in every word he said.

Mr. S. being artfully drawn into a political discussion, Mr. Randolph propounded to him some of the most difficult questions that ever were conceived of, questions which perhaps Webster himself could not have answered.

His opponent being a plain farmer, who made no pretensions to deep learning, failed of course to solve the abstruse problems. Mr. Randolph would then express the greatest astonishment that a man of his sense and weight in the community had not turned his attention to those matters.

Mr. Randolph raising his voice to a pitch resembling a speech, by this time had gathered a tremendous crowd around him, who witnessed the agonizing scene. Mr. S. would have given his right arm for a chance to escape; but the inexorable schoolmaster held him on to his lessons. To break off and run before everybody, and with a fire in rear, was what he could not stand.

Mr. Randolph kept putting knotty questions to him, which he failed to answer, whereupon he would repeat his expressions of astonishment. Still, all was done in such elegant style, that no offense could be taken. But no school­boy on examination ever suffered more at being deficient than did Mr. S. on this memorable occasion.

The sympathies of the spectators were all against the ignorant man who undertook to control the votes of others. For, we may rest assured, that Mr. Randolph, before he was done with him, made them believe that his antagonist had committed an unpardonable sin. We would not be surprised if they were enraged both against themselves and him- themselves for following the blind and him for presuming to lead.

This thorough examination and exposure, before a large collection of people, we are informed, completely destroyed the confidence of the neighbors in the political sagacity of the said Mr. S. At the next election Mr. Randolph carried the precinct by an overwhelming majority.

This unmerciful chastisement was to be, moreover, a warning to all who should dare to take an active part against him for all time to come.

Few men who, if they had the ability, have the heart to expose a man after this manner. But, we must recollect, Mr. Randolph could stand no opposition, and individual feeling was never in his way. Nor did he regulate the punishment according to the offence. If he were thwarted in the least, he would crush the very soul of his opponent.

Attacks upon the feelings and opinions of others was one of the means he adopted of maintaining his supremacy. But he also made people afraid of the dirk which he wore in his pocket. Generally, he could pierce a man through with that long bony finger; but those who were insensible to that, he wished to keep in dread of the solid metal.

His plan was to make people afraid of him physically, as well as mentally. He frequently talked about shooting people. He threatened to shoot Mr. S., and actually called for him at a sale for the purpose; but Mr. S. stood firm and Mr. Randolph abandoned what he pretended was his purpose.

He also threatened the son of Mr. S., and scared him terribly, for talking about whipping his servant, Juba.

As to his servants, he kept them in terror of him.

After his return from Russia, and after the Southampton insurrection, he gave orders that all his negroes should change quarters. Those at the lower should be moved to the upper plantation, and vice versa. At the same time he instituted a general search for stolen goods.

In one of the cabins he found some wood, which he said he was convinced was stolen. He shut himself up in the same room with the suspected negro, told him he could not live in the same world with such a rascal, and gave him one gun, and he took another. The poor slave, alarmed nearly to death, ran up stairs and jumped out of the window.

All this was for effect. He knew his servant was afraid to defend himself; nor had he the slightest idea of shooting him; his sole object was to place the negro in terror.

His method of dealing with his overseers is well known in the county. We have seen how he dismissed one for not joining in his abuse of a neighbor, and how he made another pull off his shoes before he went in to see him; we will now, state how he served another for a slight variation of orders.

In a spirit of spiteful annoyance to a gentleman who resided on the opposite side of Staunton river, and who kept a ferry, he established another, offering its use gratuitously. One day Mr. Randolph rode down and found York, the ferryman, absent from his post. The overseer was immediately summoned to explain why it was so.

Mr. Randolph asked him if he did not tell him that York was to be on the bank?

The overseer replied that he had merely sent him a little way off to worm some tobacco, which he thought he could do, and attend to the ferry besides.

"The next time you disobey my orders," said Mr. Randolph," I wish you to understand that you are to be cashiered."

Mr. Randolph has the reputation of being one of the strangest men that ever lived; and we have no doubt the reader, when he opened this volume, expected to find a record of some of his extraordinary deeds. If not already satisfied that there never lived a human being like him, we are confident he will be when he peruses the following incidents, written at our solicitation by the late Henry Carrington, of Charlotte county, Virginia, a gentleman of the highest standing, who was an eye witness to the scenes described, and whose statements are entitled to the utmost credit. We are glad to be able to lay them before the reader in his own words and graceful style. Mr. Carrington says:

Mr. Carrington continues:

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