Attorney General Edmund Randolph




Randolph, Edmund statesman, born in Williamsburg, Virginia, 10 August, 1753; died in Clarke county, Virginia, 13 September, 1813. He was distinguished for scholarship and eloquence at William and Mary College, and at eighteen years of age was orator to commemorate the royal founders, the oration being printed by the faculty. After studying law with his father he was admitted to the bar. He was a favorite of Lord Dunmore, and when his parents left for England was only withheld from sailing with them by enthusiasm for the American cause.



Washington took him into his family as aide-decamp, 15 August, 1775, and Randolph received the guests at headquarters; but on the sudden death of his uncle Peyton he returned to Williamsburg. In the Virginia convention of 1776 he assisted in framing the constitution and passing the bill of rights. He opposed the demand of Patrick Henry that the governor should have power of veto. At the close of the convention he was elected mayor of Williamsburg, and he was also the first attorney-general of Virginia's new constitution. In 1779 he was elected to congress, but soon resigned. In 1780 he was re-elected, and remained in congress two years. There he was occupied with foreign affairs. He resigned his seat in 1782, and after his father's death in 1783 succeeded to the property of his uncle Peyton, which had become encumbered with claims against his father. These he might have met by selling the Negroes, but, being conscientiously opposed to this, he had to work hard at his profession.

He was one of the commissioners at the Annapolis convention which induced congress to summon the Constitutional convention of 1787. Being governor of Virginia (1786-'88), he largely influenced the choice of delegates, and it was due to his persuasion that Washington's resolution not to attend was overcome. As leader of the Virginia delegation he introduced the general plan of a constitution that had been agreed on among them as a basis for opening the convention. He also drafted a detailed scheme of his own, which was discovered in 1887 among the papers of George Mason. His career in the convention was brilliant, and elicited admiration from Benjamin Franklin, who generally voted with him.
He earnestly opposed the single executive, the presidential re-eligibility and pardoning power, the vice-presidential office, and senatorial equality of states. He desired an executive commission chosen by the national legislature, and resembling that of the present Swiss republic. He favored a strong Federal government which was to have power of directly negating state laws that should be decided to be unconstitutional by the supreme court. On his motion the word "slavery" was eliminated from the constitution. He refused to sign the document except on condition that a second National convention should be called after its provisions had been discussed in the country; but in the Virginia convention of 1788 he advocated its ratification on the ground that a ninth state was needed to secure the Union, and that within the Union amendments might be passed.
The opposition, led by Patrick Henry, was powerful, and the ratification, even by a small majority (ten), was mainly due to Governor Randolph, whose inflexible independence of party was then and after described as vacillation. He urged amendments; owing to his vigilance the clause of Art. VI., on religious tests for office, implying power over the general subject, was supplemented by the first article added to the constitution. He resigned the governorship in 1788, and secured a seat in the assembly for the purpose of working on the committee for making a codification of the state laws. The code published at Richmond in folio, 1794, was mainly his work. While so occupied he was appointed by the president (27 September, 1789) attorney-general of the United States.

In response to a request of the House of Representatives he wrote an extended report (1790) on the judiciary system. Among the many important cases arising under the first administration of the constitution was Chisholm vs. Georgia, involving the right of an alien to sue a state. To the dismay of his southern friends, Randolph proved that right to the satisfaction of the court. His speech was widely circulated as a pamphlet, and was reprinted by legislative order in Massachusetts, while the alarm of debtors to England led to the 11th amendment. Early in 1795 Randolph issued, under the name of "Germanicus," an effective pamphlet against the " Democratic societies," which were charged with fomenting the whiskey rebellion at Pittsburgh, and exciting an American Jacobinism.

Randolph tried to pursue, as usual, a non-partisan course in foreign affairs with a leaning toward France, Washington doing the like. Jefferson having retired, Randolph accepted, very reluctantly, 2 January, 1794, the office of secretary of state. His advice that an envoy should go to England, but not negotiate, was overruled. He advised the president to sign the Jay treaty only on condition that the "provision order" for the search of neutral ships were revoked. The Republicans were furious that the president and Randolph should think of signing the treaty apart from the "provision order"; but Washington, after the objectionable 12th article had been eliminated, was willing to overlook its other faults, but for the order issued to search American ships and seize the provisions on them. Meanwhile France was so enraged about the treaty that Monroe could hardly remain in Paris. During Jay's secret negotiations, the French minister, Fauchet, left Philadelphia in anger.

The president had carried on through Randolph soothing diplomacy with France, and especially flattered the vanity of Fauchet, the French minister in Philadelphia, with an affectation of confidence. The Frenchman did not fail in dispatches to his employers to make the most of this. Also, being impecunious, he hinted to his government that with “several thousand dollars” he could favorably influence, American affairs, alleging a suggestion by Randolph to that effect. This dispatch was intercepted by a British ship and forwarded to the English minister in Philadelphia, (Hammond) just in time to determine the result of the struggle concerning the treaty. Washington had made up his mind not to sign the treaty until the "provision order” was revoked, and so informed the secretary of state in a letter from Mount Vernon, 22 July, 1795. The intercepted dispatch of Fauchet altered this determination, and the treaty was signed without the condition The only alternatives of the administration were to acknowledge the assurances diplomatically given to Fauchet, as egregiously falsified by him, or, now that they might be published, accept Randolph as scapegoat. It is difficult to see how Washington could have saved his friend, even if ready to share his fate. Randolph, having indignantly resigned his office, pursued Fauchet (now recalled) to Newport, and obtained from him a full retractation and exculpation. He then prepared his “Vindication.”
After the intercepted letter was shown him. but withheld from the doomed secretary, Washington treated Randolph with exceptional affection, visiting his house, and twice giving him the place of honor at his table. It is maintained by Randolph’s biographer (M. D. Conway) that this conduct, and his failure to send for the other dispatches alluded to, indicate Washington’s entire disbelief of the assertions of Fauchet, whose intrigues he well knew (dispatch to Monroe, 29 July, 1795). Randolph had attended to Washington’s law-business in Virginia, always heavy, steadily refusing payment, and could hardly have been suspected of venality. The main charge against Randolph was based on Fauchet’s allegation of “precieuses confessions” made to him by the secretary. But that dispatch was closely followed by another, discovered in 1888, at Paris, in which Fauchet announced that he had found them “fausses confidences.” The charge of intrigue and revealing secrets is thus finally disposed of. In addition to the “Vindication of Mr. Randolph’s Resignation” (Philadelphia, 1795), the ex-secretary wrote a remarkable pamphlet, published the following year, “Political Truth, or Animadversions on the Past and Present State of Public Affairs.”

After his resignation, Randolph was received with public demonstrations of admiration in Richmond, where he resumed the practice of law. The ruin of his fortunes was completed by an account made up against him of $49,000 for “moneys placed in his hands to defray the expenses of foreign intercourse.” Under the system of that period the secretary of state personally disbursed the funds provided for all foreign service, and if any money were lost through the accidents of war, or the failure of banks, he was held responsible. After repeated suits in which juries could not agree, Randolph, confident in the justice of his case, challenged an arbitration by the comptroller of the treasury, Gabriel Duval, who decided against him. Thereupon his lands, and the Negroes so conscientiously kept from sale and dispersion, were made over to Hon. Wilson Cary Nicholas, by whom the debt was paid in bonds, from which the government gained $7,000 more than the debt and interest.


Meanwhile Randolph had again taken his place at the head of the Virginia bar. He was one of the counsel of Aaron Burr on his trial for treason at Richmond. He also wrote an important “ History of Virginia,” the greater part of which is now in possession of the Historical society of Virginia. Though much used by historians, it has never been published. In it there is an admirable sketch of the life and character of Washington, concerning whom no bitterness survived in his breast. For the fullest account of Edmund Randolph, and of his ancestors, see “Omitted Chapters of History, disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph,” by Non-cure D. Conway (New York, 1888).

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