Born: 1773-06-02 Prince Edward County, Virginia
Died: 1833-05-24 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
John Randolph was a U.S. representative, U.S. Senator, orator, and states-rights theorist. Known as John Randolph of Roanoke to distinguish him from his kinsmen, Randolph grew up in comfortable circumstances, the son of parents who could trace their lineage back to the first families of Virginia. Precocious but undisciplined, John received his early education from private tutors. Brief sojourns at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), Columbia, and William and Mary resulted in no collegiate diploma, and he read law with Edmund Randolph in New York, but never gained admission to the bar or practiced law. Randolph instead found his calling in politics, standing for the House of Representatives in 1799. Entering the House in 1800 as a staunch Jeffersonian Republican, Randolph became one of the most vehement opponents of the Federalists. After Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency, he became one of the administration's chief congressional lieutenants during Jefferson's first term, chairing the House Ways and Means Committee and shepherding the Louisiana Purchase through the House. Jefferson lost confidence in him, however, after Randolph mis-managed the impeachments of judges Timothy Pickering and Samuel Chase in 1804 and 1805, respectively, and by 1806, Randolph had broken with Jefferson and James Madison. A staunch believer in state sovereignty who never warmed to the nationalist vision of Jefferson and Madison, Randolph joined with other like-minded Virginians, the "quids," to commence a career of opposition. Cantankerous, eccentric, dogmatic, irascible, unyielding, and uncompromising, Randolph used his platform in the House to skewer his opponents and advance his core principles: states rights, opposition to federal power, and the threat of democracy and American nationalism to the property rights of slaveholders. Easily offended, quick to challenge opponents to duels, prone to violence, searing in his rhetoric, yet often magnanimous, polite, kind-hearted, Randolph cut an intimidating and bizarre figure. He remained in the House until 1812, when he lost a bid for another term because of his opposition to the War of 1812. In 1815, he returned to the House, serving until 1817. Not a candidate for re-election in 1816, Randolph regained his seat in 1818 and won re-election to the next three Congresses, serving from March 1819 until his resignation in December 1825. On December 8, 1825, the Virginia Senate elected him to the U.S. Senate to fill the unexpired term of James Barbour, who had resigned. Randolph served in the Senate from December 1825 to March 1827. The Virginia Senate did not return him to the Senate in 1827, and he returned to the House, serving until March 1829. Randolph increasingly turned his vitriol toward the National Republicans, particularly Henry Clay and his American System. In 1824, Randolph's attacks prompted Clay to challenge him to a duel; Clay fired and missed; Randolph, whose aim was usually flawless, fired in the air. In May 1830, President Andrew Jackson appointed him ambassador to Russia. He resigned in September and returned to Virginia to join the southern opposition to President Jackson in the nullification controversy. Virginia voters again elected him to the House in 1832, and he served until his death. Unbending and unforgiving to the end, he left instructions to be buried at his Virginia home facing west--facing east was customary--so he could keep an eye on Henry Clay.
Gravestone, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA; Robert Dawidoff, "Randolph, John," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18:129-31; Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 140-42; Biographical Directory of the America Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 1705-06.