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Thursday, December 25, 2008

THE LEGACY OF MR RANDOLPH

I agree with William Plummer’s 1803 assessment of John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia; “I admire his ingenuity and address, but I dislike his politics.” John Randolph represents the mother root of two great branches in American conservative politics, patrician conservatives and gay conservatives; because if John Randolph wasn’t gay, then neither was Roy Cohen. Some biographies of Randolph insist that he suffered from a condition called “Klinefelter’s syndrome”, but that condition occurs in only 1 out of every 500 males, or 0.02% of the general population, while homosexuality is a genetic variation that occurs in (conservatively) 5 – 6% of the population, making it much more likely that Randolph was gay. And in any case both conditions are genetic variations, having nothing to do with sin, intelligence, choice or morality. So, from a purely practical standpoint, it is just simpler to concede that Randolph was gay and move on.

Randolph was a slave-owning elegantly dressed ‘fashionista’, described by one author as “The most notorious American political curmudgeon of his time”. That may be putting it kindly. John Randolph specialized in what the Romans called the “Argumentum Ad Hominem” or the ‘argument against the man’. As a verbal tool it allows the speaker to change the subject by tarring a political position with the alleged sins of its advocates, and forcing the advocates to defend themselves. And if that method of attack sounds familiar, it is confirmation of the connection between Randolph’s ideological bloodline and its present practitioners, like Karl Rove. John Quincy Adams borrowed from Ovid to describe John Randolph; “His face is ashen, gaunt his whole body, His breath is green with gall; His tongue drips poison.” It is a fair description of the “…abusive eloquence which he possessed in such abundance”. Either description could have been used for Mr. Rove by his opponents.

It is a shame that both of those distinguished blood lines are now being excised from the Republican Party in preference to the “Joe the Plumber” template. The idea that a dumb, uneducated heterosexual conservative is preferable to a smart homosexual conservative is akin to abandoning a talking dog because you don’t like the way he pronounces “Béarnaise sauce”. “Joe” and his supporters remind me of the words of British Prime Minster Lloyd George who said of one opponent; “He has a retail mind in a wholesale business.” Or, to paraphrase John Selden, ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but ignorance in general is inexcusable.

Randolph’s first biographer, Lemuel Sawyer, described him this way; “As an orator he was more splendid than solid; as a politician he (lacked) the profound views of a great statesman, and a larger stock of patience, gentleness, and pliability…he was too intolerant…” But John Randolph admitted to enjoying “That most delicious of all privileges – spending other people’s money.” He was elected to congress at 26 years of age in 1799 and served off and on in both houses (as well as in the Virginia State legislature) until his death. He never married, and admitted “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality." And in describing his chosen career Randolph observed that “If electioneering were allowed in heaven, it would corrupt the angels.” As if to prove his point, in 1824 Randolph turned his cutting tongue loose on Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (below). Randolph gave the most important speech of his life on the floor of the U.S. Senate which was described by one author as “rambling, sometimes incoherent, funny, insulting and devastating….filled with literary and classical allusions, among other odds and ends, and delivered with a delightful insouciance.”
Randolph attacked the Federalist position and said any compromise with Clay or Adams, was anathema; “…their friendship is a deadly distinction, their touch pollution”. And as to the very idea of a strong central government, Randolph called it “That spirit which considers the many, as made only for a few, which sees in government nothing but a job, which is never so true to itself as when false to the nation.” I’ve read that speech at least ten times and each time it makes less sense to me than it did before. At the time, however, it had a great effect on its audience. Then Randolph got down to the most troublesome part of his attack. He described Henry Clay as “…so brilliant yet so corrupt, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.” Amongst southern aristocrats, being called a ‘stinking mackerel’ were fighting words. Henry Clay (above) was willing to overlook the insult until, in 1826, the insult was repeated in print, in the United States Telegraph newspaper. Clay could no longer pretend Randolph had not said the words, and after a properly stiff exchange of notes, Clay issued Randolph a challenge to what one witness described as the “…the last high-toned duel I ever saw”. They met at about 4:30 p.m. on April 8th 1826, just over the Little Falls Bridge from Georgetown. Randolph was resplendent in a bright yellow coat. Clay was coldly determined. The night before Thomas Hart Benton had paid Randolph a visit and pleaded with him not to go through with the duel, saying Clay had a young son and wife who would be left destitute if Clay were killed or seriously injured. Randolph had replied ““I shall do nothing to disturb the sleep of that child or the repose of the mother.” But I don’t think anybody told Clay he had nothing to worry about.The men paced off ten steps apart (about 30 feet), and then as the countdown began Randolph’s gun misfired. The gun was reloaded and the countdown began again; “Ready, aim, fire.” Clay’s shot hit the dirt in front of Randolph, whose shot struck a stump behind Clay. The men then reloaded and the insanity began again. This time Clay got off the first shot, sending a ball through the hem of Randolph’s expensive yellow coat. Randolph held his fire, and then dramatically fired his shot into the air. Then he strode forward with his hand extended. The men shook hands in the center of the “field of honor”, and Randolph dryly said, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.”I don’t think Clay ever paid for the coat, because when John Randolph died in May of 1833, his will instructed that his slaves be transported to Ohio and freed, his body was to buried in Virginia and he was to be planted facing west, so he could keep an eye on Kentucky’s Henry Clay. It could be said of John Randolph that he had opposed most if not all of the famous men of his time, that he gave as good as he got and that he made the most of the talents that God gave him; not a bad legacy.

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