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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

THE AMAZING 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.” The man  represents the tap 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 speaking) about 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, and tar a political position with the alleged sins of one of its advocates, thus forcing advocates to defend themselves, not what they stand for. 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” (ibid). 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 “Sara Palin” 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”. Sister “Sara” and her 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...he was too intolerant." But John Randolph admitted to enjoying “That most delicious of all privileges – spending other people’s money.”  Its hard to condem a man who admits his own sins so gleefully.
Randolph 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 in the defining speech of his life, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It 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 on the central issues of the day and said any compromise with Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, or with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, would be anathema, as “…their friendship is a deadly distinction, their touch pollution”. And as to the very idea of a strong central Federal 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. I guess you had to be there.
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 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, Virginia. 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 seemed unmoved, but he had replied to Benton, “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 Randolph strode forward with his hand extended. The opponents 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. Now that is going a long way for an insult.
It could be said of John Randolph that he had opposed most if not all of the famous men and great causes of his time, that politically he gave as good as he got, and that he made the most of the talents that God gave him; not a bad legacy. Except, it must also be said that nothing he supported made the nation stronger, nor helped improve the lives of the the people of his state. A politician who chose the carreer of a speed bump cannot, in my opinion, be said to have used his talents for the public good.
Why he did not do so might be explained, at least in part, by a letter he wrote in the winter of 1833,  addressed "To the Honorable Waller Holladay, Esquire, of the county of Spotsylvania, of the State of Virginia, of the United States of America, of the Western Hemisphere,of the Globe." And amazingly, it was delivered. "I am sure you will be surprised and pained to hear that I was honored last night by a visit from no less a personage than His Satanic Majesty. His Majesty assured me that my only hope of much longer continuance of my mortal existence depended upon my subsisting entirely upon the milk of your fine Medley mare, which would restore health to my worn out hody. Under these melancholy circumstances, I have no choice hut to throw myself upon your friendly mercies and I implore you to let me have the mare without delay...that her milk may save the life of your sincere but sullcring friend. Randolph of Roanoke"
Mr. Hollady "of the Globe" read the letter and did not dispatch the mare. Instead he immediatly filed the missave away without answering it, in the hope he said later that "the aberration was but temporary". It was not. Randolf died in May of 1833. And the letter concerning Mr. Randolf's visit from Satan, was used as proof of his insanity, break his final revision to his last will. It was a dramatic exit that,I am sure, Mr. Randolf would have approved of. 
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4 comments:

  1. Glad to see such a nicely done site. I looked up John Randolf's remarks and those of his adversaries because I am amused and confused at the pleas for "pleasanter discourse" in the press and in congress about debate on national political events. Ed Rendell, Gov of Pa. recently lamented that we were becoming a nation of "wusses" because of a canceled a pro football game due to snow. All we need to due is look to the past and see that the nastiest talk by Rove, Limbaugh, Palin is all pretty lame stuff when compared to Adams and Randolf.

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  2. Wow, what a cool dude in a way. I had no idea they had such a colorful bunch way back then. And I was just looking for the actor in Rock Hudson's "Seconds".
    Ain't the Internet great?!
    -Jed

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  3. This has no factual or substantive evidence to indicate as to his sexuality - it is misleading and much too dependent on assumptions from a 21st century perspective. The other portions and quotations, alongside lovely theatrical photography, was appreciated

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  4. Everything you say is true. But then, so what? Living in the 21st Century, I have no choice but to write from that perspective. To pretend I could in any way do otherwise would be dishonest. My informed opinion, misinformed or under-informed is still my informed opinion. Knowing more than a little about the way humans behave, I ask you to explain why Mr. Randolf would have been motivated to behave the way he did if not because he was gay. And then i would ask you the central question of my piece. Who the hell cares if he was gay or not? It did not make him more or less honest, more or less of of a jerk.

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