Born August 10, 1753 (Williamsburg, Virginia)
Died September 12, 1813 (Clark County, Virginia)
Attorney general, secretary of state, governor
Edmund Randolph was highly influential in the political shaping of America, particularly between 1776 and 1800, when he served as Virginia's first attorney general, Virginia state governor, the first U.S. attorney general, and the nation's second secretary of state. Coming from a family with a colonial legal background, Randolph was very intelligent and highly respected for his legal knowledge. Randolph played a key role at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, serving on a committee that developed an early draft of the U.S. Constitution.
"I am certain that a national government must be established, and this is the only moment when it can be done."
Family of lawyers
Edmund Randolph was born in August 1753 to John Randolph and Ariana Jenings at Williamsburg, Virginia. Their home was called Tazewell Hall. The family was well established in colonial politics and legal matters, having moved to America from England in the mid-1600s. His father, uncle, and grandfather all served as attorneys for the British Crown in the Virginia colony. Ariana's father was also a king's attorney in the colony of Maryland.
Many colonial leaders visited the home of the prominent Randolph family on a regular basis. Young Edmund grew up hearing discussions at the dinner table and in the parlor on a wide range of important topics of the day. As a young man, he attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and then studied law under his father. Like other young men seeking a law career in those days, he performed clerical tasks around the law office while studying law books in his free time. He successfully received a license and began his law practice at the age of twenty-one.
When the American Revolution (1775–83) erupted in April 1775, Randolph's family, including his parents and sisters, hurriedly left the colonies, as did many other Loyalists (those who supported continued British rule). However, Randolph was very much a Patriot (supporter of independence from British rule). In August, he gathered letters of recommendation from various prominent Virginians and presented them to General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2) in Boston, hoping to become an army camp aide. He was successful in gaining the appointment. However, Randolph found that military life did not appeal to him. Upon the sudden death of his uncle, Peyton Randolph (c. 1721–1775), who was in Philadelphia serving as president of the First Continental Congress, Edmund took leave from his brief military assignment. He accompanied his uncle's body back to Virginia for burial and remained there to manage his uncle's estate.
Back in Williamsburg, Randolph turned to politics. In 1776, at twenty-three years of age, he became the youngest member of the Virginia constitutional convention. He helped draft and adopt the Virginia Declaration of Rights as well as a new state constitution in 1776. With a new state government formed, Randolph was appointed its first attorney general. He would serve for ten years, during which time he was also elected mayor of Williamsburg, an even more demanding position. Also in 1776, Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas, daughter of Virginia's new state treasurer. They had four children. Like many elected officials at the time, Randolph continued his private interests—running his estate and his law practice—while he was in office.
Delegate to the Continental Congress
The Virginia Assembly elected Randolph as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779 and again in 1781 and 1782. He focused on his role as state attorney general through the mid-1780s. Change came for Randolph in 1786. In November, he was elected governor of Virginia and also sent as a Virginia delegate to a meeting among states in Annapolis, Maryland, in September. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss common problems under the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution, which had become effective in 1781. However, only five states sent delegates. The delegates at the Annapolis meeting sent a proposal to the Continental Congress to bring together delegates from the thirteen states the following May in Philadelphia to improve the Articles.
Constitutional Convention of 1787
Not surprisingly, Virginia chose to send Randolph to the convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. Though no one knew it at the time, this meeting would become what is now called the Constitutional Convention; the delegates who attended the meeting voted to abandon the Articles of Confederation and create a new U.S. constitution. Randolph was in very select company. Other Virginia delegates were George Washington, James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2), and George Mason (1725–1792). Randolph had the privilege of presenting the opening address to the convention, a lengthy speech calling for a much stronger central government.
A major debate developed at the convention; it concerned how the states should be represented in a newly proposed two-house Congress. The large states naturally wanted representation to be based on the size of a state's population or on its wealth. The smaller states wanted each state to have equal representation in Congress. Virginia delegate Madison drew up a proposal known as the Virginia Plan. However, Madison was quite short and not gifted in public speaking. Randolph was tall and had a commanding voice. So Madison asked Randolph to present the proposal to the convention delegates. Because Madison was from one of the states with a large population, his proposal favored representation based on population in both houses of Congress. In the end, the delegates reached a compromise: Senate representation would be equal for all states; the number of representatives in the House would be based on the population of each state.
At the Constitutional Convention, Randolph served on the committee to develop a draft, called the Committee of Detail. Madison was the lead author. However, when the Constitution was adopted in final form, Randolph and fellow Virginia delegate George Mason refused to sign it. They believed the Constitution did not provide sufficient protection of individual rights. They also thought the newly created position of president was too much like a monarch, holding excessive power. Randolph tried to promote the idea of a three-person executive committee rather than a single president; he also argued that the proposed single president should not be allowed to run for reelection. Randolph was so concerned over the new Constitution that he published a letter opposing it when he returned to Virginia from the Philadelphia convention. He also recommended that the delegates hold a second convention but to no avail.
The following year, in 1788, Randolph attended the Virginia convention for ratifying the Constitution. However, now Randolph chose to support its approval, joining fellow Virginia delegates Madison and Marshall. Eight other states had already ratified the Constitution at the time of the Virginia gathering. Randolph had concluded that its acceptance was inevitable and that Virginia should throw in its support. Randolph played a key role in the close vote favoring ratification. A number of Virginians were angered by Randolph's change in position concerning the Constitution.
The first U.S. attorney general
Following the ratification convention, Randolph resigned his post as governor in November 1788 and returned to the Virginia general assembly. However, as the new national government under the Constitution took shape, President George Washington selected Randolph as the nation's first attorney general. Like future attorney generals, he maintained a private law practice while serving as advisor to the president. He also performed personal legal work for the president and became one of Washington's most trusted advisors. He wrote speeches and official papers for Washington on many occasions.
Randolph spent many of the next several years trying to ease the growing split between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1). Hamilton and Jefferson represented different political factions that disagreed over economic and foreign policies. The political division widened after France declared war on Britain in early 1793. Some American political leaders wanted to support France; others preferred Britain. With Randolph's support, President Washington chose a position of neutrality (not favoring either warring party) in the spring of 1793.
Almost immediately thereafter, France's new minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet (1763–1834), appeared on the scene. Genet ignored basic international diplomatic procedures by going straight to the American people and asking them for military support for France. Even Jefferson, an ardent supporter of France, was taken aback. Randolph was given the task of demanding that France recall Genet. The newly established French leadership distrusted him and responded by issuing a warrant for Genet's arrest. Randolph protected Genet and allowed him to stay in the country as France sent a new minister.
Secretary of state
Jefferson resigned as secretary of state in December 1793, and Washington selected Randolph to replace him. He served in the position until August 1795. The position was a challenge, in part because of Hamilton's continued involvement in foreign issues, which were normally the responsibility of the secretary of state.
Major foreign issues lingered since the end of the American Revolution (1775–83), the nation's battle to win independence from Britain. The British were ignoring the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the peace agreement that ended the war. They were keeping troops on American soil at trading posts on the frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. They also had not returned slaves taken during the war.
President Washington sent Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1) to Britain in the summer of 1794 to negotiate a new treaty. Randolph had objected to this course of action. He believed a Court justice should not be involved in executive office business, and he urged keeping a sharp separation between the branches of government. Randolph thought Jay should at least resign from the Court, but Jay did not. Nonetheless, with assistance from Hamilton, Randolph drew up instructions for Jay to follow in negotiating with Britain and asked him specifically to negotiate a new trade agreement. However, because of Hamilton's continued meddling and the length of time needed for communication across the Atlantic Ocean, Jay did not follow Randolph's guidance very closely. Disappointed with the results of Jay's negotiations, Randolph advised President Washington not to sign the treaty. His advice attracted strong criticism from Hamilton and others who supported adoption of the new treaty by Jay. The Senate ratified the Jay Treaty in June 1795.
When the French learned of the treaty, they strongly protested. French political leaders claimed that by signing the treaty the United States had violated its 1778 alliance agreement with France. Randolph denied this was the case. The new treaty did set the stage for negotiations for a new treaty with Spain to secure navigation rights for Americans on the Mississippi River. These negotiations proved very successful and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795.
In an effort to embarrass Randolph, the British intercepted a message from Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, France's minister to the United States, to Randolph that gave the appearance that Randolph was secretly dealing with Fauchet. The British then accused Randolph of influencing policy favorable to France in exchange for personal financial payments. President Washington summoned Randolph to his office to answer the charges. Humiliated, Randolph angrily resigned in August 1795. Fauchet denied any such dealings, and Randolph immediately wrote and published a long defense of his actions and revealed the British plot to embarrass him. No wrongdoing on Randolph's part was ever uncovered. Fauchet may have bragged to his superiors in France that he was winning favors, when in fact Randolph had not cooperated with him.
Randolph returned to a very successful private law practice in Richmond, Virginia. In 1807, he successfully represented former vice president Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1). Burr was being tried for treason before Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall in the U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond. Burr was found not guilty.
Though a successful lawyer, Randolph did not manage his personal finances well and fought debt problems through his last years. Randolph's wife died in 1810, and he suffered ill health for some time. He lived his final years with his daughter in Charles Town in present-day West Virginia. Randolph died in September 1813. He was buried in Millwood, Virginia, where over a century later, in 1940, a monument was erected in his honor.
For More Information
Randolph, Edmund. History of Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970.
Reardon, John J. Edmund Randolph. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), American statesman and lawyer, was an exceedingly influential public figure from 1780 to 1800.
Edmund Randolph's father, of a family long prominent in Virginia, was king's attorney and returned to England before the American Revolution. Edmund, however, graduated from the College of William and Mary, and influenced by his uncle Peyton who was a firm patriot, broke with his father. In August 1775 he joined George Washington's army. When Peyton Randolph (president of the first Continental Congress) died a few months later, Edmund returned to Virginia. He served in the Virginia Convention of 1776, was mayor of Williamsburg, and was attorney general of Virginia before his twenty-fifth birthday. His marriage in 1776 to Elizabeth Nicholas, daughter of Robert Nicholas, consolidated his position in Virginia's public life.
In 1781 Randolph began serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. There and in the Virginia Legislature he worked with James Madison to strengthen the union of the states. At the same time Randolph became one of Virginia's leading attorneys, distinguished for his learning and oratory. He was elected governor of Virginia in 1786.
Randolph's national service resumed in 1786 at the Annapolis Convention, and in 1787 he became a Virginia delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Though not as thorough a nationalist as Washington or Madison, Randolph presented Madison's centralizing Virginia Plan to the Convention. He impressed the Convention with his "most harmonious voice, fine person, and striking manners," as well as with his keen sense of the dangers of tyranny. But his reservations about "energetic government," a concern for the special interests of Virginia, and a kind of indecisiveness caused him to refuse to sign the Constitution. Responding to Madison's tactful persuasion, though, he finally came out for the Constitution and played a key role at Virginia's ratifying convention.
Appointed attorney general of the United States (1789), Randolph soon became Washington's mediator in the bitter quarrels between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. As secretary of state (1794), he sought to maintain friendly relations with both England and France. He approved Jay's Treaty with England as well as the contradictory mission of James Monroe to conciliate republican France. Though he earned Washington's respect and gratitude, Jefferson declared him "a perfect chameleon," while Timothy Pickering aroused Washington's anger by alleging Randolph's subservience to France. Humiliated, Randolph resigned and wrote a Vindication of his conduct.
Randolph resumed his large law practice. In 1807 he was senior counsel for Aaron Burr in his treason trial. Randolph's health failed, however, and after writing a valuable manuscript history of the Revolution in Virginia, he died on Sept. 12, 1813.
The biography of Randolph by John J. Reardon, in progress, should become the standard work. Samuel F. Bemis, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923; rev. ed. 1962), covers Randolph's career as secretary of state.
Reardon, John J. Edmund Randolph; a biograp, New York, Macmillan 1975, 1974. □