At the time of Peyton Randolph's birth, the future United States of America was an assortment of 13 separate colonies ruled from far away England. But, by the time of his election as president of the first Continental Congress in 1774, these colonies had begun to see themselves as one united nation that could rule itself independently. Randolph was an early patriot who pushed for independence and his contributions to the movement for American independence and democracy were significant and long-lasting.
Peyton Randolph was born in the Tazewell Hall section of Williamsburg, Virginia, sometime during September of 1721 to Sir John and Susanna (Beverly) Randolph. Randolph's father was very prominent in Virginia politics as the King's attorney for the colony of Virginia. His father was also a diplomat and speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses located in Williamsburg. His grandfather, Colonel William Randolph came to Virginia from England in 1674 and was also a prominent figure in the colony's early social and political life.
With his father's prominent position, young Randolph could be educated at home by private tutors hired by his father. This practice was especially common among the upper classes of southern colonials and was the only way to secure a quality education for their children in the days before publicly funded schools became available or popular. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were other early colonial leaders that benefited from this type of private education.
In 1739, Randolph began studying at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and, later that year, traveled to London to study law at the Inner Temple (also called Middle Temple). He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1742 and, following in his father's footsteps, was admitted to the Virginia bar on February 10, 1745, becoming a practicing attorney. He married Elizabeth Harrison in Williamsburg on March 8, 1745; they had no children.
Early Political Career
In 1748, Randolph was appointed as the King's attorney for the colony of Virginia, taking over his father's former position. He would stay on as the King's attorney for the colony of Virginia until 1766, when his political beliefs made it impossible for him to continue on at the post. He was also elected to represent Williamsburg in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1748, but served only one year before returning in 1752 to represent the College of William and Mary until 1758. In his first visit to the House of Burgesses, Randolph had came to prominence while objecting to taxes scheduled to be attached to deeds on new land purchases.
In 1754, Randolph traveled to London to plead his case and was partially successful in getting some of the taxes revoked. His campaign against these taxes had brought him into conflict with Virginia's governor, Robert Dinwiddle, and, even though he was seen by his compatriots as having somewhat moderate political opinions, his reputation as being pro-colonial was made. In 1758, Randolph was back at his seat in the House of Burgesses representing Williamsburg and continued to serve there until his death. Randolph also became a visiting professor of law at the College of William and Mary that year and helped revise early Virginia laws to better correspond to the times.
During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), many inhabitants of the British colonies in North America felt threatened by the large numbers of hostile French and Native Americans spread out along their western frontier. Following the 1754 defeat of British General Edward Braddock's 1, 900-strong force on the way to Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in the western Virginia wilderness, Randolph led a small company of Virginia volunteers against a Native American force that had allied itself with the French. This only strengthened his reputation among Virginians as a man of value and worth.
Valuable Colonial Leader
In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act to help pay some of the expenses incurred fighting the French in North America and throughout the world. The act required colonists to pay a tax in the form of a stamp that would be placed on all official documents such as wills, deeds and marriage certificates as well as on things like playing cards and newspapers. Randolph had already taken a side on the proposed act a year earlier when he helped draft a remonstrance in the Virginia House of Burgesses against the proposed act.
With the Stamp Act's passage in 1766, Randolph saw that he was in fundamental disagreement with Parliament and resigned from his very lucrative post as the attorney for King George III in Virginia. In November of 1766, Randolph was elected as speaker for the Virginia House of Burgesses due to his popularity and his belief that the Stamp Act must be opposed. He held this post almost uninterrupted until his death in 1775.
The Stamp Act was repealed late in 1766 but was almost immediately replaced with the Townshend Act of 1767 which sought to tax everyday commodities used in the colonist's homes. In 1773, Randolph was chosen as the chairman for the committee of correspondence which sought to find some remedy to the problems between the colonies and Great Britain so that conflict could be averted.
The passage of the Townshend Act helped lead to the 1773 opposition by citizens of Boston in the Boston Tea Party. The British government reacted by passing the Coercive Acts in early 1774. These acts closed the port of Boston and put British regulars in the homes of many Bostonians. In response, the Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of fasting and prayer in support of Boston and was promptly dissolved by Virginia's new governor, Lord Dunmore. Randolph and many others were alarmed by this and called for a convention of former Virginia delegates to meet in Williamsburg on August 1, 1774 to propose a course of action for, as a broadside of the day stated, the "Preservation of the Common Rights and Liberty of British America." More than 100 delegates attended the first convention and this initial meeting would be the first of five such meetings that would determine Virginia's stance toward Great Britain.
Randolph's staunch opposition to the Coercive Acts put him soundly in the patriot camp and he was respected and sought for council on many occasions by other leaders such as George Washington and Patrick Henry. Randolph is considered such an important figure in colonial politics, that it has been said that a young Thomas Jefferson patterned himself after him. His calm judgment and abundant legal knowledge made him well-known and respected among rebel leaders throughout the continent.
President of the Continental Congress
In early August of 1774, Randolph was elected as the chairman of the Virginia delegation to the first Continental Congress. On August 10, 1774 he called a meeting of citizens of Williamsburg to call for their support for the resolutions recently passed by the Virginia delegation that called for them to resist economically the efforts of Great Britain to pass taxes on Virginians without their approval. For this the government of Great Britain put a mark against his name.
On September 5, 1774, upon his arrival at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia to attend the first meetings of the Continental Congress, he was elected its first president. He presided over the Continental Congress and heard debate from all sides on the troubles with Great Britain. There were some delegates that felt open war and a declaration for independence were warranted, while others felt reconciliation and a return to the pre-Stamp Act era were best.
Throughout the six days that the convention met, Randolph kept the body calm and did not malign any opinions, however unpopular with the rest of the assembled representatives. The end result was a series of resolutions in which the colonies pledged to support Boston and the colony of Massachusetts. They also pledged not to import any British manufactured goods after November 1, 1774. If this alone did not have the desired effect of lifting the Coercive Acts, the delegation pledged to go a step farther and refuse to export American goods to Great Britain as of August of 1775.
At the conclusion of the first Continental Congress, Randolph returned to his native Virginia to gauge the mood of its citizens. On March 21, 1775 he called a meeting of citizens in Richmond, Virginia to debate the recent efforts of the Continental Congress and hear discussions on their effectiveness. On April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore, had the gunpowder removed from the armory in Williamsburg and placed on board an English vessel sailing off the coast without paying the colony for it. This action infuriated many Virginians and a mob in Williamsburg set upon the antagonists to demand payment. Randolph calmed the mob and eventually exacted payment for the gunpowder from Lord Dunmore.
During the summer of 1775, Randolph was again in the Virginia House of Burgesses serving as its speaker and calling for resistance to British tyranny. But, as the summer turned to autumn, Randolph traveled again to Philadelphia to attend the second Continental Congress and was again chosen as its president. It was here that he died on October 22, 1775 from apoplexy at the age of 54. In respect for all that he had done for Virginia, his body was transported to Virginia and buried beneath the chapel at the College of William and Mary.
Johnson, Rossiter, The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Gale, 1968.
Knight, Lucian Lamar, Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, Gale Research Company, 1978.
Reardon, John J., Peyton Randolph, 1721-1775: One Who Presided, Carolina Academic Press, 1982.
Treese, Joel D., Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1996, Congressional Quarterly Staff Directories, Inc., 1997.
"The First Virginia Convention, " Let America Speak-Our Voice as Our Vote,http://www.history.org/other/teaching/voteasvoice/convention.html, (March 17, 1998).
RANDOLPH, PEYTON. (1721–1775). Crown official, first president of the Continental Congress. Virginia. Born in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1721, Randolph was the son of the wealthy and powerful Sir John Randolph. He went from William and Mary College, from which he did not graduate, to the Middle Temple in 1739 and was admitted to the bar in 1744. Returning the same year to Williamsburg as the colony's attorney general, he served in the House of Burgesses from 1748 until the termination of that assembly in 1775. When Randolph took the burgess's side in the pistole controversy of 1751–1754, he was dismissed as attorney general. In 1755 he organized a company of one hundred lawyers and other gentlemen who, at their own expense, moved out to support the survivors of Braddock's defeat. A major speculator in western lands, Randolph saw opportunity in the American conflict with the British Crown, overcoming his fear of the radical tendencies of some of his allies to become a leader of the Patriot cause. Randolph was elected speaker of the Burgesses in 1766, holding that office until he adjourned its last session in May 1775. Chairing the first three Virginia Conventions in 1774 and 1775, he topped the list of delegates to the first Continental Congress and became the first president of that body, serving from 5 September to 21 October 1774. In bad health, Randolph was succeeded by Henry Middleton on 22 October 1774 but was reelected to Congress on 10 May 1775. Two weeks later he had to give up this post, and five months later he died suddenly of apoplexy in Philadelphia on 22 October 1775. Randolph exemplified the manner in which even conservative political leaders were attracted to the rebellion against British rule. Many Virginians looked to him to keep the insurgency in check and guide it away from radicalism.
Randolph Family Papers. Virginia Historical Society. Richmond, Va.
Reardon, John J. Peyton Randolph, 1721–1775. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1982.
revised by Michael Bellesiles