book cover imageJohn Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics
by Russell Kirk.
Third ed., with select letters & speeches.
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978.
[Fourth edition, 1997, cloth $24, paper $14.50.]

For Southerners of my antique persuasion, Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke is a locus classicus. And for most American conservatives, it is a work of decisive importance, a path leading into a neglected portion of our common patrimony, a portion now not well understood, even in the South. For in this book is organized and preserved, with grace and economy, the still persuasive testimony of the most noble and disinterested of the Old Republicans, the American political figure who, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, set his face most resolutely against the great god Whirl. John Randolph embodied the wisdom of the Antifederalists. And in that role acted out, bespoke, what now appears to be our most durable inheritance from the Virginia dynasty. To see Kirk’s study of Randolph’s career (first published in 1951) reissued in one of the handsome editions of the Liberty Press is therefore an occasion for real rejoicing. For, in this era of unchallenged statism, we stand in need of Randolph’s public example as never before: his searching critique of the “metaphysical madness” which comes from an ideological reading of the Revolution. Dialectics and abstraction threaten the very foundations of our civil order. And require of us that we be able, through the study of his language and his thought, to invoke the shade of the American Burke.

Though it is a study of Randolph’s political thought, and not a biography per se, Kirk’s analysis contains a judicious account of his subject’s life, both in Congress and at home in the Southside of Virginia, plus a thorough explanation of his personal and intellectual relations with many of his contemporaries: his cousin Mr. Jefferson, Taylor, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calhoun, and Jackson. The role of religion and of humane letters in the formation of his mind, his reaction to the radical teachers of his youth, and the prudence and charity of his posture as a reluctant slaveholder are fully detailed. But what distinguishes this Kirk opus is its scholarly acumen. It is, with his Eliot, a monument to his learning, in that much abused word’s proper sense. As a Southerner, I have always been amazed that a young man from central Michigan should have been able to penetrate the formidable barriers which separated him and the agrarian, slave-holding world of John Randolph. But there is a ready explanation. For Dr. Kirk has been throughout his career, the American interpreter of the English Old Whigs and of their master spirit, Edmund Burke. Only in the context of this tradition may John Randolph be understood.

That Randolph has been an influence throughout the political history of the South is only now receiving its proper recognition: in recent studies of the conservative Democrats in Missouri; in introductions to the South Carolina edition of the papers of Calhoun; in the biographies of the statesmen who sought to give the region a total independence from Federalist heresies with the secession of 1860–61. Nor has his voice been ever silent below the Potomac and the Ohio, even though the legitimate sons of the Tertium Quids grow to be fewer and fewer with the ominous declensions of our time. Yet, whenever a Byrd, a Stennis, or an Allen thunders his own delenda est Carthago at the “energetic government” of this day, wherever theft by taxation or the worship of King Numbers is protested in principle and by prescription, we hear in the background the voice of the planter/statesman of Roanoke—that faithful steward of “the household gods of freedom.” Of course, the Jacobins of today continue to “feed the cauldron and make it bubble,” continue to translate “natural rights” into “patronage and debt.” But the results of their policy have done nothing to discredit the prescience of Randolph and Taylor, Calhoun and Stephens. Or to make us less appreciative of having available to our consideration and reflection so fine a collection of Randolph’s public papers and political correspondence, prefaced by so thoughtful a commentary upon the changeless truths which they contain. 

Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas.