The Education of John Randolph,
by Robert Dawidoff.
W. W. Norton & Co., 1979.
Hardcover, 346 pp., $19.95.
A good friend of mine, scion of an old Virginia family, when deep into his cups, regales me with stories of John Randolph of Roanoke. Late into the night, when we have both imbibed heavily of Tennessee’s finest sour mash, my friend invariably offers to share with me a closely guarded secret. Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, he tells me that old “Mad Jack” Randolph lies buried in a vaulted cavern far beneath the cold waters of the James River. When peril threatens Randolph’s people, he will arise from the gloomy depths, and once again the lacerating sting of his anathemas shall be felt in the land. I smile, wish it were true, and forbear reminding my friend that in today’s Virginia, few people have even heard of John Randolph of Roanoke, much less look to him to save the Commonwealth.
Historians, of course, know of John Randolph, but most of them call him up simply to scorn him, for Randolph had the temerity to vilify a hero of most American historians, Thomas Jefferson, to whom Randolph—in a fair sample of his slashing sarcasm—referred as “St. Thomas of Cantingbury.” Besides, Randolph castigated the very things most celebrated by liberal historians: democracy, equality, and social reform. Randolph planted himself squarely athwart the path of the engine named “Progress,” and it rolled over him as it careened into the future. Only Russell Kirk, in a study first published in 1951 and now in its third edition, has given the self-proclaimed “poor, half-crazy, moonstruck Southsider” his due.
If John Randolph has not won the affection of American historians, he has certainly commanded their attention, for the gaunt, glowering champion of the old verities has compelled them to recite his foibles and damn him for his erring ways. With weary resignation I opened the latest scholarly book on Randolph, Robert Dawidoff’s The Education of John Randolph. First with relief and then with mounting joy, I discovered that Professor Dawidoff never bought that neatly wrapped little box of received historical orthodoxy labeled “John Randolph of Roanoke.” Dawidoff decided to think for himself. And think he has, for he has pursued the fiery Virginian for over two decades. His perseverance has paid off, for Dawidoff has written a book filled with flashing insight and thorough understanding. Throughout the book there presides a spirit of deep appreciation—even admiration—of the life and thought of John Randolph. Read alongside Russell Kirk’s book, Dawidoff’s study enables one to grasp the full significance of Randolph’s stubborn refusal to dance the merry jig of the exuberant and expansive American democracy.
Focusing on Randolph’s political theory and practice, Russell Kirk thereby uncovered the close connection between Randolph’s ideas and Edmund Burke’s. In designating Randolph the “American Burke,” Kirk pried Randolph out of the narrow confines of American politics and placed him in a broader transatlantic context. Dawidoff, by contrast, excels in his analysis of two other facets of Randolph’s make-up: his immersion in poetry and fiction and the childhood roots of his conservatism.
From Swift to Byron, Randolph read voraciously in theliterature of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. “Randolph was always utterly serious about literature; his view of its importance went far beyond the limited utilitarian notions of his class.” Randolph identified with the books he read, and took upon himself the roles suggested by his favorite authors. In shaping the image of self he showed his contemporaries, Randolph forged his disparate readings into weapons used in two ways: to combat the decline from the high ideals of the American Revolution and to protect himself from the retaliatory blows of a hostile society. The venomous satire of Swift joined the melancholy egotism of Byron, allowing Randolph to slash effectively at his foes and then retreat into the lonely citadel of the persecuted Romantic hero. In the oftentimes labyrinthine working out of this strategy, Randolph bedazzled and befuddled friend and foe alike.
In probing the sources of Randolph’s conservatism, Dawidoff carefully avoids a psychological reductionism that would dismiss the principled stand of the adult as simply the product of psychic wounds suffered in childhood. Randolph’s detractors have often seized upon such reductionism to avoid coming to grips with Randolph’s critique of his age. What better way to discredit conservatism than to attribute it to psychological maladjustment? Dawidoff will have none of this cheap psychologizing. He eschews the trendy trappings of psycho-history, for he clearly perceives the pitfalls and alluring simplicities awaiting the historian who blithely imposes the categories of psychoanalysis upon the past. Still, the complexities of Randolph’s personality urge one beyond a consideration of his readings in Burke, Swift, and Byron. Something deeper goaded Randolph into his fits of rage against the iniquities of the Republic.
As a boy Randolph imbibed a stern and rigorous code that took root deep in his psyche; his upbringing planted in his mind a literalism ill-befitting him to deal flexibly with the shifting tides and political exigencies of a young and rapidly changing nation. His father, who died when young John was only two years old, became, through Randolph’s imagination and the promptings of his widowed mother, the model of the Anglo-Virginian gentleman, a figure of probity, honor, and duty whom young John strove to emulate. Randolph’s mother, like his father a descendant of the great Virginia families, drove home to her son the need to venerate and cherish land, family, and religion. “Keep the land and it will keep you,” she told him. For an impressionable lad with a fertile imagination, the combination of devotion to the dead father’s ideals and adherence to the mother’s stern adjurations determined the boy’s—and ultimately the man’s—psychological make-up. “Randolph persisted stubbornly in the practice of what he had been taught at the cost of his conventional success and hopes and expectations.” He kept the faith of the fathers as few sons have ever done.
John Randolph undertook a task that America always needs but seldom honors. He assailed the surging hosts of progress, democracy, and egalitarianism, making them pay dearly for their victories. In America’s headlong rush into the future, the John Randolphs have always lost, but in the magnificence of their resistance and the nobility of their defeat, they have taught us the true meaning of devotion to a lost cause. Robert Dawidoff recognizes the worth of Randolph’s embattled stance, for he singles out as Randolph’s legacy his “trenchant and eloquent perception of what in America’s heritage was sacrificed to the demands of democracy and nationhood.”
One hundred years after Randolph’s death in 1833, another bold warrior, Donald Davidson, the old Nashville Agrarian, faced defeat at the hands of the innovators; but like his predecessor, he taught us how to die, sword in hand: “Plan your harrying / If you would gnaw his ravaging flank, or smite / Him in his glut among the smouldering ricks.” From John Randolph to Donald Davidson, the South has produced a steady succession of men willing to bear the opprobrium of their contemporaries in order to defend the old ways. Despite the words of my friend, John Randolph will not arise; but there will always be men of courage and honor to take up his mantle. As America plunges further and further into the future of which Randolph warned, those inspired by “Mad Jack’s” example will remind us of the price we pay for abandoning the faith of our fathers. John Randolph lies in his grave, but John Randolph lives.
James J. Thompson Jr. edited The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver among other publications.