Collected Letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812–1833.
Edited by Kenneth Shorey, with a foreword by Russell Kirk.
Transaction Books, 1988.
Hardcover, 192 pages [e-text].
John Randolph of Roanoke was—even for his warmest admirers—a most uncomfortable man. For reasons both personal and political, he was an isolated figure: in his own words, “an idiosyncrasy all my life.” It is of course true enough that in his public life he enjoyed a large and faithful following in his part of Virginia, south and west of Richmond. There on the Southside he was an electric presence, a force of nature who could be elected and reelected almost at will because he not only represented but, in one sense, defined the views of his neighbors who had from 1799-1833 learned to trust him on the great political questions facing their world.
Randolph was born to enjoy such confidence. Yet he also earned it. Between the uncomplicated, hearty planters of the Southside, and the restless, sometimes caustic and troubled personality of their great orator, there was always a natural distance. Furthermore, though a member of one of the great Virginia families, Randolph had, by 1812, few remaining kinsmen to depend upon for assistance in what were certain to be difficult years to come—those few being also remote, or themselves beset by ailments, or under a cloud of disgrace. For these reasons and many others, some of them reaching to the very bottom of Randolph’s character, this mordant defender of limited government, aristocratic liberty, and Anglican orthodoxy cherished in particular his best and oldest friends: persons such as William Leigh, North Carolina Senator Nathaniel Macon, Chief Justice John Marshall, Judge Spencer Roane, W. J. Barksdale, and Harmanus Bleeker of New York. In the isolation of Roanoke, he awaited their letters and (on rare occasions) their visits, which were sustenance for his troubled spirit, “marks of remembrance and friendship.”
For his last twenty-one years, the most important member of this small circle and Randolph’s most intimate friend was Dr. John Brockenbrough of Richmond, an Edinburgh-trained physician who served forty years as the elected president of the Bank of Virginia. Brockenbrough met Randolph in 1807. He had gone to school with the statesman’s brothers and was married to the widow of T. M. Randolph of Tuckahoe. But the correspondence between the two men as it survives to us does not begin until 1812. From that point is continued until Randolph of Roanoke died in Philadelphia on May 24, 1833.
Despite the fact that we have what is only a fragment of the Randolph/Brockenbrough exchange, it is clearlyan exceptional collection, providing us with an image of John Randolph at his most amiable, and with a mirror of one segment of the history of the early Republic. Most of the letters surviving from this correspondence are from Randolph to Brockenbrough—thoughwe have evidence that the physician/banker could himself write an interesting epistle. Indeed, John Randolph wrote in order to hear from Brockenbrough, who was full of news and good sense, well acquainted with the principal citizens of his city, and in contact with the “great world” beyond its limits. The central theme of Randolph’s correspondence is his terrible health. In his Foreword to this volume, Russell Kirk (who knows Randolph better than any other historian of our era) aptly describes him as “that energetic sick man.” Which is to suggest how close are the two parts of the equation—sickness to restless activity, application to physical decay. Moreover the long silences from Roanoke imply something beyond ordinary indisposition and malaise. For Randolph was often so painfully ill that suffering made him almost mad. Of such misery he wrote, “If it were lawful, I would pray for death.” And he meant what he said. Yet though sickness colors much of what he writes, Randolph does not lose interest in what is being written or said around him, in the well-being of those dear to him, or in the safety of his region and country. Furthermore, he liked to have his words well attended, and cared much about his reputation for honorable service among those who would come after him. His letters are sometimes lugubrious, full of romantic/Byronic self-dramatization. But they are rarely morbid in the strict sense.
When in Washington or London, Paris or St. Petersburg, Randolph writes to Brockenbrough of public affairs. Speaking in Congress, he deplores the subversion of the Constitution: “There are no longer any Pyrenees—every bulwark and barrier of the Constitution is broken down; it is become a tabula rasa, a carte blanche for every one to scribble on it what he pleases.” The sanguine dreams of the meliorists called forth his scorn: “Of all the follies that man is prone to, that of thinking he can regulate the conduct of others is the most inveterate and preposterous.” And what he told the legislators, he also told his friends: that there “is a Fatality . . . attending plenitude of power.”
That Europeans formed their impressions of the United States by way of New England and New York exasperated him continuously. He assures Brockenbrough, “The English know us only through the medium of New York and Yankee newspapers, and which is worse, through the Yankees themselves.” If alive today, Randolph would find little reason to alter any of these opinions.
Even when topical, there is a timeless quality in his obiter dicta, a flavoring which is rare in such a flow of observation on men and manners. Though astute, the mature Randolph was predictable: “I am more and more set against all new things.” Or, in disparagement of the political life: “Any other employment seems ‘genteel’ in comparison to it.” Concerning “political metaphysicks” and the prospects for an “arithmetical & geometrical constitution,” he felt only a “thorough detestation and contempt.” But the ideology of the French Jacobins did not offend him so much as the affected concern with slavery to which, for advantage’s sake, many Yankees pretended in the 1819-1820 debates concerning the admission of Missouri to full membership in the “Confederation of the states.” Says the dour sage of Roanoke, the “great children of the world” fear only those “bugbears,” death and poverty. The statesman knows that fanaticism is, in the long run, a far more serious matter.
Randolph’s letters deal often enough in personalities, in judgments of Bonaparte, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson (his cousin), John Marshall, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, John C. Calhoun, and the Czar of all the Russias—to whom, for a time, John Randolph was posted as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. But they are more surprising in what they reveal about haughty Jack Randolph and religion, about Randolph’s “conversion experience” following the onset of his sense of God’s direct and personal grace acting in his life, making fresh and central what had been a routine orthodoxy. In the old language, Randolph “came under conviction.” In that mood he contemplated “the mercy of God through Jesus Christ His blessed Son and our precious Redeemer.” In the interval, he informs Brockenbrough, “I feel the necessity of a changed nature; of a new life; of an altered heart!” This change, the newness and the alteration came: “God, my friend, hath visited me in my desolation.” And, in hope of a continuation of that special favor, he went toward death with no other friend near to him but his faithful slave John.
Other fascinating elements in these letters include observations on the state of the professions, the mail service, the proceedings of the courts, and the fashions of place and time. Of special interest are the evidences of Randolph’s reading, his amazing general culture, the refinement of his taste and judgment. Randolph without allusions without a constant recourse to comparisons from classics, from Edmund Burke, John Milton, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and the Authorized Version, would not be recognizable as John Randolph. Moreover, what he has enjoyed reading he wishes to share with his friends—Southey and the British Abolitionists, Hallam, Byron (always Byron), and the Anglican divines.
But though he claimed only to bestow “his tediousness” on correspondents, Randolph writes with style—in a manner dramatic, full of imagery, driven by a sepulchral wit which defines the unusual man who employed it to embody his special angle of vision. Randolph’s twists and turns of phrase, his sententia and the richness of his imagination, are the hallmarks of a considerable intellect: a mind preserved and focused and (in a mesh of collective links) gathered in such a way as to introduce properly the Library of Conservative Thought, which under the editorship of Dr. Russell Kirk is to be published by Transaction Books. On the occasion of the publication of Kenneth Shorey’s edition of these letters, we give an enthusiastic salute to both the series and its publisher.
“The consummation of my conversion—I use the word in its strictest sense—is owing to a variety of causes, but chiefly to the conviction, unwillingly forced upon me, that the very few friends which an unprosperous life (the fruit of an ungovernable temper) had left me were daily losing their hold upon me, in a firmer grasp of ambition, avarice, or sensuality. I am not sure that, to complete the anticlimax, avarice should not have been last.”
Randolph to Brockenbrough, September 25, 1818
M. E. Bradford is the author of A Better Guide than Reason, Generations of the Faithful Heart, Remembering Who We Are, A Worthy Company and The Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary and Political.