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The Founders and the Constitution, Part 5: Edmund Randolph

The Founders and the Constitution, Part 5: Edmund Randolph

This essay first appeared in the April 14, 2023 Epoch Times.

Edmund Randolph was born into a family with a tradition of public service. His maternal grandfather had been King’s Attorney (attorney general) in colonial Maryland. His paternal grandfather, father, and uncle all held the same position in colonial Virginia. His uncle, Peyton Randolph, served as president of the First and Second Continental Congresses.

Edmund Randolph rose to his family tradition—and exceeded it.

He was born on Aug. 10, 1753, in Williamsburg, Virginia. After attending William and Mary College, he clerked in his father’s law office and, in 1774, was admitted to the bar. When the Revolution began the following year, his parents, who were loyalists, emigrated to Britain. But Edmund stayed to join the Revolution. He enlisted in the Continental Army and became an aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington.

When Uncle Peyton died leaving Edmund as his heir, the young man obtained a discharge and returned to Virginia to wrap up his uncle’s affairs.

Once back home, his rise was meteoric. In May 1776 he was elected to the Virginia convention tasked with creating a new government, free of British control. Although he was the youngest delegate to the convention, his colleagues placed him on the committee for drafting the new state constitution. Later that year, he was elected attorney general of Virginia, a post he held for a decade.

In September 1786, the Virginia legislature sent Randolph to the Annapolis Convention, along with his cousin James Madison and St. George Tucker. He and his fellow commissioners (delegates) recommended that another interstate convention be held in Philadelphia the following year. The purpose: to design a new political system for America.

Two months later, the Virginia legislature elected Randolph governor of the Commonwealth. As governor, he led his state’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention

The convention was called to order on May 25, 1787. Four days later, Randolph rose and delivered a speech outlining the defects in the Articles of Confederation and offering a series of reforms. We know these proposals as the “Virginia Plan.” They became the primary basis for the convention’s discussions for the next eight weeks.

Some writers have assumed that the Virginia Plan was solely Madison’s creation. There is little evidence for this, and it seems unlikely. A delegation comprising such luminaries as Randolph, George Washington, George Mason (the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights), and George Wythe (America’s first law professor) would not rubberstamp the work of any one man.

Randolph participated vigorously, and usually successfully, in the convention deliberations—sometimes, but not always, in alliance with Madison. Randolph bore primary responsibility for constitutional clauses that:

  • fixed the term of the House of Representatives at two years,
  • addressed federal debts (Article VI),
  • guaranteed each state a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4),
  • required an early census to determine each state’s representation in Congress (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3), and
  • provided that the Constitution would become effective if ratified by 9 of the 13 states.

One of Randolph’s greater moments was when he teamed up with John Dickinson of Delaware to ensure that only the directly elected House of Representatives—not the indirectly elected Senate—could propose new taxes (Article I, Section 7, Clause 1). There was significant resistance to this proposal. However, as noted in the previous installment in this series, Randolph and Dickinson accurately predicted that when the ratification debates began, opponents would try to tar the Constitution as too aristocratic. Ensuring that only the “people’s house” could propose taxes would blunt the attacks.

Another important moment for Randolph was when he moved for a day’s adjournment to allow heated tempers to cool. His motion passed and the commissioners came back later in a more tractable mood.

On July 26, they directed a new “committee of detail” to prepare an initial draft of a constitution. The delegates elected to the committee were Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, a former president of Congress who had served the convention as chairman of the committee of the whole; Oliver Ellsworth, Connecticut’s foremost lawyer; James Wilson, Pennsylvania’s foremost lawyer; John Rutledge, South Carolina’s foremost lawyer; and Edmund Randolph.

The convention went into recess, and the committee of detail went to work. Randolph’s colleagues entrusted him with preparing the initial outline. In other words, Randolph prepared the first draft of the first draft of the Constitution.

On Aug. 6, the convention re-assembled, and the committee presented its new draft. Its most striking feature was that, instead of federal powers being stated in general terms (as in the Virginia Plan), they were specifically itemized. Earlier in the summer, Randolph had thought it was premature to list specific federal powers, but the passage of time had clarified his thinking.

The committee’s “enumeration” scheme became a central feature of the finished Constitution.

Despite his success at the convention, Randolph balked at signing the finished document. He suggested changes that would enable him to sign, but his proposals were rejected.

Randolph concluded that the only way to obtain the alterations he wanted was to permit state conventions to propose amendments, to be reviewed by a second federal convention held before final ratification.

On Oct. 10, he wrote a lengthy letter explaining why the Articles of Confederation should be cashiered in favor of a new federal system. But the letter also insisted that state conventions be permitted to suggest pre-ratification amendments. He observed that the procedure he favored was similar to the procedure by which the Articles of Confederation were adopted. He expressed confidence that conventions in a majority of states would agree to such amendments.

‘I Am a Child of the Revolution’

His prediction about what other states would do proved wrong. When the Virginia ratifying convention met in Richmond on June 2, 1788, eight states had already approved the Constitution, and they had done so without insisting on any prior amendments. Massachusetts and South Carolina had proposed amendments, but to be adopted only after ratification.

Randolph realized that Virginia’s choices were reduced to this: Virginia could vote to ratify, resulting in union under the proposed Constitution, or Virginia could vote against ratification, likely resulting in no union at all.

Randolph passionately chose union.

However, the elections to the Virginia convention had not gone well for advocates of the Constitution. Not only were most of those elected skeptical about ratification, but the opponents included highly talented leaders: Mason, James Monroe (the future president), and Patrick Henry, truly one of history’s greatest orators.

Henry could send his listeners into a trance and hold them there for five hours. If a thunderstorm arose while he was speaking, his oratory danced with the thunder and lightning, bending the elements to his cause.

On the side of the Constitution were Madison (who, alas, was no orator); Wythe; Edmund Pendleton, then the Commonwealth’s top lawyer; and John Marshall, later Chief Justice of the United States.

Randolph was charged with the daunting responsibility of taking the lead in responding to Henry.

Henry specialized in attributing dark motives to his opponents. So Randolph needed to establish his patriotism at the very outset. “Mr. Chairman,” he said, “I am a child of the revolution. My country, very early indeed, took me under its protection, at a time when I most wanted it, and, by a succession of favors and honors, gratified even my most ardent wishes.”

With such a recital, no listener could believe that the young governor would betray America.

Throughout Richmond’s muggy June days, Randolph rose to his feet again and again. He delivered speeches of shimmering eloquence. He made his case, while still conceding his desire for amendments. Ultimately, he helped negotiate a bargain between supporters of the Constitution and moderate opponents: The convention proposed a long list of amendments, but to be adopted only after ratification.

Even so, the vote was close: 89 in favor and 79 against.

Subsequent Career

In 1789, President Washington chose Randolph to be the first U.S. attorney general and, in 1794, the second Secretary of State. Randolph did a competent job in both positions. However, a cabal within the cabinet eventually forced him to resign. The alleged reason was that Randolph had solicited bribes from the French ambassador.

Randolph furiously protested his innocence, writing two pamphlets defending himself against the charges. The verdict of history has been, “Not guilty.”

He re-entered law practice, where his success at the bar vied with his failure as a financial manager. He also composed a history of Virginia.

Randolph died on Sept. 12, 1813, in Millwood, Virginia.

Final Remarks

Like Dickinson, Randolph is persistently underestimated and under-appreciated. Some writers characterize him as a temporizing mediocrity. But if you re-read what you have just read, you can see that this judgment is perverse. And if any doubt remains, read his speeches to the Virginia ratifying convention, notes from which are available here.

If Randolph failed on any level, it was that he was too honorable for the jungle that federal politics had become. As E. Lee Shepard wrote in the “American Dictionary of National Biography”:

“[H]e struggled throughout his political life to rise above faction and to support positions and policies that he deemed worthy of his advocacy. Unfortunately, with the establishment of the federal government and the broadening of the new national political arena, his high-minded approach to public service became increasingly untenable.”

If not for Edmund Randolph, America’s most populous and most influential state would have rejected the Constitution. George Washington would have been ineligible for the presidency. The Union would have been smothered in its cradle.

Read prior installments in this series here: firstsecond, third, fourth.

Rob Natelson