A son's agonizing choice: Edmund Randolph chose a path that tragically led him away from his father, but toward becoming a key player in the formation of a new nation.
There was no family more prominent or more divided than the illustrious Randolph family of Virginia. The Randolphs were a family of wealthy and devoted public servants. They served their neighbors and the crown in a remarkable manner, sacrificing time and monetary gain to do the king's bidding in his fairest colony. Edmund Randolph's parents nurtured him in this tradition and taught him that one of his primary priorities was service to king and country. For generations, that country was England and that king was its ruling monarch, placed on the throne "by the grace of God." By the time Edmund entered manhood, however, tumult between England and her American colonies was complicating this relationship, and the scent of sedition wafted through the halls of Parliament as clouds of contention darkened the eastern and western shores of the Atlantic.
The first of many crises widening the breach between Britain and her American colonies was the proposed Stamp Act in 1764. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Grenville decided to raise revenues by taxing assorted printed matter, requiring most documents to carry an official seal (or stamp) before they could be sold in America. Most Americans vehemently opposed Grenville's taxation scheme. Virginia and her sister colonies filed official petitions opposing the tax proposals, but all to no avail as the Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765.
The Randolphs, along with most Virginians, disputed Parliament's right to pass the Stamp Act. In 1764, Edmund Randolph's Uncle Peyton, a member of the House of Burgesses, chaired the committee that drafted the original petition of protest to the proposed Stamp Act. At first, Peyton's voice was one of moderation, determined to maintain Virginia's right of self-government within the larger scheme of colonial ties to England. Edmund's father, John, the clerk of the burgesses, shared his brother's outlook and his desire to maintain peace while asserting Virginia's right to govern itself.
Both John and Peyton sanctioned an immediate moratorium on the purchase of British products listed in the Stamp Act. Remarkably, colonial embargoes of English goods brought much of the English manufacturing sector to the brink of ruin, and the pressure this put on Parliament finally brought about the repeal of the Stamp Act. In Virginia, the Randolphs were hopeful that such prudent and moderate means could be used to resolve future disputes with England. They soon learned, however, that looming controversies would not be so diplomatically remedied.
Before long, renewed rumblings of rebellion in America loosened the powder on the wigs in the halls of Parliament. England still suffered under the weight of fulfilling its fiscal obligations, and America was its best source of quickly raising the needed funds. In 1767, Parliament responded to pressure to reduce taxes in England by passing the Townshend Acts. The Townshend Acts placed levies on all English glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea sold in America. The American reaction to these duties was of similar tone to that expressed at the time of the Stamp Act. Town halls across America echoed with calls for embargo in the hope that hitting England in the wallet again would bring capitulation to colonial demands. The non-importation movement gained momentum as the colonies united in their vociferous opposition to English oppression.
Virginia, encouraged by the successful end achieved by its balanced response to the Stamp Act, decided to take that tack again. The Virginia legislature, including the influential Randolph brothers, called for a "firm but decent opposition to every measure which may affect the rights and liberties of the British colonies in America" Despite this self-restraint, however, England saw America as a cash cow and could not be dissuaded from implementing the new laws. Moreover, Parliament promised to take swift and decisive action against anyone who dared disobey its edicts.
Parliament's refusal to hear the cries of her colonies prompted Virginia to reconsider her previously temperate response to English despotism. Americans grew more fiercely set against English encroachment on their liberty. On May 16, 1767, Peyton Randolph and the House of Burgesses unanimously approved resolutions condemning the Townshend Acts and reasserting the right of the American colonies to govern themselves in matters of taxation. The governor of Virginia, outraged by this display of "independency," immediately dissolved both houses of the Virginia legislature. The burgesses, adamantly refusing to passively suffer this affront, reconvened as a league of concerned citizens at a local Williamsburg tavern. Peyton Randolph was immediately elected as moderator of the group, and debate began as to the proper retort to England's open hostility.
The fruit of this meeting, known as the Virginia Association, was an agreement to prohibit purchasing English goods. The first man to sign the document was Peyton Randolph. Other notable signatories included Robert Carter Nicholas, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. A name noticeably missing from the petition, however, was that of John Randolph. This split between John and Peyton was only a foreshadowing of the chasm that would soon divide John and his son Edmund--a chasm that would become as wide as the Atlantic Ocean itself.
For Peyton Randolph the answer to the schism separating England and America was simple: America was founded as a self-governing land; it would remain so, even in the face of England's haughty resolve to impose her will on it. For John Randolph, however, the solution was not so clear. He appreciated America's history of self-determination, but Parliament was the final voice --even if the words it spoke were harsh and personally disconcerting. In his mind, John was an Englishman in America, and as a subject of the king he would humbly if reluctantly accede to the king's decrees.
Edmund Randolph was 15 at the time of this familial fissure, and he likely did not understand how his father and his uncle could choose such divergent paths. Within a few years, however, Edmund would realize that there were but two possible ways to resolve America's strife with the mother country: the way of his father--loyal disagreement; or the way of his uncle--un flinching dedication to freedom from English absolutism, no matter what the cost.
As the din of tumult grew louder. Edmund Randolph's understanding of the gravity of the situation grew. and he realized that soon he would have to choose between his family's opposing points of view. Edmund was a well-educated young man who undoubtedly read in the Virginia Gazette of armed conflict between English soldiers and citizens of Boston. All over America colonists demonstrated their unwillingness to acquiesce to the oppressive acts of Parliament. America was certainly at a crossroads, and two of Edmund's beloved family members stood beckoning in distinct directions.
After graduating from the College of William and Mary, Edmund began his study of laws, following in the footsteps of his noble forebears. In fact, Edmund's father became his mentor and faithfully guided him toward becoming a worthy member of the Virginia bar. John Randolph insisted that his son study hard and prove his dedication to the legal profession. In Virginia, formal certification by a practicing attorney was required before a man could assume his own book of clients. After passing this "bar exam," a young attorney would seek admittance to the colony's many county courts. Edmund passed his interview with a learned lawyer and qualified himself to practice throughout Virginia. Edmund was at ease in his chosen vocation, and his facility and confidence attracted attention. Before long Edmund was a renowned attorney representing an impressive roster of clients in and around his hometown of Williamsburg.
In early 1774, Edmund gained admittance to the bar of Virginia's highest court--the General Court. About the time Edmund achieved this distinction, Thomas Jefferson fell ill and sought a suitable lawyer to represent his many clients. Jefferson recognized Edmund's brilliance and appreciated his zealous advocacy of his own clients' causes, and he therefore bestowed upon Edmund all his clients that had cases before the General Court. Edmund felt the gravity of such an endowment and forthwith sent a letter to all of his new clients. Part of this missive reveals Edmund's sober and earnest character: "However, should you now think me worthy and capable of the charge, I flatter myself that you will have no cause at any future day to forfeit such an opinion of me, and hope that you will not repent in having me engaged for you on any other occasion."
This self-awareness would serve Edmund well in the face of perilous and pivotal steps he would soon be compelled to take.
After a brief period of reconciliation under Lord North, the British prime minister, tensions between England and her American colonies escalated anew after the burning of a ship off Rhode Island in 1772. The primary spark that rekindled the conflagration of conflict was the decision by the Commission of Inquiry to extradite to England those accused of burning the ship to stand trial. To most colonists, this decision demonstrated Parliament's unremitting distrust and disdain for America's ability and right to govern herself and effectively administer justice. Within months, Parliament foolishly added insult to injury by passing the Tea Act, granting the British East India Company absolute control over all the tea sold in America. This legislation precipitated
the famous Boston Tea Party and served as a rallying point for colonial rage percolating against perceived royal abuse of its prerogatives.
As soon as the Virginia House of Burgesses joined her sister colonies in voicing official support for Boston, the royal governor of Virginia again dissolved the assembly. As before, these patriots were undeterred and adjourned to the Raleigh Tavern and unofficially carried on their steadfast resistance to the lengthening list of English abuses. On May 27, 1774, this body of burgesses-in-exile sent a circular to their fellow colonial legislatures requesting they send delegates to a continental congress so that plans could be made to respond to England's continuous trampling of their God-given rights.
As with earlier clashes between crown and colony, the Randolphs stood on opposite sides of the issue. Peyton worked with righteous determination to unite the colonies in ardent resistance to Parliament's attempts to wrest self-determination from the American colonies. John, however, saw his duty as requiring support of the crown, regardless of his personal opinions. He refused to officially or unofficially endorse the actions of his brother or his cohorts in the association. He stood by the king and his representative in Virginia.
Taking a Revolutionary Tack
Edmund Randolph was a man now, and he felt the pressure to manifest where his loyalties lay. Adding to the burden was the fact that his heart and mind allied with his Uncle Peyton instead of with his father. As he was a pious man, one can picture young Edmund on his knees praying fervently that the trouble between Britain and America would be resolved amicably and quickly, obviating his need to choose between his uncle's way and his father's way. No son welcomes the emotional disquiet that accompanies such a quandary. History instructs us, however, that Edmund's prayers for a calming of the turbulence would go unanswered, and he would be forced to place his feet on a path--a path that led him away from his parents and toward becoming a key contributor in the battle for American sovereignty.
The colonies heeded Virginia's call to convene a congress of representatives and on September 5, 1774 in Philadelphia the gavel sounded to order the First Continental Congress. As befit his experience and devotion to the cause, Peyton Randolph was elected the first president of Congress. Under his guidance, debate began immediately, and Congress voted to boycott all British goods. Accompanying this act was a statement reiterating colonial "rights and grievances." After sending this act to Parliament and the crown, Congress adjourned with a plan to reconvene on May 10, 1775 to evaluate the British response to the statement of colonial discontent.
Great Britain's contemptible indifference to the declaration of the First Continental Congress made armed hostilities almost certain. March 1775 arrived, and Virginia sent a delegation to the Second Continental Congress. Edmund perceived that the flicker of hope for amicable reconciliation with England was extinguished, and despite the heaviness in his heart at the thought of alienating his beloved father, he knew his determination to stand for liberty was right, regardless of repercussion.
The timing of Edmund's declaration was fateful, for on April 29, 1775 word reached Virginia of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and Virginia's patriots organized local militias to oust the royal government. The Second Continental Congress assumed control of America's armed resistance to British tyranny and the die was cast--Edmund Randolph stood with those resisting despotism and the imperial English forces that would soon reach the shores of America.
The Virginia Association, known as the Virginia House of Delegates since 1776, investigated the governor's role in hiding gunpowder stores from the patriot militia, and John Randolph defended the king's representative. The governor abandoned his post and left John Randolph in Williamsburg to negotiate on behalf of the royal colonial government. John Randolph, however, could not dissuade his countrymen from taking up arms in their defense, and Virginia's royal government fled.
Edmund soon left his home, determined to do what he thought was his duty--join the Continental Army under the command of fellow Virginian General George Washington. Edmund left his father, mother, and sisters, perhaps comprehending that this would be no temporary separation. John undoubtedly felt conflicted watching his only son--a man any father would be proud to call his own--join what he considered to be a band of traitorous rebels that were irrevocably tearing America from her king. Paternal pride clashed with profound disapproval, and watching Edmund ride out of sight must have tormented John. Edmund certainly knew of his family's displeasure, but in spite of his natural desire for his father's approval, he bid him farewell and rode to the sound of the guns to help secure his country's freedom.
As part of his military service, Edmund was determined to serve on General George Washington's staff. He worried, however, that he would be thwarted in this mission because of his father's well-known allegiance to the crown. To assure General Washington that he was loyal to the American struggle, Edmund sought support from Virginia's congressional delegation.
Benjamin Henry Harrison threw his influence behind Edmund and wrote a letter of recommendation to General Washington. In his letter to Washington, Harrison explained that Edmund feared that "his father's conduct may tend to lessen him in the esteem of his countrymen." Such fears were unfounded, however, as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson all heartily endorsed Edmund's application to join Washington's inner circle. To Edmund's great pleasure, on August 15, 1775, Washington selected him as an "aide de camp," and thus began Edmund's exemplary service to the man who would one day be unanimously proclaimed "Father of His Country."
Within a month, Edmund's father took steps of his own. First, he disinherited Edmund upon hearing of his son's acceptance to serve on General Washington's staff. Then, on September 8, 1775, John Randolph, his wife, and his daughters set sail for Great Britain. John's fealty to the king prohibited him from taking up arms against what he considered his own country and crown. John's pride and sense of duty convinced him to abandon the land of his father and establish himself in the land of his great-grandfather.
Edmund was deeply saddened by his father's self-imposed exile, coupled with the unexpected death of his Uncle Peyton. He battled the grief the only way he knew how--seeking solace in the service of his country and fighting tirelessly for its freedom.
During the latter part of the War for Independence, Edmund Randolph served as a member of the Continental Congress. After the war, he went on to become governor of Virginia, our nation's first attorney general, and secretary of state. He also played a major role at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he presented the famed Virginia Plan that called for three branches of government, with the legislative branch subdivided into two houses.
Edmund Randolph's example of unwavering and fearless dedication to opposing tyranny even in the face of familial dissatisfaction should be emulated by all who seek to guard the legacy of liberty he and others of his generation bequeathed to us. Edmund's remarkable labor on behalf of his countrymen bestowed upon him the patriotic bona tides that one day would cement his central role in establishing the nascent American republic and propel his ascendancy to the pantheon of Founding Fathers.
by Joe Wolverton II, J.D.
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY--GREATNESS OF THE FOUNDERS|
|Author:||Wolverton, Joe, II|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Sep 18, 2006|
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