John Randolph (1773-1833) survives in America’s footnotes as a colorful contrarian, and the Gore Vidal school of historiography pants at his duel with Henry Clay and his taste for opium. A master rhetorician, he left a long list of choice barbs, nearly all concocted on the spur of the moment. James Kilpatrick characterized the errant Judge Alcee Hastings using Randolph’s swipe at Edward Livingston: “He is a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he both shines and stinks.” But to most the senator from southern Virginia who argued for slavery and against westward expansion is as dead as his causes. Of the two biographies remaining in circulation, one is by a sworn enemy, Henry Adams. The other, favorable treatment of his life is by Russell Kirk, series editor of Transaction’s Library of Conservative Thought, of which this collection is the premier volume. Edited by former National Review critic Kenneth Shorey, the Randolph letters to John Brockenbrough, a physician and banker, should if nothing else further the quirky Southerner’s temperamental reputation. Illness was a governing factor all his adult life. No one knows for sure what disease he contracted at age 19, but it ended his romance with a Richmond belle, turned him grotesquely lean, and bent his taste to crackers and malt liquor for days at a time. Brockenbrough’s medical background no doubt explains why these letters read like a catalog of ailments. “I have followed your advice with sensible benefit,” Randolph writes from the backwoods of Roanoke in 1827, “but nothing seems to relieve the anxiety, distress, and languor to which I am by turns subjected, or the pains, rheumatic or gouty, that are continually flying about me.” Diarrhea, influenza, coughs, limps, depression: he was sick more than he was well. Yet he delivers the litany of his disease with the imaginative flair of an actor, as though craving applause as well as pity from his audience of one. Nor is sickbed art the only charm of these letters. They complain with equal vigor of miry roads, shabby inns, congressional wags, and strutting bumpkins, a Hogarth backdrop for the great traditionalist’s paeans to the vanishing world of the genteel planter.
How much of the wail he loosed against the tide of change was an echo of debility? Although Randolph abundantly documents the ills of a body bilious and melancholic, his quick and capacious mind, sanguine always, shines in every letter. They show him to be a perfect early American example of what Kirk refers to as “the political and moral attitude called conservatism.” The attitude, he writes, does not spring from theories, but from “custom, convention, continuity. . . . Being disdainful of ideology, the conservative cast of mind has no presumptuous crib, the fond creation of some Terrible Simplifier, to which the devotee may repair whenever in doubt.” Dragging himself to Congress through 30 years of declining health, Randolph consistently fought for limited government, the rule of law, and the ancient prerogatives of property. Even his abolitionist opponents acknowledged he was a good man. He defended slavery because there were “200 mouths looking up to me for food . . . it would be more difficult to abandon them to the cruel fate which our laws would consign them, than to suffer with them.” The letters, of course, brief as they are, truncate Randolph’s already Byzantine reasoning, but they suggest the depth of his thought and its sometimes surprising turns. To quote a few:
“We hug our lousy cloaks around us, take another chaw of tubbaker, float the room with nastiness, or ruin the grate and fire-irons, where they happen not to be rusty, and try conclusions upon constitutional points.”
“There is not a human being that I would hurt if it were in my power; not even Bonaparte.”
“Surely that must be the Yahoo’s paradise, where he can get dead drunk for the hundredth part of a dollar.”
“A mighty precious thing when it costs nothing, but the mass of mankind think it a very foolish thing when it curtails their self-indulgence.”
“That ‘pliability of man’s spirit’ which yields him up to illusions of the ideal world, is gone from me for ever.”
As Kirk says, the impression we form is of a peculiar psychology, a “cast of mind” backward-looking, negative about human possibility but positive about human worth, clear-eyed, alert, fiercely independent. Future books in the series will introduce or reintroduce the writings of the moralist W.H. Mallock, the Victorian jurist James Fitzgerald Stephen, and others, to a reading public raised on Rooseveltian liberalism. It will be interesting to see whether such unfashionable names “take” in times that label William F. Buckley Jr. a fascist. The choice of Randolph to open—perhaps the word is ignite—the series is excellent strategy. Like Buckley, where he fails to persuade he always dazzles; he is compellingly memorable, and memory is, as someone has said, the first step to understanding.
[Collected Letters of John Randolph of Roanoke to Dr. John Brockenbrough, 1812-1833, edited by Kenneth Shorey New (Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books) $28.95]