Monday, 14 December 2009

Russell Kirk on John Randolph

From Russell Kirk, Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)

A gloomy statesman generally has been an anomaly in these United States. Pessimism and statecraft commonly are mutually exclusive, indeed. Similarly, truly conservative statesmen -- leaders whose chief desire is the preservation of the ancient values of society -- have been rare here; often men called conservatives have been eager for alteration of a nature calculated to encourage a very different kind of society -- Hamilton most conspicuous among them. Professed devotion to the cause of undefined progress and innovation has been virtually a prerequisite for political advancement in this land of territorial and economic expansion. Clay, with his American System; Webster, with his sonorous nationalism -such names have lived. Calhoun, true enough, was both conservative and somber, but most men of a brooding character who obtained a temporary success in their day are almost forgotten now -- witness Fisher Ames. John Randolph is one of the few conservative leaders this age has remembered, but he survives in the popular mind more for his eccentricities than for his statesmanship.

The idea of progress has so permeated modern American thought that one sometimes has difficulty convincing professors of history and politics that Randolph was a statesman at all. They ask, perhaps, that you give them an instance of some great constitutional change or social innovation which Ran-


dolph promoted; for, in their consciousness, "statesmanship" has come to imply political surgery, cutting at the organic structure of society. But Edmund Burke describes the statesman as possessing "a disposition to preserve and an ability to reform": the former talent takes precedence of the latter. This disposition to preserve was the ruling passion of Randolph's character. And his attempted reforms, his attacks upon political corruption, legislation for special interests, and the new industrial power, were all calculated to defend old ways against an ugly new order. Many a speech and phrase of Randolph's have a modern ring -- not only by reason of the acuteness of his thought but for the clarity of his language, since he despised the floridity which even then was engulfing American oratory. But nothing of his has greater meaning for us than his remarks upon permanence and innovation, old against new. The concept of progress was absent from Randolph's political thought; he stood fast against change in federal and state constitutions, dreaded the West, and lamented the decay of the times and the men. Could he see our age, he would think his warnings vindicated.

Randolph said at the Virginia Convention, "This is a cardinal principle, that should govern all statesmen -- never, without the strongest necessity, to disturb that which is at rest." Probably no man ever has expressed more succinctly the conservative instinct. He spoke thus at the end of his life, but since the inception of his political career, almost his every action had found its motive in that thought. His most thorough and eloquent exposition of this idea came in 1829.

Such opinions as Randolph held never have been popular in this nation; but possibly they may be true. The origins of Randolph's conservatism can no more be determined precisely than can the prejudices of most men. His congenital antipathy toward cant had a part; the accident of birth which made him a great landholder had a part; but most important, probably, was Randolph's love for the life of old Virginia -- the Virginia


which had begun to fade away in Randolph's youth. That life must be protected and preserved, he declared; it was the best state of society he could see possible for Virginia and the nation, and he scoffed at striving for impossible perfection. His poetic imagination, which overleaped the obstacles ordinary politicians encountered, saw clearly the relation between political cause and social consequence: he knew that the life for which he struggled could not endure in an industrial civilization or in an equalitarian political system.

Yet Jefferson, too, was one of the planter-statesmen; and the liberalism of his mind contrasts most remarkably with the conservatism of Randolph's, the optimism of Monticello with the gloom of Roanoke. To Jefferson, John Adams wrote: "Your taste is judicious in liking better the dreams of the future than the history of the past." For Randolph, the future was gray and the past resplendent. What accounts for this divergence of opinion? The difference between their ideals of the agricultural life had its share; Randolph's admiration of Burke contrasted with Jefferson's allegiance to the tradition of Locke; and, besides, perhaps Randolph, defeated, had not Jefferson's illusions. That persistent hopefulness of Jefferson's, that reluctance to adhere to any rigid standard, that very liberalism -- willingness to experiment -- of the author of the Declaration, made it difficult for him to accept the logic which Randolph expounded. Acceptance would have meant a partial sacrifice of the democratic principle, and that Jefferson could not have endured. Jefferson may have been the wiser in that he changed with times and saved at least a part of his American dream; but Randolph saw the issue bitterly clear, and he, who had expressed his wish to die like a gamecock in the pit, would yield to no man and no force.

Randolph the conservative statesman has three aspects: as a critic of men and manners; as an opponent of expansion; and


as a foe of constitutional change. Randolph's significant observation as early as 1800, "I have a respect for all that is antique with a few important exceptions)," hinted that what was for most Americans the age of public infancy was for Randolph the age of public decay; the "few exceptions" soon vanished from his system. America had no harsher critic of her failings.

Some may ascribe Randolph's despair to the irritations of his mental and physical constitution; but the matter seems to go far deeper than that, for he was joined in many of his complaints by men whose health was uninjured and whose minds always were lucid -- Nathaniel Macon, for one, John Brockenbrough for another. Randolph spoke of the decline of morality in public affairs; and there was such decadence, perhaps inevitable as the enthusiasms of the Revolutionary era faded and as an expanding economy offered prizes to the unscrupulous. He described the decay of old Virginia -- his country, he said -- and he was accurate, for socially and economically Virginia did decay from the inception of the Jeffersonian embargo onward, and the Revolution had seriously weakened the planter of the old sort. Perhaps it is with Randolph that we discern the beginning of that tendency, later so general in the South even before the Civil War, to look back to a happier past.

The tongue of the Southside orator was terrible to malefactors, particularly to the Yazoo men; it could prevent, for a space, the rewarding of guilt; but it could not change the time. Randolph might be called St. Michael, but, though he possessed the archangel's wrath, he lacked his sword.

One observes in Randolph's reflections a deep discontent with the nation even during the first administration of Jefferson; and after he had broken with Jefferson's party upon the decency of the Yazoo affair, the morality of the abortive purchase of Florida, and the costly embargo -- all, in part, questions of political conservatism against the spirit of the age -- his disgust became despair. To George Hay he wrote, early in 1806: "The old Republican party is already ruined, past redemption. New men and new passions are the order of the day -- except such of


the first as have sunk into time servers, usurers, and money changers."

And the country, too, was declining, said Randolph; his pathetic observations upon the decline of his Virginia commenced with the adoption of the embargo and were intensified by the ruinous effects of the War of 1812. To Josiah Quincy he wrote in March, 1814, that Tidewater Virginia was one desolate expanse of dismantled houses, ruinous churches, abandoned fields, mournful evergreens replacing the prosperous old countryside. The old families were gone, too, and their place taken by "the rich vulgar," sprung up from commerce and war profits. "These fellows will 'never get rid of Blackfriars'; and they make up in ostentation for their other deficiencies, of which they are always unconscious and sometimes ashamed."

Here was the old Virginia planter with a vengeance, in high disdain for trade. An even more melancholy letter was sent to Quincy on July 1. Whatever prosperity remained in Virginia, Randolph observed, had retreated west of Petersburg, Richmond, and Alexandria and east of the mountains; the West was a wilderness, the Tidewater nearly deserted, though so well situated for commerce. Deer and wild turkeys had become more plentiful near Williamsburg than in Kentucky; bears and panthers had reappeared in the neighborhood of the Dragon and Dismal swamps. He looked back with regret to the Old Dominion:

Before the Revolution the lower country of Virginia, pierced for more than a hundred miles from the seaboard by numerous bold and navigable rivers, was inhabited by a race of planters, of English descent, who dwelt on their principal estates on the borders of those noble streams. The proprietors were generally well educated, -- some of them at the best schools of the mother country, the rest at William and Mary, then a seminary of learning, under able classical masters. Their habitations and establishments, for the most part spacious and costly, in some instances displayed taste and elegance. They were the seats of hospitality. The possessors were gentlemen, -- better-bred men were not to be found in the British dominions. As yet party spirit was not. This fruitful source of mischief had not


then poisoned society. Every door was open to those who maintained the appearance of gentlemen. Each planter might be said, almost without exaggeration, to have a harbor at his door. . . .

Free living, the war, docking entails (by one sweeping act of Assembly), but chiefly the statute of distributions, undermined these old establishments. Bad agriculture, too, contributed its share. The soil of the country in question, except on the margin of the rivers, where it was excellent, is originally) a light, generous loam upon a sand; once exhausted, it is dead. . . . The tide swamps -- a mine of wealth in South Carolina -- here produce only miasma. You will find some good thoughts on this head, and on the decay of our agriculture generally, in our friend J. T.'s whimsical but sensible work "Arator."

Unlike you, we had a church to pull down, and its destruction contributed to swell the general ruin. The temples of the living God were abandoned, the glebe sold, the University pillaged. The old mansions, where they have been spared by fire (the consequence of the poverty and carelessness of their present tenants), are fast falling to decay; the families, with a few exceptions, dispersed from St. Mary's to St. Louis; such as remain here sunk into obscurity. They whose fathers rode in coaches and drank the choicest wines now ride on saddlebags, and drink grog, when they can get it. What enterprise or capital there was in the country retired westward. . . .

For Randolph, the forces behind this decay were in part the irresistible strength of time and nature, in part the failure of the men of his day, and in part the result of restrictive commercial policies enacted by Congress. He fought hard against all three. The next year, Randolph admitted gloomily of Virginia: "We are not only centuries behind our Northern neighbors, but at least 40 years behind ourselves."

The nation was censured even more severely by Randolph. Of his frequent railings against the degeneracy of the time, perhaps the best is contained in his speech against the Bank bill, in 1816. "We deceive ourselves; we are almost in the day of Sylla and Marius; yes, we have almost got down to the times of Jugurtha." The spirit of avarice was corrupting the whole American people, so that "a man might as well go to Constantinople to preach against Christianity, as to get up here and preach against the Banks." He lamented that restless covetous-


ness which Tocqueville found so strong a decade and a half later:

The evil of the times is a spirit engendered in this republic, fatal to the republican principles -- fatal to republican virtue: a spirit to live by any means but those of honest industry; a spirit of profusion: in other words, the spirit of Catiline himself -- alieni avidus sui profusus -- a spirit of expediency, not only in public but in private life; the system of Didler in the farce -- living any way and well; wearing an expensive coat, and drinking the finest wines, at any body's expense. . . . If we mean to transmit our institutions unimpaired to posterity; if some, now living, wish to continue to live under the same institutions by which they are now ruled -- and with all its evils, real or imaginary, I presume no man will question that we live under the easiest government on the globe -- we must put bounds to the spirit which seeks wealth by every path but the plain and regular path of honest industry and honest fame.

In this vein Randolph steadily denounced the deterioration of American character, especially in congressmen. Both the House and the Senate, he wrote to Gilmer, in 1821, "abound in men not merely without cultivation, (that was to be looked for), but in men of mean understandings, and meaner principles and manners." These were not merely the complaints of a dreamer of ideal political purity, for even in his hopeful youth Randolph had recognized the limitations of men and governments. Party and faction, for instance, cannot be eliminated in any society, as he wrote to Monroe in 1803: "We rail at faction without reflecting that the remedy which, alone, can remove her, is worse than the disease. I speak of forms; -- for madmen alone can expect to see a whole nation deterred from intrigue & calumny by mere moral considerations. Let us not, then, be so childish as to expect from government effects utterly inconsistent with it." And the next year he told Tazewell that "cabal is the necessary effect of freedom. Where men are left free to act, we must calculate on their being governed by their interests and passions." This is very like Burke. Character, said Randolph, was giving way because the simple society which had produced the grand old Virginian and American character was


undermined by economic alteration and governmental tinkering. "But I am becoming censorious-and how can I help it, in this canting and speaking age, where the very children are made to cry or laugh as a well-drilled recruit shoulders or grounds his firelock.

The white population of Virginia, the old amusements and holidays, the very inns, were sinking into a listless decrepitude. Randolph wrote to Brockenbrough, near the end of his life:

On my road to Buckingham, I passed a night in Farmville, in an apartment which in England they would not have thought fit for my servant; nor on the continent did he ever occupy so mean a one. Wherever I stop, it is the same -- walls black and filthy -- bed and furniture sordid -furniture scanty and mean, generally broken -- no mirror -- no fire-irons -in short, dirt and discomfort universally prevail, and in most private houses the matter is not mended. . . . The old gentry are gone and the nouveaux riche, where they have the inclination, do not know how to live. . . . Poverty stalking through the land, while we are engaged in political metaphysics, and, amidst our filth and vermin, like the Spaniard and Portugese, look down with contempt on other nations, England and France especially. We hug our lousy cloaks around us, take another chaw of tubbacker, float the room with nastiness, or ruin the grate and fireirons, where they happen not to be rusty, and try conclusions upon constitutional points.

Neglecting the pleasures of simplicity and the satisfactions which honest work brings, the Americans were corrupted by a passion for tinkering with politics and the taxing power, Randolph often repeated. "It won't do for a man, who wishes to indulge in dreams of human dignity and worth, to pass thirty years in public life. . . . The country is ruined past redemption; it is ruined in the spirit and character of the people." He told Jackson that he much preferred the permanence of English institutions to those of America, "where all is ceaseless and senseless change." "In truth, we are a fussical and fudgical people. We do stand in need of 'Internal Improvement' -- beginning in our own bosoms, extending to our families and plantations, or whatever our occupation may be; and the man that stays at


home and minds his own business, is the one that is doing all that can be done (rebus existentibus) to mitigate the evils of the times."

So much for Randolph's verdict upon American instability. He was one of the few statesmen who have been hostile critics of their whole society and yet have managed to retain a considerable political influence. Very probably John Randolph of Roanoke would have been a critic of any society in which he found himself; but the bedraggled equalitarianism of early nineteenth-century America drove him close to fury. He perceived in his day that corruption and perversion of republican institutions to private advantage which ever since have been so lamentably conspicuous a feature in our governmental system. He saw, clearly, the doom of his Virginia, and the causes of that doom. Perhaps he was wiser than Jefferson in his view of the laws of descent; for if Jefferson expected the abolition of entail to bring about the predominance of prosperous yeoman farmers in Virginia, he was disappointed; and Randolph discerned in that act, with truth, the ruin of many an old Virginian family. Randolph's analysis of the consequences of the American laws of inheritance is strikingly similar to that made by the political sagacity of Tocqueville. Of men and morals in his age, Randolph held an opinion thoroughly contemptuous; probably the sight of humanity in industrialized and standardized America, a century and a quarter later, would have left even Randolph speechless. Toward the end, he felt sure that what Tocqueville was to call "democratic despotism," the triumph of dull and intolerant mediocrity, could hardly be averted; one could not bind future generations, and he told Brockenbrough:

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. . . . What has become of all the countless generations that have preceded us? Just what will become of us, and of our successors. Each will follow the devices and desires of its own heart, and very reasonably expect that its


descendants will not, but will do, like good boys and girls, as they are bid. . . . If ever I undertake to educate, or regulate any matter, it shall be a thing that cannot talk. I have been a Quixotte in this matter, and well have I been rewarded -- as well as the woful Knight among the galley slaves in the Brown mountain.


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