John Randolph of Roanoke and the Argumentum Ad Hominem

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As the Ad Hominem argument has traditionally been dismissed as a fallacy of logic, so John Randolph of Roanoke (1773--1833), who was perhaps its most prolific practitioner has been generally neglected as an orator. Douglas Walton's (1998) research into the ad hominem, however, indicates that the personal attack is a potentially reasonable argument in the course of a political debate, in which "character and commitment are connected."(1988. 198) That is, a politician's character is relevant in determining his principles as well as his readiness and willingness to make prudent decisions based on those principles. According to such a view, even the most egregious personal assaults may be seen as reasonable arguments in the context of political debate if they bear upon relevant issues. In this essay, I use Walton's approach to analyze Randolph's use of ad hominem arguments in the congressional debate over the Yazoo Claims. This analysis serves both to test the limits of reasonability in ad hominem argumentation, through a man known for his egregious personal attacks, and to illuminate the rhetoric of a great, but neglected orator.

John Randolph of Roanoke was among the last of the dying breed of aristocratic Virginian planter-statesmen. His career in the United States House of Representatives and Senate spanned the time between the founding generation of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson to the next great generation of Jackson, Clay, and Calhoun. His career was primarily one of negation in that he opposed, with diminishing degrees of success, all of these great statesmen and many lesser ones. Randolph was controversial for his politics as well as his oratory. He was devoted to the political principles embodied in the old republican order of Virginia and had great contempt for those who would impinge upon it. The result was that he stood, often alone, against the popular political innovations of his day, and he decried with scorn and ridicule such corruptions of the order of society and the men who supported them. He was feared as an orator, but even his admirers had some ambivalence toward his methods. Francis Walker Gilmer (1815) Randolph's fellow Virginian wrote, "Popular opinion has ordained Mr. Randolph the most eloquent speaker in America [ldots] His deliberate, graceful and commanding delivery cannot be too much praised; his total want of method in thinking cannot be too much condemned." It is likely that part of the perception of a "want of method" in Randolph's rhetoric was due to his frequent resort to invective and the ad hominem attack.

There is no doubt that John Randolph of Roanoke was a master of the personal attack. Both admirers and detractors relate his ability to heap scorn and ridicule on those who dared to oppose him (Johnson, 1929; Adams, 1996; Bruce, 1922). The "abusive eloquence which he possessed in such abundance" (Weaver, 1965, 77), often manifested itself in such insults as his characterization of the John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as "the coalition of Blifil and Black George [ldots] the coalition, unheard of 'til then of the puritan with the black leg" (Kirk, 1964, 379), which led to Clay challenging Randolph to their famous duel. Another example is his statement that one opponent was "a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. Like a rotten Mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks" (Johnson, 16). Such blatant examples of invective are generally dismissed as a lack of argument by Randolph's critics, and the rest of his personal attack-laden rhetoric is often presumed to be of the same ilk. Weaver (81) has suggested that the source of this presumption is Randolph's "energetic style" that tended to obscure the underlying sense of his argument. Walton's approach to ad hominem arguments, however, allows one to make explicit the implicit premises of Randolph's personal attacks in order to identify them as species of ad hominem arguments and assess their function in the dialogues in which he engaged. …