"A Loathing of Public Debt, Taxes, and Excises": The Political Economy of John Randolph of Roanoke

By Devanny, John F., Jr. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

"A Loathing of Public Debt, Taxes, and Excises": The Political Economy of John Randolph of Roanoke


Devanny, John F., Jr., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


JOHN RANDOLPH of Roanoke (1773-1833) is not usually counted among the influential economic thinkers of his time. He wrote no formal work on the subject, unlike others such as John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas Cooper, or Thomas R. Dew. His distaste for theoretical speculation precluded such an endeavor and created a gulf between himself and fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Randolph did not fancy himself an intellectual or savant. He strove to be a planter-statesman, a cultured and well-read gentleman who by means of his oratory advocated and defended a politics of prudence rooted in common sense and historical experience.1 In Virginia such men garnered society's highest esteem. The orator who could engage the heart and the mind of his audience and direct them to the actualization of a good might enjoy an even greater acclaim than men like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, who expressed their ideas through the written word.2 Patrick Henry, for example, was without doubt the most popular politician in eighteenth-century Virginia, and though the Virginia Plan was the creation of the bookish James Madison, the famed orator and lawyer Edmund Randolph presented it to the men assembled at the Philadelphia convention.

When John Randolph's mother, Frances Bland Tucker, wished her son to be as fine a speaker as Edmund Randolph, her desire reflected the high value that even genteel and educated Virginians placed on the spoken word. He did not disappoint, for as an orator and correspondent John Randolph knew few equals.3 He assumed a prominent role in almost every significant policy debate of the day. As the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee during the first presidential term of Thomas Jefferson, Randolph steered the administration's program of retrenchment, tax relief, and the purchase of Louisiana through the House of Representatives. His grasp of public finance prompted the astonishment of Samuel Smith, a prominent Baltimore merchant and financier, and won the respect of Albert Gallatin, who served as secretary of the Treasury under both Jefferson and Madison.4

When he opposed the Jefferson administration in its second term, he was able to muster enough support to delay the Yazoo settlement, thwart the purchase of Florida, and maneuver the president into supporting a repeal of the hated duty on salt. In the decade after the War of 1812, Randolph was the foremost opponent of the emerging American System of national banking and finance, protective tariffs, and federal internal improvements. He displayed a rare acumen for the complex and tortuous issues of trade policy, currency and banking, and federal accounting procedures.5 In his speeches and correspondence Randolph dramatized the principles of the Old Republican economic platform as no one else could, and he revealed himself as an insightful and prophetic thinker on issues of political economy.

In the last of his speeches opposing the drift toward war with Great Britain in 1811, Randolph defined the platform that he championed throughout his career. Hoping to call his straying Republican brethren back to the old faith, he said:

Is it necessary for me at this time of day to make a declaration of the principles of the Republican party? Is it possible that such a declaration could be deemed orthodox when proceeding from lips so unholy as those of an excommunicant from that church? It is not necessary. Those principles are on record.... It is not for any man at this day to undertake to change them. It is not for any man, who then professed them, by any guise or circumlocution, to conceal apostacy from them, for they are there-there in the book. What are they? They have been delivered to you by my honorable colleague-What are they? Love of peace, hatred of offensive war; jealousy of the State Governments toward the General Government, a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debt, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy, of the patronage of the President. …

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