REPUBLICANISM AND SOCIETY: John Randolph of Roanoke, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and the Quest for Social Order

By Tate, Adam L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

REPUBLICANISM AND SOCIETY: John Randolph of Roanoke, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and the Quest for Social Order


Tate, Adam L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


IN 1791, the arch-Federalist Fisher Ames wrote to George Richards Minot about southern republicanism, trying to explain to his friend why Virginia republicans differed from their northern counterparts. Ames wrote that in the South "a few gentlemen govern" under the protection of the law, which secured their slave property and prevented popular rebellion. He declared, "It is both government and anarchy, and in each case is better than any possible change, especially in favor of an exterior or (federal) government of any strength; for that would be losing the property, the usufruct of a government, by the State, which is light to bear and convenient to manage."1 Ames understood the heart of southern politics: that behind the ideology of southern republicanism lay a particular vision of society. The rapid pace of change in nineteenth-century American politics and culture, however, challenged the republican consensus and led to significant changes in the South during the antebellum period.

Historians have recognized that a shift took place in early nineteenth-century southern republicanism. Common explanations for this focus on socioeconomic developments caused by the Market Revolution and the strengthening of the South's slave society to deal with both the expansion of cotton production and abolitionist attacks. Some scholars have demonstrated an ideological transformation, tied to economic conditions and slavery, in the antebellum South from an eighteenth-century Enlightenment liberalism to a hardcore racist conservatism. These observations, though, distort certain developments in southern thought. Although economics were important, concerns brought about by southern migration to the Old Southwest after the War of 1812 also contributed to the shift in republicanism. There is evidence of a movement from liberal to conservative regarding the defense of slavery, but fundamental changes in southern social thought cannot simply be attributed to this move.2

For southern republicans, the issue of what exactly constituted a good society undergirded contentious issues of economics, constitutional doctrine, slavery, and western migration. During the antebellum period, southern republicanism fractured because of competing social visions. One branch, linked to the Old Republican movement and the states' rights revival after 1815, tried to remain true to traditional society in the South. Another branch of republicanism tried to adapt to the expansive character of nineteenth-century American life by focusing on ways to construct republican societies in the West rather than preserving the traditional communities of the East. Two Virginians represent the debate over republicanism and society, John Randolph of Roanoke and Joseph Glover Baldwin.

John Randolph, born in Virginia on the eve of the Revolution in 1773, became a passionate spokesman for the traditional elites of Virginia. Initially elected to Congress in 1799 after vigorously defending the Virginia Resolutions, he became a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson and Jeffersonian principles. Randolph served as House majority leader in 1802 and sat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. After supporting Jefferson's reforms and policies, including the Louisiana Purchase, during the first administration, Randolph broke with Jefferson during the latter's second term as president over the Yazoo Compromise, foreign policy, and the Embargo Act. He scolded Jefferson for abandoning republican principles and became recognized as the leader of the Terlium Quid, or Old Republican, movement.

Randolph underwent two intellectual shifts between 1807 and 1816 that heightened his sense of Virginia tradition and influenced the direction in which he took his republican principles. First, he read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and became convinced that the French Revolution, which he and many other Jeffersonians had supported during the 1790s, would spell the destruction of Europe. …

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