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BOOK REVIEW: ‘John Randolph of Roanoke’

JOHN RANDOLPH OF ROANOKE
By David Johnson
LSU Press, $45, 233 pages

John Randolph served as an unyielding defender of America’s revolutionary values for his entire life. Born on June 2, 1773, he grew up soaking in constitutional freedom’s dawning days on a Virginia plantation. It distilled in him a thirst for liberty and limited government, principles from which Randolph drank deeply all his days. Fiercely independent, he stood firmly for the spirit of 1776 in a political career spanning 31 years, two continents and both houses of Congress.

David Johnson’s “John Randolph of Roanoke” recognizes its namesake as one of the Founding Fathers’ loudest champions. The Virginian’s voice, one observer wrote, “is the most forcible I have ever witnessed,” and he was “a man as facile with words as he was handy with a pistol.” Biting and sarcastic, Randolph often beat back opponents with mockery, insults and tirades. When those didn’t work, his long, jabbing forefinger often sufficed. Thrust for singling out and humiliating foes, it was Randolph’s “Excalibur, seemingly blinding and slashing opponents at whom he pointed it.”

Such supreme self-confidence, Mr. Johnson proposes, came from Randolph’s birthplace at Roanoke. Randolph entered the world “born of station and experience,” the son of Virginia aristocracy among the commonwealth’s most pre-eminent families. Wealthy and respected, the Randolphs represented Virginia society at its most genteel. So revered was Randolph’s standing, in fact, that his peers elected him to the House of Representatives in 1799 at the age of 26.

This background bred confidence, poise and self-reliance in Randolph. Such traits were sorely needed, and they helped Randolph repel a potential rude awakening upon entering politics. Asked by another representative if he was old enough for congressional service, Randolph angrily responded that the joker “should ask my constituents.” Perhaps fittingly, history no longer recalls exactly who uttered the offending remark.

It was the first of many verbal victories and one that also illuminates a defining trait of Randolph’s political career. Virginia voters loved Randolph for rarely venturing away from their beliefs. Regardless of the political climate, he was “a man disregarding station, fame and power to stand for principle.” So great was Randolph’s commitment to liberty, in fact, that he dared his contemporaries to find one vote that limited its practice. “There is no need to look,” Mr. Johnson argues, as “no such act will be found.”

“John Randolph of Roanoke” thus portrays its subject as salt of the earth sown against the roots of tyranny. It offers dry prose that, much like Virginia tobacco, is rich and nuanced after its words are inhaled. Though it often concerns policy, it’s a book that never loses sight of Randolph’s remarkable life and political service.

Interestingly enough, his was a career that in many ways couldn’t happen today. An avid drinker, Randolph often delivered his best speeches with a tumbler of scotch. He brought hunting dogs with him on the House floor and made cutting gestures with a riding crop. Easily offended, he fought Henry Clay in a duel and kept pistols ready for similar shootouts. Frequently ill, Randolph often used opium for a variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to stomach problems.

Most important, however, he remained an effective politician without sacrificing his original ideals. First elected as a Democratic-Republican, he rejected his party in 1806 as its members moved away from its first principles. Rather than join his Federalist rivals, Randolph instead became the tertium quid, or the “third something” politician of his age.

From then on, Randolph “defied indifference.” Beloved by friends and hated by enemies, he was “an object of admiration and terror” that “both attracted and repelled.” In the stream of time, Randolph was the stone that stayed unchanging on the need for freedom from big government. As Randolph saw it, “any action that diminished liberty had to be opposed.” Compromising on this stance threatened America’s very essence, Randolph thought, and “to fall in such a cause,” he wrote, “was no mean glory.”

Sadly, Randolph’s mission often left him lonely and unpopular. Clashing with every president he encountered, he even disavowed his cousin Thomas Jefferson over a disagreement on Republicanism. In Congress, he rarely left the war of words and routinely ended alliances over betrayals real and imagined.

Publicly confident, Randolph struggled privately with doubts about liberty’s future. Though he found solace in family, friends and home, it wasn’t enough. As his career wound down, Randolph believed his lifelong struggles wouldn’t stop the rise of big government and bigger oppression. Dying in 1883, he spoke a single word: “remorse.”

Mr. Johnson interprets Randolph’s life as a clarion call sounded for liberty. The “remorse” his subject felt, then, was the realization that one man can’t preserve liberty alone.

“John Randolph of Roanoke” thus closes with Randolph’s fitting observation that “I could not have believed that the people would so soon have shown themselves unfit for free government.” It’s a sobering reminder that politicians like Randolph are rare, and without those like him, freedom’s future isn’t certain even today.

• Read more of Mark Hensch’s work in at the Washington Times Communities. When not writing for the Communities, Mark serves as a digital editor for The Times’ http://times247.com.

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