Edmund Randolph

Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), American statesman and lawyer, was an exceedingly influential public figure from 1780 to 1800.

Edmund Randolph's father, of a family long prominent in Virginia, was king's attorney and returned to England before the American Revolution. Edmund, however, graduated from the College of William and Mary, and influenced by his uncle Peyton who was a firm patriot, broke with his father. In August 1775 he joined George Washington's army. When Peyton Randolph (president of the first Continental Congress) died a few months later, Edmund returned to Virginia. He served in the Virginia Convention of 1776, was mayor of Williamsburg, and was attorney general of Virginia before his twenty-fifth birthday. His marriage in 1776 to Elizabeth Nicholas, daughter of Robert Nicholas, consolidated his position in Virginia's public life.

In 1781 Randolph began serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress. There and in the Virginia Legislature he worked with James Madison to strengthen the union of the states. At the same time Randolph became one of Virginia's leading attorneys, distinguished for his learning and oratory. He was elected governor of Virginia in 1786.

Randolph's national service resumed in 1786 at the Annapolis Convention, and in 1787 he became a Virginia delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention. Though not as thorough a nationalist as Washington or Madison, Randolph presented Madison's centralizing Virginia Plan to the Convention. He impressed the Convention with his "most harmonious voice, fine person, and striking manners," as well as with his keen sense of the dangers of tyranny. But his reservations about "energetic government," a concern for the special interests of Virginia, and a kind of indecisiveness caused him to refuse to sign the Constitution. Responding to Madison's tactful persuasion, though, he finally came out for the Constitution and played a key role at Virginia's ratifying convention.

Appointed attorney general of the United States (1789), Randolph soon became Washington's mediator in the bitter quarrels between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. As secretary of state (1794), he sought to maintain friendly relations with both England and France. He approved Jay's Treaty with England as well as the contradictory mission of James Monroe to conciliate republican France. Though he earned Washington's respect and gratitude, Jefferson declared him "a perfect chameleon," while Timothy Pickering aroused Washington's anger by alleging Randolph's subservience to France. Humiliated, Randolph resigned and wrote a Vindication of his conduct.

Randolph resumed his large law practice. In 1807 he was senior counsel for Aaron Burr in his treason trial. Randolph's health failed, however, and after writing a valuable manuscript history of the Revolution in Virginia, he died on Sept. 12, 1813.


Further Reading on Edmund Randolph

The biography of Randolph by John J. Reardon, in progress, should become the standard work. Samuel F. Bemis, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923; rev. ed. 1962), covers Randolph's career as secretary of state.

Additional Biography Sources

Reardon, John J. Edmund Randolph; a biograp, New York, Macmillan 1975, 1974.