Peyton Randolph (c. 1722-1775)

Randolph, Peyton

Peyton Randolph was an exceptionally influential political leader in Virginia during the American Revolution. He was Speaker of the House of Burgesses during the most tumultuous years of the constitutional dispute and was elected the first President of the Continental Congress, earning him adulation as "The Father of Your Country." An adherent of the British Constitution that emerged from the Revolution of 1688 and a political practitioner in the Court Whig mold of Sir Robert Walpole, Randolph's moderating effect at key moments in the imperial crisis checked the extremes to which radicals such as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee would have otherwise lead the colony.

Randolph was likely born in Williamsburg, Virginia, sometime in 1722, the second-oldest son of John Randolph, a prominent lawyer and politician who was knighted by George II in 1732, and Susannah Beverley. His father died in 1737, leaving all his books to Randolph "hoping he will betake himself to the study of the law." He also inherited land in and around Williamsburg, along with two small plantations. Two years later, on October 13, 1739, he followed his father's wishes and was admitted to the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London, where he studied law for much of the next five years; Randolph was called to the London bar on February 10, 1744.

His experience in the English political world that had for decades been defined by the person and practice of Robert Walpole (whom Randolph referred to as "Sr Robert" and might have personally known) permanently shaped his political and cultural perspectives. He called the year that Walpole resigned as first minister "as memorable as that just a Century ago" when the House of Commons abolished the English monarchy, House of Lords, and Church of England. He wrote to a friend in Virginia, "We see all the Courts of Europe in an Uproar, & grand Revolutions in many of them." In London was "a very great one, as little expected before the Sitting of the Parliament, as that I shall come to be Grand Signor": the end of the era of Walpole, which has come to be known as the "Robinocracy." Under Walpole's influence, Randolph came to understand not only England's constitutional history but also Britain's relationships to modern geopolitical challenges as it battled France and other European powers in the War of Austrian Succession for a security based on supremacy. In the fall of 1742, he reported to that "The French who were very near making themselves Masters of all Europe, have been baffled and beat in a most glorious Manner." He was at the same time being thrust into the middle of colonial politics in the metropolis, as friends such as John Hanbury, perhaps the most influential of Chesapeake tobacco merchants at the time, successfully lobbied for Randolph's appointment as Virginia's attorney general before he had even finished his legal studies—and against the recommendation of the colony's well-respected Lieutenant Governor, William Gooch, who had nominated someone else. The 22-year-old Randolph received the appointment from the powerful Secretary of State, the Duke of Newcastle, on May 7, 1744.

Upon his return to Virginia, Randolph—considered his brilliant father's intellectual heir—was immediately thrust into thick of public and private legal disputes, representing not only the colony, but also clients such as George Washington, William Byrd III, Landon Carter, and Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier. He was also elected to the House of Burgesses and chosen recorder of Norfolk in 1748, appointed Justice of the Peace for York County in 1749, and the same year elected to the vestry of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church. By then he had married (in 1746) Elizabeth Harrison, the sister of Benjamin Harrison, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In the 1750s, Randolph entered what was something of a family business: protecting the colony's interests in London, which often meant resolving disputes between the Virginia assembly and resident governor or lieutenant governor over provincial affairs. In 1752, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie established a charge of one pistole (a Spanish coin) for him to seal new land patents, a fee customarily set by the assembly. Not only did the Burgesses consider it an encroachment on their traditional authority, a number of Virginians, particularly those in the rapidly expanding western region of the province, filed petitions with the assembly that Dinwiddie's pistole fee was a tax imposed without their consent. In December 1753, Randolph set off for London when the House of Burgesses appointed him its agent to protest it before the Privy Council. In retaliation, Dinwiddie dismissed Randolph as Virginia's attorney general. The controversy made "much Noise in Coffeehouses" in the metropolis throughout the spring of 1754. The Privy Council considered both matters—the pistole fee and Dinwiddie's dismissal of Randolph-in June 1754. In the end, the Privy Council upheld the lieutenant governor's basic right to collect the fee but set strict limits on its application (Dinwiddie could only levy the fee on patents exceeding 100 acres and not at all for those submitted for approval before he established it), criticized the way he went about creating it, and told him to be careful about taking any similar action in the future. As for Randolph, the Privy Council reminded him that the warrant appointing him to his position stated specifically that he held office only during his residence in the colony, and Dinwiddie was ordered to reinstate him on his return.

Ten years later, in 1765, political divisions between moderate and radical Virginians began to appear over the most effective way to register opposition to the Stamp Act. Randolph was strongly opposed to Patrick Henry's approach, believing that the strident language of Henry's Stamp Act Resolves would do more harm than good to their common cause. On May 31, the radicals claimed victory when five of Henry's resolves narrowly passed the House of Burgesses, causing Randolph to exclaim (according to Thomas Jefferson), "By God, I would have given one hundred guineas for a single vote," which would have made the difference. In 1766, a fierce battle was waged between the emerging political persuasions over candidates for the open position of Speaker of the House of Burgesses. The two leading candidates were Randolph and Richard Bland, who was favored by Henry and Richard Henry Lee. Both camps vigorously campaigned. Randolph asked friends such as Landon Carter for public letters of commitment, while supporters canvassed burgesses and pressed their voters to be on hand on the first day of the next session when the question would be decided. Dinwiddie's successor as lieutenant governor, Francis Fauquier, made his views on the matter very clear. To the Board of Trade in London he wrote of the candidates that Randolph was "of all men in this Colony in my Judgment the best qualified" and was always among the leaders in the House of Burgesses to push for measures that tended toward "the peace and advantage of the Colony." On November 6, 1766, Randolph was elected with a substantial majority (his brother, John, succeeded him as attorney general).

For the rest of the colonial period, in every major assembly in which Randolph sat—from the House of Burgesses to informal associations to the Virginia Conventions to the Continental Congress—he would be elected to lead it. He supported the House of Burgesses' strong protests of the Townshend Duties in 1768, the non-importation associations of 1769, 1770 and 1774, and was appointed to head Virginia's intercolonial committee of correspondence in 1773. When the First Virginia Convention, of which he was appointed president, elected delegates to the First Continental Congress in August 1774, Randolph topped the list. When he arrived in Philadelphia in September, he was warmly greeted by delegates from other colonies, such as John Adams, who remembered him as "a large, well looking Man." Adams recorded in his diary on September 5 the unanimous choice by the Congress of Randolph as its chairman. He continued as moderator of each of the succeeding Virginia conventions, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and returned to head the Continental Congress on May 10, 1775, but had to resign the presidency of the United Colonies, later that month because of increasingly poor health, although he remained a delegate to the Congress.

There can be little doubt that the constitutional crisis between Britain and the colonies was also a personal one for Randolph. Relatives and friends in England saw the imperial relationship reflected in their personal ties. Under orders to not do anything that could be interpreted as official recognition of the Continental Congress, British Commander-in-Chief Thomas Gage used an acquaintance with Randolph during the Seven Years War to open a personal line of communication about reconciliation in September 1774. Another friend informed Randolph in October 1775, "At present I do not believe you a Rebel though I understand your Patriotism is not below Proof." It was also not below proof among his fellow Virginians. Jefferson later criticized Randolph's constitutional views as "stopped at the half-way house of John Dickinson who admitted that England had a right to regulate our commerce, and to lay duties on it for the purposes of regulation, but not of raising revenue." Jefferson firmly disagreed with Randolph, believing that "for this ground there was no foundation in compact." Edmund Randolph, Peyton's nephew, remembered him rather more kindly, as "in official rank and ostensible importance" he "stood foremost in the band of patriots" and "halted not for a moment" when it came to "the great American question."

Randolph did not have the opportunity to make a choice on "the great American question" because he died while at dinner outside of Philadelphia on October 22, 1775, more than seven months before the vote on American independence.. His funeral in Philadelphia was widely reported as the largest that city had ever witnessed. His body remained in a vault at Christ Church until November 1776, when it was escorted to Williamsburg by Edmund and laid to rest next to his father in the crypt of the Wren Chapel of the College of William and Mary.

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