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Edmund Randolph

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Edmund Randolph
2nd United States Secretary of State
In office
January 2, 1794 – August 20, 1795
PresidentGeorge Washington
Preceded byThomas Jefferson
Succeeded byTimothy Pickering
1st United States Attorney General
In office
September 26, 1789 – January 26, 1794
PresidentGeorge Washington
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byWilliam Bradford
7th Governor of Virginia
In office
December 1, 1786 – December 1, 1788
Preceded byPatrick Henry
Succeeded byBeverley Randolph
1st Attorney General of Virginia
In office
July 4, 1776 – November 30, 1786
Preceded byJohn Randolph (for Colonial Virginia)
Succeeded byJames Innes
Personal details
Edmund Jennings Randolph

(1753-08-10)August 10, 1753
Williamsburg, Virginia, British America
DiedSeptember 12, 1813(1813-09-12) (aged 60)
Millwood, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyFederalist
SpouseElizabeth Nicholas
ChildrenPeyton Randolph
ParentJohn Randolph
RelativesPeyton Randolph (uncle)
EducationCollege of William and Mary

Edmund Jennings Randolph (August 10, 1753 – September 12, 1813) was a Founding Father of the United States, attorney, and the 7th Governor of Virginia. As a delegate from Virginia, he attended the Constitutional Convention and helped to create the national constitution while serving on its Committee of Detail. He was appointed the first United States Attorney General by George Washington and subsequently served as the second Secretary of State during the Washington administration.

Early life[edit]

Randolph was born on August 10, 1753, to the influential Randolph family in Williamsburg in the Colony of Virginia. He was educated at the College of William and Mary. After graduation, he began reading law with his father John Randolph and uncle Peyton Randolph.

In 1775, with the start of the American Revolution, Randolph's father, an active Loyalist, fled with his family to Britain. Son Edmund returned to America, where he joined the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.[1]

Upon the death of his uncle Peyton Randolph in October 1775, Edmund Randolph returned to Virginia to act as executor of the estate and, while there, was elected as a representative to the Fourth Virginia Convention. He was later mayor of Williamsburg and then attorney general of Virginia, a post he held until 1786.[1] He was married on August 29, 1776, to Elizabeth Nicholas, the daughter of Robert C. Nicholas, and had a total of six children, including Peyton Randolph, Governor of Virginia from 1811 to 1812.[2]

Political career[edit]

Early political career[edit]

Randolph was selected as one of 11 delegates to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress in 1779 and served as a delegate until 1782. He also remained in private law practice, handling numerous legal issues for Washington and others.[1]

Randolph was elected as Governor of Virginia in 1786. That year, he was a delegate to the Annapolis Convention. He had taken on the young John Marshall as a student and then law partner and transferred his lucrative law practice to Marshall when Randolph became governor since Virginia law barred executive officers from private practice in its courts.[3]

Constitutional Convention[edit]

George Washington witnesses Gouverneur Morris sign the constitution as Benjamin Franklin attends (at left; glasses) and Edmund Randolph and Alexander Hamilton look on (far right), in John Henry Hintermeister's 1925 painting, Foundation of the American Government.[4]

The following year, as a delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention, at 34, Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan as an outline for a new national government.[5] Although an enslaver himself,[6] he argued against the importation of enslaved people and for a strong central government and advocated a plan for three chief executives from various parts of the country. The Virginia Plan also proposed a bicameral legislature, both houses of which would have delegates chosen based on state population. Randolph proposed and was supported unanimously by the convention's delegates "that a Nationally Judiciary be established" (Article III of the U.S. Constitution would establish the federal court system).[7] The Articles of Confederation lacked a national court system for the United States.

Randolph was also a member of the "Committee of Detail," which was tasked with converting the Virginia Plan's 15 resolutions to a first draft of the Constitution.

Randolph ultimately refused to sign the final document, one of only three members who remained in the Constitutional Congress but refused to sign (the others were the fellow Virginian George Mason and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts).[8] Randolph thought the final document lacked sufficient checks and balances and published an account of his objections in October 1787. He thought that the federal judiciary would threaten state courts, and he considered the Senate too powerful and Congress's power too broad. He also objected to the lack of a provision for a second convention to act after the present instrument had been referred to the states.[1]

Role in ratification[edit]

Randolph served a significant role in the drafting of the original constitution. He helped to propose the Virginia Plan as a delegate from Virginia. This plan was eventually revised into the final draft of the U.S. Constitution. However, Randolph did not sign the Constitution's final draft because he wanted increased protections for individuals and did not agree with all of the revisions made to the original Virginia Plan.

Virginia Convention[edit]

Randolph nevertheless reversed his position at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788; an event held at the Richmond Theatre. He chaired the nearly equally-divided convention, and Mason (as one of the leaders of the opposition, along with Patrick Henry) greatly resented Randolph's change of position. Mason and other opponents demanded amendments before ratification. Randolph noted that he had seen several responses to the insistence that modifications were necessary before ratification. Some thought the objection to be insubstantial because the Constitution provided a process for amendment. In common with other advocates of amending the Constitution before ratification, Randolph insisted that it would be easier to amend the Constitution before its ratification when a majority might do so than to ratify an imperfect Constitution and then to assemble the votes of three-fourths of the states. He did not think the people should become accustomed to altering their constitution with any regularity once it was adopted.

Governor Randolph had written, "If after our best efforts for amendments, they cannot be obtained, I will adopt the constitution as it is."[citation needed] Ultimately, Randolph said he voted for ratification of the Constitution because by June 2, eight other states had already done so, and he did not want to see Virginia left out of the new national government. Randolph believed Virginia must choose between the stark alternatives of ratification and disunion. Randolph never doubted the union's advantages.

In the Richmond Ratification Convention, Randolph ultimately pointed the way to an understanding of ratification with which Virginia's leaders could be satisfied. He assured his fellow members of the Virginia political elite that the Constitution that it was being asked to ratify in the summer of 1788 would have minimal significance and that it would enter more a league of sovereign states than a consolidated union.

Randolph wrote that his tactics swayed five of the ten delegates whose views had been entirely unknown to vote for ratification. Ultimately, Virginia's Federalists secured the Constitution's ratification by precisely five votes.

Washington's Cabinet[edit]

President Washington rewarded Randolph for his support. In September 1789, Randolph was appointed the first Attorney General of the US. Here he maintained a precarious neutrality in the feuds between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (who was a second cousin to Randolph). Serving in Washington's cabinet, as in the ratification dispute of 1787–88, Randolph tried to bring people together rather than contest with others in pursuit of self-righteous ideological purity. He continued to make important contributions to the new nation's structure and its relationship with the states.[1]

When Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, Randolph succeeded him. The primary diplomatic initiative of his term was the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794. However, Hamilton devised the plan and wrote the instructions, leaving Randolph the minor role of signing the papers. Hostile to the resulting treaty, Randolph almost gained Washington's ear for his concerns but was overridden in the wake of the Fauchet scandal (see below). Near the end of his term as Secretary of State, negotiations for Pinckney's Treaty were finalized.

The Fauchet scandal and resignation[edit]

A scandal involving an intercepted French message led to Randolph's resignation from Washington's cabinet in August 1795. As Secretary of State Randolph was tasked with maintaining friendly relations with France.[1] The British Navy had intercepted and turned over to President Washington correspondence from Joseph Fauchet, the French ambassador to the United States, to his superiors. The letters reflected a contempt for the United States for which Randolph appeared primarily responsible, the contents implying that Randolph had exposed the inner debates in Washington's cabinet to the French and had related that the administration was hostile to France. Elkins and McKitrick concluded that, at the very least, there "was something here profoundly disreputable to the government's good faith and character."

Washington immediately overruled Randolph's negative advice about the Jay Treaty. A few days later, Washington handed the minister's letter to Randolph in the presence of the entire cabinet and demanded an explanation. Randolph was speechless and immediately resigned. Chernow and Elkins[9][10] concluded that France did not bribe Randolph but that he "was rather a pitiable figure, possessed of some talents and surprisingly little malice, but subject to self-absorbed silliness and lapses of good sense."

Randolph's published response, Vindication, illustrates his concerns about public and private perceptions of his character—such concerns for reputation holding great value in the 18th century. In the event, Randolph secured a published retraction from Fauchet.[1]

After his resignation, Randolph was held personally responsible for losing a large sum of money during his administration of the state department. He was eventually adjudged to owe the government more than $49,000, which he paid.[1]

Marriage to Elizabeth Nicholas[edit]

Elizabeth Nicholas was a daughter of Robert Carter Nicholas Sr, then the state treasurer of Virginia. Randolph wrote to his children after his wife's death:

"We were both born in the city of Williamsburg, within twelve hours of each other; myself on the 10th of August 1753, and she on the 11th. My aunt Randolph, who saw each of us soon after our birth, facetiously foretold that we should be united in marriage-a circumstance which, improbable at the time from the dissensions of our families, seemed daily to grow into an impossibility from their increasing rancor. In childhood we were taught the elements of reading at the same school... she won me by the best of all graces, cheerfulness, good sense, and benevolence. I do not recollect that I reflected much upon that range of qualities, which I afterwards found to be constituents of nuptial happiness; but Providence seemed to be kinder to me than my most deliberate judgment could have been... I desired nothing more than that she should sincerely persuade herself that she would be happy with me."[11]

They married on August 29, 1776. Their marital relationship was close and so free of friction that his daughters could not forget one singular instance of misunderstanding—Mrs. Randolph having related some particular incident, and her husband hastily exclaimed: "That is mere gossip." The lady repaired to her room and did not answer her husband's gentle knock. Then Randolph said, "Betsey, I have urgent business in town, but I shall not leave this house until permitted to apologize to you."[12] The door opened, and the unprecedented scene ended.

After Mrs. Randolph's death in 1810, the heartbroken husband wrote some account of her and their married life, which was addressed to his children as "the best witnesses of the truth of the brief history."[12] In part, Randolph wrote, "My eyes are every moment beholding so many objects with which she was associated; I sometimes catch a sound which deludes me so much with the similitude of her voice; I carry about my heart and hold for a daily visit so many of her precious relics; and, above all, my present situation is so greatly contrasted by its vacancy, regrets, and anguish, with the purest and unchequered bliss, so far as it depended on her, for many years of varying fortune, that I have vowed at her grave daily to maintain with her a mental intercourse."[12]

Later life[edit]

Grave of Edmund Randolph

After leaving the federal cabinet, Randolph returned to Virginia to practice law, where he was a leader of the state bar.[1] His most famous case was defending Aaron Burr at his trial for treason in 1807.

In 1791, Randolph was elected to the American Philosophical Society.[13]

Death and legacy[edit]

Randolph lived his final years as a guest of his friend Nathaniel Burwell at Carter Hall, near Millwood, Virginia, in Clarke County. He suffered from paralysis in his final years and died at 60 on September 12, 1813. He is buried nearby at the Burwell family cemetery adjacent to "Old Chapel."

Randolph County, Virginia (now West Virginia) was formed in 1787 and named in Randolph's honor.[14] Randolph County, Illinois was also named after him. Randolph, who was the governor of Virginia when the state ceded what was then sometimes called Illinois County, Virginia (a title disputed by Pennsylvania and others) to the new federal government, which created the Northwest Territory. Randolph County's motto is "where Illinois began" because it was one of the first two settled counties in the territory. It contains Kaskaskia, the first seat of Illinois County, which later became the Illinois Territory's capital and ultimately the state's first capital.

The Edmund J. Randolph Award is the highest award given by the US Department of Justice to persons who make "outstanding contributions to the accomplishments of the Department's mission."[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Randolph, Edmund" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 886.
  2. ^ "Founding Fathers: Virginia". FindLaw Constitutional Law Center. 2008. Archived from the original on December 1, 2012. Retrieved November 14, 2008.
  3. ^ R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Louisiana State University Press 2001) p. 79
  4. ^ Robinson, Raymond H. (1999). "The Marketing of an Icon". George Washington: American Symbol. Hudson Hills. p. 117. ISBN 9781555951481. Figure 56 John Henry Hintermeister (American 1869–1945) Signing of the Constitution, 1925...Alternatively labeled Title to Freedom and the Foundation of American Government...".
  5. ^ "Delegates to the Constitutional Convention: Virginia". University of Missouri–Kansas City. Archived from the original on November 10, 2022. Retrieved June 11, 2011.
  6. ^ "Edmund J. Randolph". Teaching American History. Archived from the original on July 3, 2023. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  7. ^ Chemerinsky, Erwin (2007). Federal Jurisdiction (5th ed.). New York: Aspen Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7355-6407-7. LCCN 2007021049.
  8. ^ Stewart 2007, p. 241.
  9. ^ Chernow, Ron (2010). Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 731–734. ISBN 978-1-59420-266-7. LCCN 2010019154.
  10. ^ Elkins, Stanley M.; Eric McKitrick (1993). The age of federalism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 425–426. ISBN 0-19-506890-4. LCCN 92033660.
  11. ^ Conway, Moncure Daniel (1888). Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Live and Papers of Edmund Randolph. G.P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press. p. 37.
  12. ^ a b c Conway, Moncure Daniel (1888). Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph. G.P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press. pp. 388–90.
  13. ^ "Edmund Randolph". American Philosophical Society Member History. American Philosophical Society. Archived from the original on September 20, 2022. Retrieved December 16, 2020.
  14. ^ "Randolph County | County Facts". West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
  15. ^ "Director Samuels Receives DOJ's Highest Award". Federal Bureau of Prisons. United States Department of Justice. December 16, 2015. Archived from the original on July 12, 2017. Retrieved December 22, 2017. The Award, named for the first Attorney General of the United States, appointed by President George Washington, recognizes outstanding contributions to the accomplishments of the Department's mission.
  • Conway, Moncure D. Omitted Chapters of History: Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph. Vol. 2. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1888. [ISBN missing]
  • Gutzman, Kevin R.C. "Edmund Randolph and Virginia Constitutionalism." The Review of Politics 66.3 (2004)
  • Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. [ISBN missing]
  • Stewart, David O. (2007), The Summer of 1787, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0743286923


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
Preceded by United States Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Legal offices
New office United States Attorney General
Succeeded by