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Rediscovering Americans: Edmund Randolph

Written by Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning


One of the greatest paradoxes of the Constitutional Convention is that the man who presented the plan to frame the Constitution refused to sign and approve the Constitution on the very last day: that man was Edmund Randolph.


Throughout the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention, and contrary to the Virginia Plan that he presented, Randolph came to believe that a unitary executive (a one man executive, or what we now call the President of the United States) was “the foetus of monarchy!” However, Randolph would eventually endorse the Constitution, and urge the state of Virginia (of which he was the governor) to ratify it.


But Randolph was not only the man to present the plan that would become the Constitution, then reject it, then come to endorse it. He played various roles in the founding and development of the country: he was a soldier, a delegate, a politician… and according to some a “traitor.”


Randolph was born in Virginia on August 10, 1753. In 1775, when Randolph was only 22 years old, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry wrote letters to George Washington introducing the two and recommending him for a position in the Continental Army. Jefferson wrote, “This young gentleman’s abilities, natural and acquired, his extensive connections, and, above all, his desire to serve his country in this arduous struggle, are circumstances that cannot fail to gain him your countenance and protection.” Washington then gave Randolph the position of aide-de-camp. Randolph became Washington’s apprentice throughout his term with the Continental Army, though his time was cut short when his uncle died and he had to return to attend to the family property.


After his tenure in the Continental Army, Randolph was elected to the Virginia Convention in 1776, at the young age of 23. He was then elected to the Continental Congress in 1779 and in 1786 he was elected as the governor of Virginia. While governor of Virginia, Randolph was selected by the people to attend the Constitutional Convention where he presented the Virginia Plan with his fellow Virginia delegates. Randolph resigned as governor in 1788 in order to serve in Virginia’s House of Delegates.


However, his career as a state legislator was cut short when Washington offered him the opportunity to become the first Attorney General. Throughout his time as Attorney General, Randolph helped design the country’s justice system. In 1794, Randolph took Jefferson’s place as Secretary of State in Washington’s cabinet.


However, while Randolph was Secretary of State, some tension between him and his mentor developed. Washington decided to sign Jay’s Treaty which would begin to resolve the tensions with Britain. Randolph believed that this would injure trade with France and ruin our relationship with the country who helped us win the Revolutionary War, in order to appease the country who we went to war against. The British Navy intercepted letters from Randolph written to Joseph Fauchet, a French minister. The letters seemed to suggest that Randolph was providing the French with some confidential knowledge of the cabinet’s proceedings, and complaining about the administration. At the very least, it looked like Randolph was open to being swayed by his relationships with the French, at the worst it looked like he was betraying the country’s interests and dishonoring her before foreigners. A few days after receiving the letter, Washington presented it at a cabinet meeting and Randolph was so embarrassed that he had no choice but to resign.


Randolph wrote a pamphlet called A Vindication in which he defended his actions; however, he would never secure another political position. After the scandal he returned to Virginia to practice law, and he defended Aaron Burr against charges of treason in 1807.


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