Elizabeth Nicholas Randolph

Wife of Edmund Randolph: First U.S. Attorney General

Edmund Jenings Randolph was born August 10, 1753, to the influential Randolph family at Tazewell Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia. His parents were Ariana Jenings and John Randolph. They owned tobacco plantations worked by slaves. Edmund and Elizabeth were born less than 24 hours apart.

Edmund was educated at the College of William and Mary. After graduation he began studying law with his father and his uncle, Peyton Randolph.

When the American Revolution began, father and son followed very different paths. John Randolph, a Loyalist, who continued to support the British, followed royal governor Lord Dunmore to England in 1775, taking his wife and daughters, but leaving his son.

Edmund was very much in support of the revolutionary fervor that was developing in Virginia and throughout the colonies. While his family were crossing the Atlantic, Edmund was joining the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to General Washington.

Edmund was sensitive about his family’s honor; because his father had remained a Tory, Edmund felt it his duty to erase the stain on the Randolph name. He moved in with his uncle Peyton Randolph, a prominent figure in Virginia politics.

Political Career
In October 1775, after Peyton Randolph’s sudden death, Edmund returned to Williamsburg to act as executor of his uncle’s estate. Edmund inherited a large part of Peyton Randolph’s personal property through his will. Edmund was elected as a representative to the Virginia Convention while attending to those duties. That convention adopted Virginia’s first state constitution in 1776. Edmund was the convention’s youngest member at age 23. He soon became Mayor of Williamsburg and then the State of Virginia’s first Attorney General.

Edmund Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas on August 29, 1776, and they had six children, including son Peyton Randolph (named for his uncle), who was Governor of Virginia from 1811 to 1812. Elizabeth raised their children and supported her husband through all his years of public service.

Edmund Randolph was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779, and served there to 1782. At the same time ran a private law practice where he handled legal issues for George Washington and others. Randolph was also a member of the House of Delegates 1782-85 and seventh Governor of Virginia 1786-88.

The United States Constitution
Edmund Randolph was a delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. On May 29, 1787, he introduced the Virginia Plan as an outline for a new national government. This plan proposed a strong central government with three chief executives from various parts of the country.

It also proposed two houses, where in both of them delegates were chosen based on state population. Randolph additionally proposed, and was supported by unanimous approval by the Convention’s delegates, that a judiciary be established (Article III of the Constitution established the Federal court system).

Randolph was also a member of the Committee of Detail, which was responsible for preparing a first draft of the United States Constitution from the Virginia Plan’s fifteen resolutions. After many debates and revisions, the Virginia Plan became in large part the basis of the Constitution.

Randolph declined to sign the final copy of the Constitution, however, believing it had insufficient checks and balances, and published an account of his objections in October 1787.

He reversed his position at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788 and voted for ratification of the Constitution. He explained why he changed his mind: “The accession of eight states reduced our deliberations to the single question of Union or no Union.”

In 1788 Randolph refused re-election as Governor, and entered the House of Delegates to work on the revision and codification of the state laws (published in 1794.)

Washington’s Cabinet
In September 1789, Edmund Randolph was appointed by President Washington first Attorney General of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, Randolph succeeded him to the position, the second to serve in that position.

France and Great Britain were at war at the time, and both countries had supporters within the United States. Randolph attempted to carry out Washington’s policy of neutrality in the conflict but earned enemies on both sides. Randolph tried to pursue a non-partisan course in foreign affairs with a leaning toward France, as President Washington did.

Randolph’s public career ended in a cloud of scandal in 1795, after the British minister to the United States claimed that Randolph had expressed a willingness to accept money from France to create U.S. policy favorable to that country.

Correspondence from the French minister Fauchet that was intercepted and sent to the British minister to the United States accused Randolph of asking for money from France to influence the administration against Great Britain. Although the charges were eventually shown to be untrue and was later retracted by Fauchet, Randolph immediately resigned, but the stigma would follow him for years.

Washington gave Randolph a chance to explain, but instead he resigned from office and published a pamphlet which he called “a vindication,” in which he charged the President with “prejudging, concealment, and want of generosity.” Continuing, he said, “never … could I have believed that in addressing you … I should use any other language than that of a friend. From my early period of life, I was taught to esteem you—as I advanced in years, I was habituated to revere you:—you strengthened my prepossessions by marks of attention.” In the preparation of this pamphlet, Randolph wrote the President a letter which the latter asserted was “full of innuendoes,” and one statement in the pamphlet he denounced as being “as impudent and insolent an assertion as it is false.”

And the President’s irritation at this treatment gave rise to an incident, narrated by James Ross, at a breakfast at the President’s, when “after a little while the Secretary of War came in, and said to Washington, ‘Have you seen Mr. Randolph’s pamphlet?’ ‘I have,’ said Washington, ‘and, by the eternal God, he is the damnedest liar on the face of the earth!’ and as he spoke he brought his fist down upon the table with all his strength, and with a violence which made the cups and plates start from their places.”

Fortunately, the attack was ineffective; Alexander Hamilton wrote that “I consider it as amounting to a confession of guilt; and I am persuaded this will be the universal opinion. His attempts against you are viewed by all whom I have seen, as base. They will certainly fail of their aim, and will do good rather than harm, to the public cause and to yourself. It appears to me that, by you, no notice can be, or ought to be, taken of the publication. It contains its own antidote.”

But after the President’s death regret came, and Randolph wrote to Bushrod Washington, “If I could now present myself before your venerated uncle it would be my pride to confess my contrition that I suffered my irritation, be the cause what it might, to use some of those expressions respecting him which, at this moment … I wish to recall as being inconsistent with my subsequent convictions.”

Under the system of that period, the Secretary of State personally disbursed the funds provided for all foreign service, and if any money were lost through the accidents of war or the failure of banks, he was responsible. It was judged that Randolph owed the government more than $49,000 during his administration of the state department. After repeated suits in which juries could not agree, Randolph’s lands and slaves were seized to pay that debt.

Meanwhile Randolph had again taken his place at the head of the Virginia bar. In 1803 he retired from politics and moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he resumed his law practice and was regarded as a leading figure in the legal community during his last years. Although he made a substantial living from his private practice, he was never able to overcome his debt.

When Aaron Burr went on trial for treason in 1807, Edmund Randolph acted as his senior counsel.

Elizabeth Nicholas Randolph died March 6, 1810, in Frederick County, Virginia.

Randolph’s health began to fail after he wrote a valuable manuscript history of the Revolution in Virginia.

In 1810, Edmund Randolph was 57 years old when he wrote a letter asking for medical advice from Dr. Joshua Birch in New York for what sounds like the aftermath of a stroke:

Without any warning, I was struck on the 9th of April last, no pain succeeded for some days, and then only a hiccup at every expiration and inspiration for three days. I think, from a fulness of diet, in which I had indulged myself for a week before, that something of a plethora must have concurred as a cause; and the depletions, and various other modes of reducing me lead me to suppose this to have been the opinion of my physicians.

However this may be, I have passed thro’ the ordeal of medical experiments, which always abound in such a case, the real principles of which are so imperfectly understood. I went to the Warm Springs in Virginia in August last, where I found, that the strongest of their reputed affects had taken place in rheumatisms, which had been misapprehended for paralyses. … Diet, exercise and air are attended to. But if it were possible to obtain some ointment, which might lubricate the stiff muscles, I would willingly make the attempt under the auspices of a regular physician.

Edmund Jenings Randolph died September 12, 1813, at age 60, while visiting his friend Nathaniel Burwell at Carter Hall near Millwood, Virginia. He was buried at Old Chapel Cemetery nearby.

Edmund Jenings Randolph
Wikipedia: Edmund Randolph
Info Please: Edmund Randolph
A Biography of Edmund Randolph 1753-1813
Warm Springs: Letter from Edmund Randolph
Constitutional Law Center: Founding Fathers
Edmund Jennings Randolph: Founding Father of the United States

Leave a Reply