On this date in 1753, Edmund Randolph was born.
Randolph was one of three members of the Philadelphia Convention who stayed until the end but refused to sign the Constitution. He later reversed his position and became an important advocate for ratification during the Virginia ratifying convention.
Randolph was born into an influential Virginia family in Williamsburg on Aug. 10, 1753. He attended college at William and Mary and learned law under the tutelage of his father. When the Revolution broke out, he joined the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.
Randolph was elected as Governor of Virginia in 1786. The following year, he was selected to attend the Philadelphia Convention, where he introduced the “Virginia Plan,” one of several schemes that served as the starting point for the Constitution.
Randolph was initially an advocate of a stronger central government due to his frustrations with the Articles of Confederation. But he ultimately refused to sign the final draft of the Constitution, arguing that it gave the central government too much power and lacked sufficient checks and balances.
As the Convention neared the end, Randolph lamented “the indefinite and dangerous power given by the Constitution to Congress, expressing the pain he felt at differing from the body of the Convention on the close of the great and awful subject of their labors, and anxiously wishing for some accommodating expedient which would relieve him from his embarrassments, made a motion importing, ‘that amendments to the plan might be offered by the State conventions, which should be submitted to, and finally decided on by, another general Convention.’ Should this proposition be disregarded, it would, he said, be impossible for him to put his name to the instrument. Whether he should oppose it afterwards, he would not then decide; but he would not deprive himself of the freedom to do so in his own State, if that course should be prescribed by his final judgment.”
Randolph also strenuously opposed “a unity in the Executive magistracy. He regarded it as the foetus of monarchy.”
But Randolph reversed course and became a vocal advocate for ratification, helping to push the Constitution through the Virginia ratifying convention. He came to believe that disunion would ultimately be worse than ratification. With eight states having already ratified, Randolph was worried Virginia could be left out of the union.
Randolph came to represent the middle ground between ardent Federalists, such as Madison, on the one hand, and vehement Anti-Federalists, such as Patrick Henry, on the other. Randolph ultimately helped broker the Old Dominion ratifying convention. For instance, he argued that Congress didn’t have nearly as much power as he originally feared, asserting that reading the general welfare clause as a broad grant of power would “violate every rule of construction and common sense.” (Video here)
Randolph insisted on the adoption of amendments after ratification, and he also argued that Virginia could make stipulations in its ratification documents that would enforce a limited view of federal power.
During the latter days of the ratification debates, Randolph gave the following explanation.
“Gentlemen will perhaps ask me, why, if you know the Constitution to be ambiguous, will you vote for it? I answer that I see a power, which will be probably exercised, to remedy this defect. The stile of the ratification will remove this mischief. I do not ask for this concession – that human nature is just and absolutely honest. But I am fair when I say, that the nature of man is capable of virtue, where there is even a temptation, and that the defects in this system will be removed.
“If it be not considered too early, as ratification has not yet been spoken of, I beg leave to speak of it. If I did believe, with the Honorable Gentleman, that all power not expressly retained was given up by the people, I would detest this Government. But I never thought so, nor do I now. If in the ratification we put words to this purpose, – that all authority not given is retained by the people, and may be resumed when perverted to their oppression; and that no right can be cancelled, abridged, or restrained, by the Congress, or any officer of the United Sates; I say, if we do this, I conceive that, as the stile of ratification would manifest the principles on which Virginia adopted it, we should be at liberty to consider as a violation of the Constitution, every exercise of power not expressly delegated therein. – I see no objection to this. It is demonstrably clear to me, that rights not given are retained, and that liberty of religion, and other rights are secure.”
Virginia ratified the Constitution by five votes.
President Washington appointed Randolph U.S. Attorney General in 1789. He later succeeded Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State in 1793.
After resigning from that position in a scandal, involving intercepted French messages that revealed Randolph had exposed the inner workings of the U.S. government, Randolph returned to private law practice, most famously defending Aaron Burr in his treason trial.
He died in 1813 at the age of 60.
- Today in History: Massachusetts Provincial Congress Defies Parliament - October 5, 2022
- It’s Not “Game Over!” - October 4, 2022
- General Welfare isn’t Supposed to be a Blank Check - September 28, 2022