Edmund Jennings Randolph (August 10, 1753 – September 12,
1813) was an American attorney and politician. He was the seventh
Governor of Virginia, the second Secretary of State, and the first
United States Attorney General.
1 Life and career
1.1 Political career
1.1.1 Constitutional Convention
1.2 Role in ratification
1.2.2 Washington's Cabinet
1.3 Romance with Elizabeth Nicholas
1.4 Later years
2 Death and legacy
4 Further reading
5 External links
Life and career
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 remained
a Loyalist and returned to Britain;
Edmund Randolph remained in
America where he joined the
Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to
General George Washington.
Upon the death of his uncle
Peyton Randolph in October 1775, Randolph
Virginia to act as executor of the estate, and while there
was elected as a representative to the Fourth
Virginia Convention. He
would go on to serve as mayor of Williamsburg, and then as the first
Attorney General of the United States under the newly formed
government. He was married on August 29, 1776 to Elizabeth Nicholas
(daughter of Robert C. Nicholas), and had a total of six children,
including Peyton Randolph, Governor of
Virginia from 1811 to 1812.
Randolph was selected as one of eleven delegates to represent Virginia
Continental Congress in 1779, and served as a delegate through
1782. During this period he also remained in private law practice,
handling numerous legal issues for
George Washington among others.
Randolph was elected Governor of
Virginia in 1786, that same year
leading a delegation to the Annapolis Convention. He had taken on the
John Marshall as a student and then law partner, and transferred
his lucrative law practice to Marshall when he became governor in
Virginia law forbade executive officers from private
practice in its courts.
The following year, as a delegate from
Virginia to the Constitutional
Convention, at age 34 Randolph introduced the
Virginia Plan as an
outline for a new national government. He argued against
importation of slaves and in favor of a strong central government,
advocating a plan for three chief executives from various parts of the
Virginia Plan 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 Nationally Judiciary be established"
(Article III of the constitution established the federal court
system). 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 into a first
draft of the Constitution.
Randolph ultimately refused to sign the final document, one of only
three members who remained in the Constitutional Convention yet
refused to sign (together with fellow Virginian
George Mason and
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts). Randolph thought the final
document lacked sufficient checks and balances, and published an
account of his objections in October 1787. Randolph had several
objections to the Convention’s proposal. He thought the federal
judiciary would pose a threat to state courts, and he thought the
Senate was too powerful and Congress’s power too broad.
Role in ratification
Randolph nevertheless reversed his position at the
Convention in 1788. He chaired that nearly equally divided convention,
and Mason (as one of the opposition leaders, along with Patrick Henry)
greatly resented Randolph's change of position. Mason and other
opponents demanded amendments prior to ratification. Randolph noted
that he had seen several responses to the insistence that amendments
were necessary before ratification. Some thought the objection
insubstantial because the Constitution provided a process for
amendment. In common with other advocates of amending the Constitution
prior to ratification, Randolph insisted that it would be easier to
amend the Constitution before ratifying it, when a majority might do
so, than to ratify an imperfect Constitution and then assemble the
votes of three-fourths of the states. He did not think it desirable
that the people should become accustomed to altering their
constitution with any regularity once it was adopted.
The Governor had written, “If after our best efforts for amendments,
they cannot be obtained, I will adopt the constitution as it
is.” 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 that
choose between the stark alternatives of ratification and disunion.
Randolph never doubted union's advantages.
Historians commonly have missed the signal importance of Randolph’s
role in the Richmond Convention. In the Richmond Ratification
Convention, it was Randolph who ultimately pointed the way to an
understanding of ratification with which Virginia’s leaders could be
satisfied. He assured his fellow members of the
elite that the Constitution they were being asked to ratify in the
summer of 1788 would have very limited significance that it was more
another league of sovereign states than a consolidated union they
would be entering.
Randolph wrote that of the ten delegates whose views had been
completely unknown, five had been swayed to vote for ratification by
his gambit. In the end, Virginia’s Federalists secured the
Constitution’s ratification by precisely five votes.
Washington rewarded Randolph for his support. Randolph was appointed
as the first U.S. Attorney General in September 1789, maintaining
precarious neutrality in the feud between
Thomas Jefferson (of whom
Randolph was a second cousin) and Alexander Hamilton. In President
Washington’s cabinet, as in the ratification dispute of 1787–1788,
Randolph tried to bring people together, rather than jumping to hasty
conclusions and ignoring the potential costs in pursuit of
self-righteous ideological purity.
When Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, Randolph
succeeded him to the position. The major diplomatic initiative of his
term was the
Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794, but it was Hamilton who
devised the plan and wrote the instructions, leaving Randolph the
nominal role of signing the papers. Randolph was hostile to the
resulting treaty, and almost gained Washington's ear. Near the end of
his term as Secretary of State, negotiations for Pinckney's Treaty
Romance with Elizabeth Nicholas
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Miss Nicholas was daughter of the Hon. Robert Carter Nicholas, State
Treasurer. 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
On the 29th day of August 1776 they were joined in wedlock. The
relations between Randolph and his wife had always been true and
tender. So free from friction had been the course of their united
lives that his daughters could not forget the single instance of
misunderstanding. Mrs. Randolph having related some incident, her
husband hastily exclaimed: “That is mere gossip.” The lady
repaired to her room, where she did not answer her husband’s gentle
knock. Randolph then said “Betsey, I have urgent business in town,
but I shall not leave this house until permitted to apologize to
you.” The door opened and the unprecedented scene ends.
On March 6, 1810 came a blow from which Randolph could not recover;
his wife died. After Mrs. Randolph’s burial the heart-broken husband
wrote some account of her, and of their married life, which was
addressed to his children as “the best witnesses of the truth of the
In part of this account 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 unchequred 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.”
A scandal involving an intercepted French message led to Randolph's
resignation as Secretary of State in August 1795. The British Navy had
intercepted correspondence from the French minister, Joseph Fauchet,
to the U.S. and turned it over to Washington.
Washington was dismayed
that the letters reflected contempt for the United States and that
Randolph was primarily responsible. The letters implied that Randolph
had exposed the inner debates in the cabinet to the French and told
them that the Administration was hostile to France. At the very least,
Elkins and McKitrick conclude, there "was something here profoundly
disreputable to the government's good faith and character." Washington
immediately overruled Randolph's negative advice regarding the Jay
Treaty. A few days later Washington, in the presence of the entire
cabinet, handed the minister's letter to Randolph and demanded he
explain it. Randolph was speechless and immediately resigned. Chernow
and Elkins conclude that Randolph was not bribed by the French
but "was rather a pitiable figure, possessed of some talents and
surprisingly little malice, but subject to self-absorbed silliness and
lapses of good sense." However, Randolph's own published Vindication
illustrates his concerns regarding both public and private perceptions
of his character, concerns which held great value in the 18th century.
Grave of Edmund Randolph
After leaving the federal cabinet Randolph returned to
practice law. His most famous case was defending
Aaron Burr at his
trial for treason in 1807.
Death and legacy
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, aged 60, on
September 12, 1813. He is buried nearby at the Burwell family cemetery
adjacent to "Old Chapel".
Randolph County, West
Virginia was formed in 1787 and named in
Governor Randolph's honor.
Randolph County, Illinois
Randolph County, Illinois was as well,
because Randolph was Virginia's governor at the time it ceded what was
then sometimes called Illinois County,
Virginia (a title disputed by
Pennsylvania, among others) to the new federal Government, which
created the Northwest Territory. That Randolph county's motto is
"where Illinois began," because it was among the first two settled
counties in that territory, and contains Kaskaskia, which was first
seat of Illinois County, 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
United States Department of Justice
United States Department of Justice to persons who make "outstanding
contributions to the accomplishments of the Department's mission."
United States portal
^ "Founding Fathers: Virginia". FindLaw Constitutional Law Center.
2008. Retrieved November 14, 2008.
^ r. Kent Newmyer,
John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme
Court (Louisiana state university press 2001) p. 79
^ "Delegates to the Constitutional Convention: Virginia". University
of Missouri-Kansas City. Retrieved June 11, 2011.
^ Chemerinsky, Erwin (2007). Federal Jurisdiction (5th ed.). New York:
Aspen Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7355-6407-7.
^ Stewart 2007, pp. 241.
^ Chernow, Ron (2010). Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press.
pp. 731–734. ISBN 978-1-59420-266-7.
^ Elkins, Stanley M.;
Eric McKitrick (1993). The age of federalism.
New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 425–6.
ISBN 0-19-506890-4. LCCN 92033660.
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 29, 2013.
Retrieved November 26, 2014.
^ "Director Samuels Receives DOJ's Highest Award". Federal Bureau of
Prisons. United States Department of Justice. 2015-12-16. Retrieved
2017-12-22. 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
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,
Gutzman, Kevin R.C. "
Edmund Randolph and
The Review of Politics 66.3 (2004): 469–97. JSTOR. Web. February 5,
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution,
1787–1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.
Stewart, David O. (2007), The Summer of 1787, New York: Simon &
Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-8692-3
Reardon, John J. (1975). Edmund Randolph: a biography. Macmillan.
ISBN 9780026012003. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
Randolph, Edmund (1855) . A Vindication of
Edmund Randolph (new
ed.). Richmond: Charles H. Wynne, printer. Retrieved May 25,
2011. written by himself, with a preface by P.V. Daniel, Jr.
Randolph, Edmund (1795). Vindication of Mr. Randolph's resignation.
Philadelphia: Samuel Harrison Smith. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Edmund Randolph.
United States Congress. "
Edmund Randolph (id: R000043)". Biographical
Directory of the United States Congress.
A Guide to the Executive Papers of Governor Edmund Randolph,
1786–1788 at The Library of Virginia
Governor of Virginia
United States Secretary of State
United States Attorney General
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Secretary of State
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Cabinet of President
George Washington (1789–97)
Secretary of Foreign Affairs
John Jay (1789)
Secretary of State
John Jay (1789–1790)
Thomas Jefferson (1790–93)
Edmund Randolph (1794–95)
Timothy Pickering (1795–97)
Secretary of the Treasury
Alexander Hamilton (1789–95)
Oliver Wolcott Jr.
Oliver Wolcott Jr. (1795–97)
Secretary of War
Henry Knox (1789–94)
Timothy Pickering (1795)
James McHenry (1796–97)
Edmund Randolph (1789–94)
William Bradford (1794–95)
Charles Lee (1795–97)
Samuel Osgood (1789–91)
Timothy Pickering (1791–95)
Joseph Habersham (1795–97)
ISNI: 0000 0000 7328 9256
US Congress: R000043