Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Edmund Randolph

EDMUND RANDOLPH (1753–1813)

Edmund Randolph (1753–1812), Oil Painting by Flavius Fisher, acquired in 1874. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.

Edmund Randolph was a man of enormous political and professional achievement. Born in Williamsburg on August 10, 1753, into one of the colony's great political families, Randolph was influenced both by his Loyalist father (John Randolph) and patriot uncle (Peyton Randolph), both of whom commanded much respect among their peers and held powerful positions in colonial government. He was educated at the College of William and Mary (where he was awarded a one-year scholarship), but he left before graduating, in order to learn and practice law under his father. He married Elizabeth Nicholas in 1776, and they had five children who survived infancy. As Virginia moved toward independence in the mid-1770s Randolph was most likely torn between rebellion and fidelity to the Crown. His moment of decision came in 1775 when he joined General George Washington's staff as an aide-de-camp.

After only about a month in the army, Randolph was called home by family business and he soon began his career in politics. He served as the first attorney general of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia (1776–1786), as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1779, 1781–1782), governor of Virginia (1786–1788), as a delegate to both the Philadelphia convention (1787) and the Virginia ratifying convention (1788), as the first United States attorney general (1790–1794), and as secretary of state (1794–1795) under George Washington, a position from which he resigned in disgrace over a scandal that came to light during intense public controversy over the Jay Treaty.

 Randolph is best remembered for his role in the drafting and ratification the U.S. Constitution. The so-called Virginia Plan, which he presented to the assembled delegates in Philadelphia, established the outlines of debate and became the basis for the finished document. Though the convention's initial endorsement of the Virginia Plan no doubt gratified him, Randolph grew more and more disillusioned as the delegates' work progressed. He may have believed that the small states forced too many concessions on the large states, particularly concerning representation in the powerful Senate. At the end of the convention, Randolph joined fellow Virginia delegate George Mason in refusing to sign the Constitution. The following summer, however, he became one of the critical swing votes at the Virginia Convention of 1788 in favor of ratifying.

 After his retirement from politics, Randolph returned to his neglected law practice, but was plagued by indebtedness. When the federal government successfully sued him in 1804 for unauthorized expenditures he allegedly made as secretary of state, the judgment left him all but bankrupt. Edmund Randolph died on September 12, 1813, while visiting a friend in Frederick County. In addition to his public service, Randolph was the author of a multivolume History of Virginia that, while never printed during his life, has appeared in modern editions.

Suggested Reading:

Reardon, John J. Edmund Randolph: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Thomas, Emory M. "Edmund Randolph." Virginia Cavalcade 18 no. 4 (Spring 1969): 5–12.