Edmund Randolph

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Edmund Randolph

Edmund Jenings Randolph (August 10, 1753 – September 12, 1813) was an American Patriot, Governor of Virginia, the first U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State under George Washington. He was a loner who loved high society but never joined a party; historians have been puzzled by his motivations and ambiguous positions.

Early life

Randolph was born to the rich and influential Randolph family in Williamsburg, Virginia; they owned tobacco plantations worked by slaves. He graduated the College of William and Mary, and read law with his father John Randolph (the colony's attorney general) and his uncle, Peyton Randolph (the Speaker of the House of Burgesses). He practiced law all his life with financial and professional success, but never enjoyed it. Like so many Virginia leaders (including Jefferson), he was perpetually in debt.

In 1775, with the start of the American Revolution, Randolph's father joined the Loyalists and moved to Britain[1]; Edmund Randolph remained in Virginia and became a leader of the Patriot cause. At age 22, he served briefly in the Continental Army as aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

Political career

In 1775 Randolph helped write the new Virginia state constitution and served as the state's attorney general. He went on to serve as mayor of Williamsburg and was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779, and served there to 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 that warned of the urgent need for a new, more effective national government.

Constitutional Convention

In 1788 as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan designed by James Madison 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 country. The Virginia Plan also proposed two houses based on state population, which was an advantage for Virginia, then the largest state. A compromise was reached whereby the House of Representatives was based on population, and the Senate on the equality of states.

Randolph served on the "committee on detail" which was tasked with converting the Virginia Plan's 15 resolutions into a first draft of the Constitution. Unexpectedly Randolph refused to sign the final document, believing it needed amendments to provide more checks and balances. The next year, however, as governor he was the leading spokesman in favor of ratification at the state ratifying convention in 1788, arguing its adoption was a necessity.

Attorney General

Washington named Randolph as the first U.S. Attorney General in September 1789; he had few duties (there was no Justice Department), and he maintained his private practice. He became a trusted advisor to Washington because he recommended compromises and a middle way between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State in 1793, Randolph succeeded him to the position, despite his lack of experience or interest in foreign affairs. The major diplomatic initiative of his term was the highly controversial 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 were finalized.


A scandal involving an intercepted French message led to Randolph's resignation in August 1795. The British had intercepted correspondence from the French minister 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. Historians agree Randolph did not ask or receive money from the French, as was alleged at the time. 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, later publishing a self-defense that Washington did not believe. Elkins and McKitrick 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."[2]

His muddled motivations for switching back and forth have mystified historians as well as contemporaries like Jefferson, who complained he was, "the poorest chameleon I ever saw, having no color of his own and reflecting that nearest him. When he is with me, he is a whig. When with Hamilton he is a tory. When with the president, he is that which he thinks will please him."[3]

After leaving the cabinet he returned to Virginia to practice law; his most famous case was that of defense counsel during Aaron Burr's trial for treason in 1807. He escaped poverty in old age thanks to the generosity of relatives.


  • W. W. Abbot. "Review: Reardon's Randolph," Reviews in American History Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar., 1977), pp. 62-65 in JSTOR
  • Comb, Jerald. The Jay Treaty (1970), with appendix on Randolph
  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick, Age of Federalism (1994) best political history of 1790s online edition
  • John J. Reardon. Edmund Randolph: A Biography (1975), 575pp, the standard biography.
  • Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau. "George Washington and the Reputation of Edmund Randolph," The Journal of American History Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jun., 1986), pp. 15-34 in JSTOR


  1. His uncle died before he had to choose sides.
  2. Elkins and McKitrick (pages 425-6)
  3. Jefferson to Madison, Aug. 11, 1793, quoted in Tachau (1986) page 16