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As my History of Conservative Thought course rolls on, I’m learning more about the forgotten byways and overgrown, stately ruins of the various branches of conservatism. Students this week are reading a couple of documents from John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, the two founders of the Federalist Party, and key to the passage of the Constitution. Hamilton, the author of the bulk of the pro-ratification Federalist Papers, also created the financial system upon which the United States functions today.
Hamilton and Adams have both enjoyed renewed interest in recent years, Hamilton due to the smash Broadway musical about his life, and Adams from a critically-acclaimed HBO series (one that, sadly, takes some unnecessary artistic license with the past). In the case of Hamilton, American history students are often enthusiastic to get to him in my AP US History course, and Hamilton mega-fans often know more about the first Secretary of Treasury than I do.
But we’re reading a speech from another important figure from American history, albeit one largely forgotten: John Randolph of Roanoke.
Randolph of Roanoke, sometimes considered the “American Burke,” was part of the Virginia planter aristocracy and a staunch republican, in the sense that he opposed centralization of power while supporting a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a limited government at every level. He was one of the so-called “Old Republicans,” a group within the dominant Democratic-Republican Party of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era that adhered strictly to the Constitution, and which believed the States possessed a check on the federal government’s power.
He was also a traditionalist, and his powerful “King Numbers” speech at the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-1830 represents a hearty endorsement of conservative principles, prudently applied.
Randolph of Roanoke makes several important points in the speech, but two stick out to me immediately: his detestation for the tyranny of majority (the “King Numbers” referenced throughout the speech), and his love of Old Virginia. On the latter point, he was quite eloquent: not only did he argue that Virginia was a bulwark against an overreaching federal government (remember, he’s making this point in 1830), he also notes that its constitution was entirely sufficient to the task.
He argues early in the speech that there is no need to change Virginia’s constitution, because no one had brought any provable objections against it! It’s the essence of a conservative argument. Further, Randolph of Roanoke decried the mania for what he called “innovation,” a kind of reform-for-reform’s-sake, at the expense of the tried-and-true.
As to the tyranny of the majority, Randolph of Roanoke points in “King Numbers” to the absurdity of giving some men or factions greater power simply because they can win by one or two votes. He uses examples—unfamiliar to many modern readers—of the Tariff of 1816 (one of my tariffs the Southern planters and yeoman farmers alike found odious and burdensome) and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the latter passing by a mere two votes.
We praise “democracy” now, but the Founders of our nation feared unbridled democracy as a form of mob rule, which would inevitably yield tyranny at the hands of a charismatic demagogue. Randolph of Roanoke makes the rather compelling point that even in representative government, mere majoritarianism can be quite destructive, as the size with the majority actually benefits if it can seize that majority by a narrow margin: that’s just more of their opponents who lose!
Randolph of Roanoke, like many men of his time and station, was an unapologetic defender of slavery, which likely accounts for part of his fall from our curricula (although he emancipated all of his slaves upon his death). His anti-nationalist (in the sense that he was opposed to a powerful federal government) is also at odds with the prevailing trend in American history textbooks to applaud whenever the national government aggrandized itself at the expense of the States.
Regardless, we would do well to read him again. He was, even for his time, a bit of an oddball, but his quick wit and vast depth of knowledge, as well as his love his State (he believed Virginia was the great inheritor of Greco-Roman and British Common Law) were inspiring to his fellow Virginians. They could be inspiring for us, too, and all lovers of liberty.