Today, I tell a story.
Our hero is one John Randolph of Roanoke, renown statesmen of the early 1800s. Born into a prominent Virginian family, Randolph contracted Tuberculosis at young age and spent much of his life in pain.
At the age of 26, Randolph was elected to the Sixth US Congress, where he remained in office for many years. A thoughtful orator, Randolph was also known as a “hotspur” – having fought duels with Henry Clay and others.
I tell his story today having read Richard M. Weaver’s article, “Two Types of American Individualism: The separate ways of John Randolph and Henry Thoreau.”
As Weaver describes, Randolph was “a defender of the dignity and autonomy of the smaller unit, he was constantly fighting the battle for local rights. But it was the essence of his position that the battle must be fought within the community and not through means that would in effect deny all political organization.”
Indeed, Randolph was a staunch defender of “the little guy,” looking out for those disenfranchised or oppressed by power.
He was a proponent of what Weaver calls “social bond individualism,” which “battles unremittingly for individual rights while recognizing that these have to be secured within the social context.”
At the center of this position is the dual belief that matters must be dealt with by those directly affected and that people have a responsibility to their fellow man. Individualism within the social context.
His support of individual freedom and protection of the minority lead him to oppose slavery. In his 1819 will, Randolph wrote:
I give my slaves their freedom, to which my conscious tells me they are justly entitled. It has a long time been a matter of the deepest regret to me that the circumstances under which I inherited them and the obstacles thrown in the way by the laws of the land, have prevented my emancipating them in my lifetime, which it is my full intention to do, in case I can accomplish it.
As his will was later hotly contested in court, I’ll take him at his word that he would have freed his slaves before his death if he had been able.
But there is a problem with this outlook. “Individualism in the social context” sounds compelling and positive. Protect individual rights, protect the minority, but do so while minding the health of the whole.
While this problem isn’t unique to Randolph, it appears in his story in the form of the Missouri Question: should Missouri be brought into the union as a slave state?
Debating the point in three and four hour speeches, Randolph argued that “Missouri had a right to be admitted as a slave state, and Congress did not have a right to pass on the constitutionality of its constitution.”
The voters of Missouri wanted to be a slave state. Therefore they had a right to be a slave state. Randolph wanted to free his slaves, and therefore he should have the right to free his slaves.
His conscious tells him his slaves are justly entitled to freedom, but what does his conscious tell him of the rights of slaves in Missouri?
This anti-slavery, pro-slaver view is certainly not unique to Randolph, but it raises important questions.
Weaver says Randolph is not inconsistent in these two actions, because his authenticity comes from his belief that “government, to be safe and free, must consist of representatives having common interest and a common feeling with the represented.”
That’s perhaps a more depressing resolution than saying Randolph was simply blind to his own inconsistency.
For now we see more fully – in Randolph’s world, democracy and diversity cannot coexist satisfactorily.