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Randolph of Roanoke and the Mind of the South

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For sixteen years a Congressman and Senator, John Randolph was the most gifted conservative spokesman of the American South. Russell Kirk charts his singular career.

They who love change, who delight in confusion, who wish to feed the cauldron and make it bubble, may vote if they please for future changes. But by what spell, by what formula are you going to bind all the people to all future time? Quis custodiet custodes?

John Randolph of Roanoake, the most singular great man in American history, spoke thus before the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829. "I am an aristocrat; I love liberty, I hate equality," he had told the American nation years before. Madame de Chatenay's description of Joubert would have been appropriate to Randolph: "Like a spirit which has found a body by accident, and manages with it as best it may." At the Convention, his tall, cadaverous figure; his flaming eyes like a devil's or an angel's; his bony, accusing finger that had punctuated the prosecution of Justice Chase nearly three decades gone; his tormented face, half a boy's, half a corpse's, framed by his straight black hair which was a memento of his ancestress, Pocahontas; his flood of extemporaneous eloquence like a prophet's inspired for a generation, Congress and America had beheld this Ishmael of politics, this slave-holding ami des noirs, this old-school planter, this fantastic duellist, this fanatic enemy of corruption, this implacable St. Michael who had denounced Adams and Jefferson and Madison and Monroe and Clay and Webster and Calhoun with impartial detestation. All his career, Randolph had dosed himself with brandy to dull the pain of that sickness which, nevertheless, let him live until he was sixty; and now he was turning to opium. He was a man who sometimes saw devils on the stairs; he was a man who told a visitor to his lonely cabin on the Roanoke River in Southside Virginia, "In the next room a being is sitting at a table, writing a dead man's will with a dead man's hand." And he was also endowed with genius, the prophet of Southern nationalism and the architect of conservatism in the Southern States.


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