Who was Edmund Randolph? - Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will introduce Edmund Randolph (1753-1813). Randolph was active in colonial Virginia politics, served as delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and held the offices of United States Attorney General and Secretary of State during the Washington administration.

Early Years

Edmund Jennings Randolph was born August 10, 1753, in Williamsburg, Virginia, to John Randolph and Ariana Jennings Randolph. As part of an influential slave-holding family, Randolph experienced a rather privileged childhood and young adulthood. He attended the College of William and Mary in 1770-1771 and then studied law with his father and uncle, Peyton Randolph, who were both lawyers. By 1774, Randolph was ready to set out on his own. He took over the law clients of the retiring Thomas Jefferson and set up his own practice.

In 1775, however, Randolph's life took a new turn. As a staunch Patriot, Randolph supported the American Revolution, which began in earnest with the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19. His father, however, was a Loyalist who returned to England to escape hostilities and show his utter lack of support for the Patriot cause. Tension escalated between father and son until, in August 1775, Randolph received a letter from his father who ordered vehemently, 'For God's Sake, return to your Family & indeed to yourself.'

Randoph refused. He signed on as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington. As aide-de-camp, Randolph served as the general's chief of staff and personal secretary. His stint with the Continental Army didn't last long. Randolph's uncle Peyton died in October 1775, and Randolph returned to Williamsburg to act as executor for his uncle's estate.

Edmund Randolph
Edmund Randolph

Public and Private Life

While in Williamsburg, Randolph settled into a busy routine of public life and did the following:

  • Was selected as a representative to the Virginia Convention of 1776, during which he helped develop a constitution and bill of rights for Virginia.
  • Served as the mayor of Williamsburg in 1776-1777.
  • Became the Justice of Peace for James County for 1777.
  • Served as Virginia's Attorney General in 1776-1778.
  • Was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779 and again in 1781-1786.
  • Served as Governor of Virginia in 1786-1788.

Surprisingly, Randolph still found time to establish his private life. He married Elizabeth Nicholas on August 29, 1776. Over the next few years, the couple had five children: Peyton, Susan, John Jennings, Edmonia, and Lucy.

The Constitutional Convention and the Virginia Plan

From May 25, 1787, to September 17, 1787, Edmund Randolph served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia. The Convention's intention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, the current governing document of the United States. Many members, including Randolph, wanted to do more than that. They felt the U.S. needed a whole new government.

On May 29, only four days into the Convention, Randolph presented the Virginia Plan to his fellow delegates. Also called the Randolph Plan or the Large-State Plan, the Virginia Plan, in 15 resolutions, painted a picture of a potential new government.

  • It would have three branches, which would provide necessary checks and balances.
  • The legislative branch would consist of two chambers, a lower house elected by the people and an upper house elected by state legislatures. The number of state delegates in each chamber would be determined by the state's population.
  • A judicial branch with a national court system would be added to the federal government.
  • The executive branch would consist of a 3-man council chosen by the legislature.

The first page of the Virginia Plan
The first page of the Virginia Plan

While many of the delegates thought that the Virginia Plan got the convention off to a good start, some of them took issue with various elements of it. Delegates from smaller states, for example, worried that their interests would not be fairly represented in the legislature because their smaller populations would mean fewer delegates and fewer votes.

The Convention appointed Randolph and several other delegates to the Committee of Detail. The committee would use the Virginia Plan, other plans suggested to the Convention, the Articles of Confederation, and state constitutions to prepare a first draft of a federal Constitution.

After much discussion and a great deal of compromise, that first draft was edited, modified, and tweaked until it finally became the Constitution of the United States. It was officially adopted and signed by the Convention on September 17, 1787. Randolph refused to sign the document. He believed that the final draft lacked the level of checks and balances the government needed, and he regretted that the 3-man executive council had been reduced to a 1-man presidency.

The Constitutional Convention
The Constitutional Convention

The next year, however, Randolph participated in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, in which he encouraged his fellow delegates to ratify the new Constitution. Eight states already had done so, and Randolph was afraid that Virginia would be left out of the new government.

Federal Politics and Scandal

The politically active Randolph quickly found his place in the new federal administration under President George Washington. He served as the first U.S. Attorney General from September 26, 1789, to January 26, 1794, and as the second U.S. Secretary of State from January 2, 1794, to August 20, 1795.

Unfortunately, Randolph's political career ended in scandal. As Secretary of State, Randolph had the difficult task of carrying on diplomatic relations with the French. In the summer of 1795, the British intercepted letters written by French minister Joseph Fauchet that accused Randolph of requesting several thousand dollars from France in order to influence the U.S. government to favor France over Britain. The letters also hinted that Randolph had shared government secrets with the French, including discussions held by Washington's cabinet.

When Washington confronted Randolph with the letters, Randolph was shocked. Even though he claimed he was not guilty, he resigned his office immediately. Eventually, Randolph was cleared of wrongdoing. He wrote and published his side of the story in Vindication of Mr. Randolph's Resignation in the hopes of restoring his character.

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