Obstructionism is nothing new

Published 10:55 am Saturday, July 26, 2014

by John Railey

“During the following winter he surpassed his own extraordinary record as a leader of the opposition. He was frankly playing politics at this session, not practicing statecraft. Every move made by the administration, good or bad, encountered his relentless opposition; yet so skillfully did he maneuver that it was impossible for the administration to win public sympathy by fixing the blame upon its opponents.”

The above quote isn’t about Democratic opposition to any recent Republican presidential administration or even about Republican opposition to the current Democratic president. It’s a quote from biographer Gerald W. Johnson about John Randolph of Virginia, an “Old Republican” or “quid” congressional leader in the 1800s, and his opposition to President John Quincy Adams, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party.

At the end of our July 4 weekend, Randolph’s story, one about the sheer sausage-making details of forging a free country, is worth considering in these days when our leaders continue to engage in many of the same battles.

Randolph, like a few (too few) of our politicians today, was brilliant, witty and visionary — until he became his own worst enemy. He got some things terribly wrong, such as fighting for state’s rights (the right to own his slaves), but he got other things wonderfully right, such as his strident and unpopular opposition to the ill-advised War of 1812. In some ways, he was the predecessor of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

As a native Virginian, let me first confess my ignorance for not coming upon Randolph’s story until the other day. Many conservatives nationwide have been lauding Randolph for several years. His splinter “Old Republican” group anticipated today’s tea party. At a used book sale, I came across Johnson’s 1929 biography of the man, “Randolph of Roanoke: A Political Fantastic.”

Johnson writes that Randolph was a “strange fantastic figure, there was something distinctly uncanny about him. The fine hazel eyes were instinct with life, even they hardened to points of brilliance as his ‘rich soprano’ (no one better described his voice) poured a flood of biting sarcasm upon some unfortunate opponent. The eyes were warmly alive when he pleaded for old Virginia in danger of some real or fancied wrong. But while the eyes were alive, the rest of him was distinctly sepulchral about this tall, bony figure, which frequently entered the house booted and spurred, sometimes with a riding whip. There was more than a suggestion of the rider of the pale horse.”

Johnson tells us that Randolph could be physically violent, with “lethal weapons or horsewhips” and once engaged in a non-lethal duel with Henry Clay (“You owe me a new coat, Mr. Clay,” he said after a bullet pierced him close). But his verbal violence carried the day, Johnson writes:

“He dared the wrath successively of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Andrew Jackson.”

Johnson writes that, early in his career, Randolph began “adopting headlong attack as his customary method of fighting – headlong attack that moved too swiftly to be scrupulous about exact justice, and that would readily swamp accuracy and fairness in order to turn an effective phrase.”

Randolph, a kinsman of Jefferson and early supporter, eventually opposed him, and later, James Madison. After Madison won the presidency, Johnson writes, Randolph’s “effort in public life was not to erect a new nation better than ever built before, but to save what he could from the wreckage of a nation which he believed had already been undermined by dishonesty. He became the national Cassandra, a gloomy prophet of the wrath to come.”

As the years passed, Johnson writes, Randolph “understood that the nation was being moved by mysterious forces and concluded that they represented the processes of decay. Apparently it never entered his mind that they might be the processes of growth, that a new and different nation was about to replace the confederation known to Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson.”

He eventually opposed President Andrew Jackson, who shipped Randolph off to be ambassador to Russia. (Not unlike today’s times, when President Obama shipped the Republican Jon Huntsman off to be his ambassador to China.)

By the time John Randolph died of tuberculosis, a treasured slave by his side, he’d been besotted of booze and opium, his freedom dreams degenerated.

Johnson writes: “For the state’s rights doctrine that John Randolph preached was not a living policy, continually changing, continually shifting, continually adjusting itself to the exigencies of a country expanding swiftly and enormously. He did not know how to be supple and sinewy, yielding a point here to gain a more important one there, conquering by using the strength of his enemy. His only plan to conquer was being rigged; and little by little his rigidity took on the aspect of rigor mortis.”

John Randolph did get one thing right before he passed to the other side: His will freed his slaves, albeit far too late for the many that had long toiled under his bondage in the new world of “freedom” he’d helped forge.

JOHN RAILEY is a Southampton County native and is the editorial page editor and a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. His email is jrailey@wsjournal.com