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Peyton Randolph

Peyton Randolph

Peyton Randolph

Featured in Revolutionary City
  • Born ca. 1721
  • Revolutionary leader
  • Cousin of Thomas Jefferson
  • Attorney General of Virginia Colony
  • Chaired first and second Continental Congress
  • Died 1775

First to be called “Father of country” 

Peyton Randolph was on the black list of patriots the British proposed to arrest and hang after he presided over the Continental Congress in 1775.  Upon his return to Williamsburg, the volunteer company of militia of the city offered him its protection in an address that concluded:

"May heaven grant you long to live the father of your country
and the friend to freedom and humanity!"

True revolutionary

If his friend George Washington succeeded him as America’s patriarch, Randolph nevertheless did as much as any Virginian to bring the new nation into the world. He presided over every important Virginia assembly in the years leading to the Revolution, was among the first of the colony's great men to oppose the Stamp Act, chaired the first meeting of the delegates of 13 colonies at Philadelphia in 1774, and chaired the second in 1775.

Early years

Randolph was born 54 years before the Second Continental Congress – probably in Williamsburg in 1721 – the second son of Sir John and Lady Susannah Randolph. His first name was his maternal grandmother's maiden name, just as his older brother Beverley's was their mother's. The surname Randolph identified him as a scion of 18th-century Virginia's most powerful clan.

When Peyton Randolph was three or four years old, the family moved into the imposing wooden home on Market Square now known as the Peyton Randolph House. His father, among Virginia's most distinguished attorneys, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and a wealthy man, died when Peyton was 16, leaving the house and other property for him in trust with his mother. The will also gave Peyton his father's extensive library in the hope he would "betake himself to the study of law." By then, he had a brother John and a sister Mary.

Peyton Randolph

Peyton Randolph

Study of law

Attentive to his father's wishes, Peyton Randolph attended the College of William & Mary, then learned the law in London's Inns of Court. He entered the Middle Temple on October 13, 1739, and took a place at the bar February 10, 1743. Returning to Williamsburg, he was appointed the colony's attorney general by Governor William Gooch on May 7, 1744. His father had filled the office before him, and his brother would assume the role after.

At the age of 24, Randolph was eligible for his inheritance. On March 8, 1746, he married Betty Harrison, and on July 21 (more than two years after his return from London), he qualified himself for the private practice of law in York County.

His cousin Thomas Jefferson may have shed some light on the delay in a character sketch he wrote of Randolph years later. "He was indeed a most excellent man," Jefferson said, but "heavy and inert in body, he was rather too indolent and careless for business."

Public duties

He was, as well, occupied with myriad public duties. In 1747, he became a vestryman of Bruton Parish Church, and in 1748, he became Williamsburg's representative in the House of Burgesses, and in 1749, a justice of the peace.

Randolph returned to the house in 1752 as the burgess for the college of William & Mary   and on December 15, 1753, the house hired him as its special agent for some “ticklish business” in London.

Soon after he arrived in Virginia in 1751, Governor Robert Dinwiddie had begun to exercise a right no governor before him had tried: the imposition of a fee for certifying land patents. For his signature, Dinwiddie demanded a pistole, a Spanish coin worth about 20 shillings. Regarding the fee as an unauthorized tax, Virginians objected, though to no avail.

Courageous action

Peyton Randolph was dispatched to England as the house's agent, with directions to go over the governor's head. But as attorney general, it was his duty to represent the interests of the Crown, of which Dinwiddie was the principal representative in Virginia. Randolph was attacking the right of the governor he was appointed to defend!

The governor refused to give Peyton Randolph permission to leave the colony, but he left anyway. In London, he had to answer for his action, and he was ousted from the attorney general's office. Dinwiddie had already named George Wythe as acting attorney general in Randolph's place.

Nevertheless, the London officials pointedly suggested that Dinwiddie reconsider his fee and said that they would have no objection to Peyton Randolph's reinstatement if he apologized. So he did, and subsequently resumed office soon after his return to Williamsburg.

French and Indian War

Reelected burgess for the College of William & Mary in 1755, he involved himself the next year in a somewhat ludicrous, though harmless, attempt to promote morale during the French and Indian War. With other prominent men, he formed the Associators, a group to raise and pay bounties for private troops to join the regular force at Winchester. George Washington, in charge of the fort there, wasn't sure what he would do with the untrained men if they arrived. Not enough came, however, to cause any inconvenience.

Revolutionary leadership

In 1757, Randolph joined the college's board, and he served as a rector for one year. He was reelected burgess for Williamsburg in 1761, and thus entered the phase of his life that thrust him into a leadership role in the Revolution.

Word of Parliament's intended Stamp Act brought Virginians and their burgesses into conflict with the Crown itself in 1764. Peyton Randolph was appointed chairman of a committee to draft protests to the king, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons maintaining the colony's exclusive right of self-taxation.

Peyton Randolph in the Speakers Chair

Peyton Randolph in the Speakers Chair

Disagreement with Patrick Henry

This responsibility put Peyton Randolph at odds with Patrick Henry, the Virginian most noted for opposition to the tax. At the end of the legislative session in 1765, Henry, a freshman, introduced seven resolutions against the act. Peyton Randolph, George Wythe, and others thought that Henry's resolutions added nothing to the colony's case and that their consideration was improper until the colony had a reply to its earlier protests.

In the final days of the session, after many opponents had left the city, Patrick Henry introduced his measures and made the famous speech in which he said “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First had his Cromwell, and George the Third . . .” prompting cries of treason from the remaining burgesses present. Peyton Randolph, though not yet Speaker, was presiding. When Speaker John Robinson resumed the chair the following day (May 30), Henry carried five of his resolves by a single ballot. A tie would have allowed Robinson to cast the deciding "nay." Jefferson, standing at the chamber door, said Peyton Randolph emerged saying, "By God, I would have given one hundred guineas for a single vote."

Patrick Henry left town, and the next day his fifth (and most radical) resolution was expunged by the burgesses who remained. Nevertheless, it was reprinted with the others in newspapers across the colonies as if it stood.

Speaker of the House of Burgesses

Peyton Randolph was elected Speaker on November 6, 1766, succeeding the deceased Robinson and defeating Richard Henry Lee. Peyton's brother John succeeded him as attorney general the following June. By now the brothers had begun to disagree politically; John's conservatism would take him to England in 1775 while Peyton joined the rebellion.

Leads rebel meeting at Raleigh Tavern 

Another set of Patrick Henry's resolves, against the Townshend Duties, came before the House in May 1769. This time Peyton Randolph approved their passage, but Governor Botetourt did not. He dissolved the assembly. The "former representatives of the people," as they called themselves, met the next day at the Raleigh Tavern with Speaker Peyton Randolph in the chair. They adopted a compact drafted by George Mason and introduced by George Washington against the importation of British goods. Speaker Randolph was the first to sign.

When the new legislature met in the winter, the governor was pleased to announce the repeal of all of the Townshend Duties, except the small one on tea. Legislative attention turned to other, calmer affairs. The next summer Peyton Randolph became chairman of the building committee for the Public Hospital.

Peyton Randolph

Peyton Randolph deliberates with the legislature

Closing of Boston Harbor troubles Virginia burgesses

Tempers flared again in 1773, when Great Britain proposed to transport a band of Rhode Island smugglers to England for trial. The implications for Virginia were troublesome, and the burgesses appointed a standing Committee of Correspondence and Inquiry with Speaker Peyton Randolph as chairman. The following May brought word of the closing of the port of Boston in retaliation for its Tea Party.

On May 24, 1774, Robert Carter Nicholas introduced a resolution drafted by Thomas Jefferson that read:

"This House, being deeply impressed with apprehension of the great dangers, to be derived to British America, from the hostile Invasion of the City of Boston, in our Sister Colony of Massachusetts bay, whose commerce and harbour are, on the first Day of June next, to be stopped by an Armed force, deem it highly necessary that the said first day of June be set apart, by the Members of this House, as a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, devoutly to implore the divine interposition for averting the heavy Calamity which threatens destruction to our Civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War; to give us one heart and one Mind to firmly oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American Rights; and that the Minds of his Majesty and his parliament, may be inspired from above with Wisdom, Moderation, and Justice, to remove from the loyal People of America, all cause of danger, from a continued pursuit of Measure, pregnant with their ruin."

The resolution was adopted.

House of Burgesses dissolved

Governor Dunmore summoned the house on May 26, 1774 and told Peyton Randolph: "Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses, I have in my hand a paper published by order of your House, conceived in such terms as reflect highly upon His Majesty and the Parliament of Great Britain, which makes it necessary for me to dissolve you; and you are accordingly dissolved."

Continental Congress proposed

On May 27, 1774, a group of 89 burgesses gathered again at the Raleigh Tavern to form another “non-importation association,” and the following day the Committee of Correspondence proposed a Continental Congress. Twenty-five burgesses met at Peyton Randolph's house on May 30 and scheduled a state convention to be held on August 1 to consider a proposal from Boston for a ban on exports to England.

Peyton Randolph led the community to Bruton Parish Church on June 1 to pray for Boston, and soon he was organizing a Williamsburg drive to send provisions and cash for its relief. The First Virginia Convention approved the export ban and elected as delegates to the Congress Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton.

Signs will before departure for the First Continental Congress

Before he left Williamsburg on August 18, 1774, Peyton Randolph wrote his will, leaving his property to the use of his wife for life. They had no children. The property was to be auctioned after her death and the proceeds divided among Randolph's heirs.

Unanimously elected chairman of Continental Congress

When Congress convened in Philadelphia on September 5, Thomas Lynch of South Carolina nominated Peyton Randolph to be chairman. He was elected by unanimous vote. Delegate Silas Deane wrote his wife, "Designed by nature for the business, of an affable, open and majestic deportment, large in size, though not out of proportion, he commands respect and esteem by his very aspect, independent of the high character he sustains."

500 merchants sign trade ban against England 

In October 1774, Peyton Randolph returned to Williamsburg to preside at an impending meeting of the house. Repeatedly postponed, it did not meet until the following June. Nonetheless, on November 9 Peyton Randolph accepted a copy of the Continental Association banning trade with England signed by nearly 500 merchants gathered in Williamsburg.

Disperses angry crowd gathered at courthouse in Williamsburg

Peyton Randolph was in the chair again at the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond on March 23 when Patrick Henry rose and made his "Liberty or Death" speech in favor of the formation of a statewide militia. In reaction, Governor Dunmore removed the gunpowder from Williamsburg's Magazine on April 21. Alerted to the theft, a mob gathered at the courthouse. Peyton Randolph was one of the leaders who persuaded the crowd to disperse and averted violence.

British put Randolph on rebel execution list

Peyton Randolph led the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, and he again took the chair. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in America, had been issued blank warrants for the execution of rebel leaders and a list of names with which to fill them. Peyton Randolph's name was on the list. He returned to Williamsburg under guard, and the town bells pealed to announce his safe arrival. The militia escorted him to his house and pledged to guarantee his safety.

The Third Virginia Convention reelected its speaker to Congress in July 1775, and Randolph left for Philadelphia in late August or early September. By this time, John Hancock had succeeded him to its chair.

Died before Independence 

About 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 22, Peyton Randolph began to choke, a side of his face contorted, and he died of an "apoplectic stroke." He was buried that Tuesday at Christ's Church in Philadelphia. His nephew, Edmund Randolph, brought his remains to Williamsburg in 1776, and he was interred in the family crypt in the Chapel at the College of William and Mary on November 26.

Peyton Randolph's estate was auctioned on February 19, 1783, following the death of his widow Betty Randolph. Thomas Jefferson bought his books. Among them were bound records dating to Virginia's earliest days that still are consulted by historians. Added to the collection at Monticello that Jefferson sold to the federal government years later, they became part of the core of the Library of Congress.

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