Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 2
John Randolph of Roanoke and the Politics of Slavery in the Early Republic
- Nicholas Wood, pp. 106–43
Aside from his eccentricities, John Randolph of Roanoke is perhaps best remembered as the precocious forerunner to John C. Calhoun's proslavery politics and the Slave Power. However, Randolph's partisan opponents and historians have often exaggerated his commitment to slavery. Although he was a steadfast defender of slaveholders' property rights and used the specter of abolitionism and slave revolt for political advantage, Randolph also supported bans on slavery and slave trading in the federal territories, and he advocated African colonization as a way to reduce the domestic slave trade within the United States and suppress the African slave trade abroad. This essay seeks to reconcile the tension between Randolph's professed antislavery sentiments with his state rights politics, revealing him to be more complex and consistent than is generally acknowledged. Randolph emerges as representative of the potential and limits of Jeffersonian antislavery, highlighting its distinctiveness from the later proslavery of the following generation.