The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850

§ 20. John Randolph

Among the men of Congress who indulged in far-flung speech and whom we shall have to class as orators, John Randolph (1773–1833) of Roanoke claims our first attention. Totally without the qualities for party leadership, unable to retain the devotion or following of friends, unable to handle a big constitutional question with confident learning and logic, unable to develop theories and to win people by the force of his argument or the steady adherence to a cause and a principle, he nevertheless played a conspicuous rôle during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and, if we judge now only by the records of his speeches, he was gifted with a power of expression, a cutting brilliant invective and devilish cleverness in criticism and attack, such as few speakers have ever possessed. He was essentially a busy fault-finder, an active, alert, denunciatory enemy, at his best—or perhaps we should say, his worst—when dealing out taunts and pouring out the vial of his wrath on the less gifted but more wise. It should also be said of him that by his vehement defence of the slavery interest, though he professed opposition to slavery in itself, and by his attack on the growing power of the Federal government, he prepared the way for the later arguments and positions of Calhoun, the real leader of the South. One passage will illustrate almost as well as many the character of his declamation:

  • “We are the eel,” he said of the South, “that is being flayed, while the cookmaid pats us on the head and cries, with the clown in King Lear, ‘Down, wantons, down! …’ If, under a power to regulate trade, you prevent exportation; if, with the most approved spring lancets, you draw the last drop of blood from our veins; if, secundum artem, you draw the last shilling from our pockets, what are the checks of the Constitution to us? A fig for the Constitution! When the scorpion’s sting is probing us to the quick, shall we stop to chop logic? Shall we get some learned and cunning clerk to say whether the power to do this is to be found in the Constitution, and then, if he, from whatever motive, shall maintain the affirmative, shall we, like the animal whose fleece forms so material a portion of this bill [tariff, 1824], quietly lie down and be shorn?”