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The Inwardness of History

ISSUE:  Winter 1981
The Education of John Randolph. By Robert Dawidoff. Norton. $17.95.

Robert Dawidoff’s interpretation of John Randolph centers essentially on Henry Adams’ notion that when one’s education fails to describe his actual experience of life he becomes an historical derelict. Randolph and Adams, Dawidoff says in effect, are parallel examples of such a situation. The parallel is not merely incidental. Indeed, Dawidoff says that the idiosyncratic Virginian of the early Republic held a compelling attraction for the exceptionable New Englander of the post-Civil War Republic. Discovering in Adams’ John Randolph (American Statesmen series, 1882) the author’s “unacknowledged yet unmistakable if muted and as yet incomplete aura of identification” with his subject, Dawidoff declares that Adams “completed” his identification with Randolph in the “chronicle of his own miseducation, helplessness, and eccentricity,” The Education of Henry Adams (first published privately in 1907).

This approach to Randolph through Adams seems somewhat forced and even misconceived. While Adams may aptly enough be labeled “eccentric,” it is doubtful if he may be literally described as “miseducated” or “helpless.” As R.P. Blackmur, Ernest Samuels, J.C. Levenson, James M. Cox, and other careful students of Adams have demonstrated, his celebrated report on the failure of his education masks a highly self-conscious, subtle, complex, and above all, deeply ironic intellectual and emotional drama. This lifelong drama is at best inadequately characterized as a record of miseducation. Nor is the term “helpless” applicable to Adams, save in the complicated sense in which it applies to his ironic characterization of himself—to the portrayal of the Adams he creates as his persona. Adams the author, the man who sets forth the story of the Adams in the Education, was possessed not only of formidable intellectual powers but of the unusual psychic resources of a gifted literary artist. Able to distance himself from himself, he observed the drama of his own intellect and thought and eventually made out of this process a work that the well-known critic and literary biographer B.L. Reid has recently called the most distinguished book ever written by an American. Another, and perhaps more fundamental, reason why the proposition that Adams identified himself with a miseducated Randolph seems askew is that Adams did not conceive of Randolph as miseducated. In his biography of Randolph, Adams stresses Randolph’s lack of educational opportunity “in a small, struggling, exhausted country, without a government, a nationality, a capital, or even a town of thirty thousand inhabitants.” The world Randolph lived in “had not the means of supplying such an education as a young man wanted, however earnestly he tried for it.” But if he recognized that the youthful Randolph’s community did not afford “careful mental training”—that under the conditions of his native culture Randolph was more likely to have been undereducated than miseducated—Adams also perceived that a precocious youth like John Randolph would inescapably have undergone an extensive education and might well have had an overeducation in the tensions and anxieties of an age of unprecedented historical change.

The boy was born [Adams writes in his biography of Randolph] at the moment. . .the country had plunged into a war which in a single moment cut that connection with England on which the old Virginian society depended for its tastes, fashions, theories, and above all for its aristocratic status in politics and law. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that America was no longer to be English, but American; that is to say, democratic and popular in all its parts—a fact equivalent to a sentence of death upon old Virginian society, and foreboding dissolution to the Randolphs and their pride, until they should learn to master the new conditions of American life. For passing through such a maelstrom a century was not too short an allowance of time, yet this small Randolph boy, not a strong creature at best, was born just as the downward plunge began, and every moment made the outlook drearier and more awful.

A quarter of a century before he described it in the Education, Adams suggested in young Randolph’s situation the individual’s experience of the modern acceleration of history. Doing so, he commenced his struggle to elucidate, especially in the form and quality of its expression in America, what he had begun uncertainly to apprehend as a hidden yet major event of modern history: the relevation, or as it may be called, the apocalypse of the “historical self.” He became aware of a heretofore unknown intimacy between the self and history. There opened to him the austere experience of the modern self s disclosure to the self that it is the untranscending creature of history; that it is made by history and yet being the self—being intelligence, being mind—is the maker of history and responsible for it. A prime value of his elucidation of Randolph’s career is that, while he keeps returning to the oversimplified concept of miseducation as the link between Adams and Randolph, Dawidoff at the same time provides an expanding documentation of the significant common substance of their education: their discovery and dramatization of the historical self. Because of a feel for Randolph’s life exceeding his specific analytical penetration of it, Dawidoff renders, almost inadvertently, the deeper meaning of the Randolph who self-consciously projected himself as a combination of the antique gentleman and the acrimonious prophet.

Having formed his views in his young manhood, according to the teachings of a world which Randolph increasingly understood to be disappearing, he developed the habit of declension, of seeing in every change a degeneration. He regarded himself as the last of the old school, a militant Cassandra of a noble and embattled tradition. Thus did the personal enter the political.

Of far more import than Dawidoff’s depiction of an intransigent individual opposing his detestation, and fear, of change to the movement of history is the observation that in Randolph the personal entered the political. Alert to the nuances of Randolph’s personality—to shades of feeling experienced by a fragile self at once appalled and fascinated by its fate as the creature of history—Dawidoff implies that Randolph represented more fully than, say, Jefferson the inner motivation of his age. In the course of his inquiry as a whole, Dawidoff shows that Randolph not only responded to the personal entering the political but, it may significantly be added, to the political entering the personal.

It is notable, I think, that Dawidoff, even though he cannot document in precise detail its extent and variety, insists on Randolph’s reading as a major aspect of his education; for however much the world in which Randolph was born and reared turned on outward action—on planting and harvesting, on hunting, fishing, and horse racing, on social ritual and family ceremony—it was, as Henry Adams put it, a world given not only to “audacity and vigor” but to “mind.” Owing in part at least to the early lapse in Virginia (in contrast to the Massachusetts colony) of a coherent ecclesiastical motive, the remarkable world of Thomas Jefferson and his peers, as Richard Beale Davis has amply shown, was the culmination of two centuries of secular literacy and “cerebration.” It was no historical accident that out of Virginia came such world historical acts of thought as the Declaration of Independence and a legislative decree (1786) separating Church and State. Assuming that the model of society and history is no longer a transcendent society shining in eternity but is the free mind as expressed by the rational individual, these actions of mind represented a momentous reversal of the basis of order. They made Virginia an expression of the radical and decisive secularity of modern times—a climactic scene in the progress of the encompassing secular critique of man and society, nature and God, conducted by Bacon, Newton, Locke, and a host of others, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, all of whom in the old sense of the term were men of letters. In the Virginia microcosm of modernity, secular, rational mind clearly manifested its desire to become a realm of its own—a third realm additional to Church and State, a polity of the lettered mind. More than this, mind made plain in the Virginia microcosm its determinative motive in modern history, this being nothing less than its transfer into itself of all dominion and power through the subjectification of man and society, nature and God. The Virginia microcosm was also a place where the psychic expense of this all-embracing transaction to the specific agency of transference, the individual man of letters, would be plainly evident. I mean the sense of history as a grievous personal burden. For all his confidence that mind is a beneficent power, Jefferson knew doubts and anxieties that had not risen before the movement of history into mind. A weaker temperament like Randolph knew far more acutely the cost of mind’s looking to itself as the model of history: agonizing tensions between the personal and the political, self and history, resulting in despair bordering on, or crossing into, madness. In Randolph, to be sure, given to drugging himself with drink, at times living in an hallucinatory state, at times truly psychotic, we find a focus for a study in an American political and literary psychopathology.

As an image of the disturbed condition of the self in America, Randolph mirrors the tension between history and the thought and emotion implicit in the writings Dawidoff describes as the major source of the literary and political education of the early Republic: the Augustan satirists and the Old Whig or Commonwealth, or as they were often called, “country” philosophers and pamphleteers (John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and others).

At the core of country thinking, as in Augustan literature [Dawidoff observes], one senses the assertion of a particular kind of individual man claiming for himself the virtues he believes are lost to public life in his time. Surely this belief haunted the cult of independence: principle was understood as individual honor, integrity, character. The character of a people and its rulers is what country politics comes down to. And it is character as virtue under attack that typically triggered the country response.

Resisting the corruption of political and social values by power and greed, the Augustan writers and country thinkers vested public virtue, once embodied in a transcendent society, in the personal character of the man of letters. But ultimately there was no salvation for the transcendent reference of order in this strategy. The frustration of the ideology of character was often bitter, based as it was on the perception that the movement of the world into mind is irreversible. An Emerson could accept the optative mood of modernity and proclaim ecstatically that the self is the world; but Emerson came to doubt his ecstasy, and to share to some extent (as Thoreau more obviously) in the desperate feeling that the world, having become identical with self-consciousness, has become an inescapable prison. This feeling, graphically imaged in Emerson’s Virginia contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, was related to the insurgence of the democratic element in America, foreboding the displacement of educated mind as the image of order by raw, contentious public opinion. Randolph anticipates Poe in taking cognizance of this event and its result. “I am more and more satiated with the world,” he complained in a letter to Francis Scott Key in 1819. “It is to me a fearful prison house of guilt and misery . . . . I have lost all hope of public service, and whithersoever I direct my eyes a dark cloud seems to impend.” Although responsible, rational mind as exemplified by the Old Whig school had maintained respect for politics as a purely public expression—an open forum, a space in which the private self may be truly transformed into a public self—the concept of the forum, in the eyes of a person like Randolph, had sadly degenerated to the crude democracy of a country tavern: “We hug our lousy cloaks around us, or ruin the grate and fire-irons, where they happen not to be rusty, and try conclusions upon constitutional points.” Presiding at such a convocation, Randolph might well have added, was the author of the Declaration of Independence, whom he characterized as “that Prince of Projectors, St. Thomas of Cantingbury,” one who had betrayed the educated mind for the sake of courting public opinion.

Randolph’s career is an archetypal version of a politics in America that may be termed a politics of self. The self, having lost any way to discriminate between its being on the one hand a private and on the other a public entity, reacts by seeking in manners, dress, and general demeanor to incarnate an ideology of public order. In a displaced public self like Randolph we glimpse a more desperate centering of order in the self than we do in a Thoreau. Denying the efficacy of public order altogether, Thoreau conferred on his isolation and eccentricity the quality of the exotic. But the affinity between Randolph at Roanoke and Thoreau at Walden is plain enough. Both symbolize the injunctive need to represent the politics of self implicit in the Declaration of Independence, which, endorsing the political sovereignity of the individual, proclaims the self-evident right of the self to determine what kind of order, or nonorder, it wants to be in.

The historical awareness generated by the effort to recover a nostalgically idealized social order, by a self-dramatization of the old-fashioned Virginia gentleman as prophet, sensitized Randolph to the complex relation among self, slavery, and liberty in America. By 1824 he was adumbrating the fateful connection between states’ rights and slavery. In fact during that year—in his most cogent argument about the character of the nation invented by reason, an address to the United States House of Representatives on the Constitutional issue involved in funding internal improvements—he made the vivid declaration that the power of the House to control commerce, if interpreted broadly, could be construed as the power to emancipate the slaves. In this mischievous but brilliant insight (as Adams characterizes it) Randolph comprehended that the liberty and independence of the slaveholders would depend on their successful insistence that slavery is an integral part of the Constitutional structure of freedom. Although he believed all of his life that slavery is the antithesis of the sacred right of the individual to be free (and that slavery victimizes the slaveholder as much or more than the slave and enslaves him along with his slave), Randolph finally had no illusions about the shaping force of slavery on the future of the Republic. He discerned that a government modeled on, as Hamilton said, “reflection” and “choice”—modeled on mind and formulated in a written schema—becomes a government based on the latitude of its self-interpretation. Randolph saw that self-interpretation is not controlled by reflective choice. Whether exercised by the individual or the state, self-determination is subjective, concerned solely with self-realization. Self-determination in the Southern states was destined, Randolph realized, to a willfulness that would rationalize slavery as freedom’s necessity—as necessary alike to the liberty of the self and the liberty of the slave states.

Henry Adams attributed to Randolph a solitary but awesome influence on the course of American history, declaring that if we look beneath Randolph’s “almost incredible capacity for attitudinizing,” we see that “he discovered and mapped out from beginning to end a chart of the whole course on which the slave power was to sail to its destruction.” In spite of the fact that he “did no legislative work, sat on no committees, and was not remotely connected with any useful measure or idea,” Randolph “organized the slave power on strong and well-chosen ground; he taught it discipline, gave it popular cohesion, pointed out to it the fact that before it could hope for power it must break down Henry Clay, and, having taught his followers what to do, helped them to do it.” Granting that Adams probably overstates Randolph’s political significance, we must yet wonder at the considerable power exercised by this strange man; who, as the consequence of an illness in early manhood, was impotent and of feminine voice; who often acted as though he were bereft of his senses, and more than once was. Adams, and Randolph’s other biographers, are less help in explaining the enigma that was Randolph than Dawidoff, who sums up the secret of Randolph’s power when he says that “Randolph himself, not any abstracted opinions, constituted his politics.” Dawidoff does not, like Adams, separate the attitudinizing Randolph from the Randolph who was capable of establishing the logical ground of the slave states. They were one and the same, integrated in the self that knows, even if the knowledge is unspoken or unspeakable, that it is within history and that history is within it.

Interpreting himself as the solitary relic of an age of superior virtue that had instituted political order on the model of rational independence, Randolph responded to one phenomenon associated with the emergence of the individual as the creature of history. This is to say, the self’s experience of its displacement in history. Fulfilling his prophetic role, warning of the consequences of mind violated by ambition and the lust for power, Randolph responded to another, and more profound, phenomenon marking the emergent historical self: the self’s experience of the isolation of history in the self. In Randolph’s story we witness the progression from an American self s awareness of the first condition to its apprehension of the second—the realization not merely of the self’s identity with mind but of its interiorization, its inward embodiment, of history. The “personal and the political,” Dawidoff says, became “inseparable” in Randolph. Understanding that mind, self, and liberty had become integral, Randolph discerned that the Southern states must (through the ideology of states’ rights) assimilate mind to slavery. The power to overturn slavery by national legislative action was the power to overturn independence. The right of self-determination made slavery the condition of freedom. In the name of a government and a society modeled on rational mind, Randolph opposed those who would, as he phrased it in ironic metaphor, “reinstate themselves on the throne,” meaning those who would reestablish the centralization of power denounced by the Declaration of Independence and prohibited by the Constitution, whether this be a president or a branch of Congress.

His advocacy of the “strict construction” of the Constitution was the end product of Randolph’s education. It had been an education in the novel inwardness of power operating in a nation conceived in deliberate acts of mind, brought into historical existence by the incarnation of these acts in armed rebellion, and sustained in existence only by an unceasing action of thought, the continuous self-interpretation of its meaning in history. The success of this interpretative mode of existence is crucially related to the nation’s origin in the embodiment of acts of thought in war, for in its inception the new nation provided a precedent for future wars. As a matter of fact, it may be that most wars since the American Revolution have been incarnations of rational thought, progressively bloodier interpretations of history. Like the one in America 30 years after John Randolph’s death.

I have been putting a good deal of pressure on certain implications of Dawidoff’s depiction of Randolph, but it is, I think, a book that invites a good deal of squeezing. Loosely organized, distractingly repetitious, never quite certain of its direction, it more than once rewardingly intuits more than it actually says. This is strikingly true in the way Dawidoff transcends his rather superficial thesis idea about the relationship of Adams to Randolph. We come to see that Adams discovered a Randolph who was no miseducated failure but who, like Adams himself, was capable of a vision of history that (as Adams declares) “startles” us “by the very darkness it makes visible.”


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