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John Randolph, "The Tory"

John and Peyton Randolph

Peyton Randolph and his Loyalist brother John, portrayed by Charles Redd and Jack Flintom.

  • Born ca. 1727 in Williamsburg, Virginia
  • Studied law in England
  • Member of House of Burgesses
  • Attorney General for Virginia Colony
  • Died 1784 in London, England
  • Buried in Virginia

Early Years

John Randolph was born in 1727 or 1728, probably at what is now called the Peyton Randolph House on Market Square, and his heritage was thoroughly Virginian. Educated at the College of William & Mary, he traveled to London in 1745 to study law at the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London, and returned to Williamsburg to practice in 1749.

Civic duties

Among Virginia's best-trained attorneys, John Randolph climbed the rungs of civic responsibility toward authority and power. He had become a member of the city's common council, then a burgess for the College of William & Mary. When his older brother Peyton Randolph was elected speaker of the House of Burgesses, John succeeded him as the colony's attorney general. He could not, however, follow Peyton down the road to rebellion.

At odds with brother’s political views

John Randolph’s brother Peyton Randolph followed the call of duty to the chair of the Continental Congress, but conscience summoned John Randolph "home" to England. As the day approached when he would quit America and its Revolution, he wrote a farewell letter to his cousin Thomas Jefferson. "We both of us seem to be steering opposite courses," he said, "the success of either lies in the womb of Time."

The third child of Sir John and Lady Susannah Randolph, John was convinced British-Americans owed more loyalty to the Crown than to the Massachusetts hotheads or to firebrands like his friend Patrick Henry.  Historians have tagged him with the nickname John "The Tory." By the summer of 1775, an anonymous piece in the Virginia Gazette insulted John Randolph for his Loyalist views and "dependence on l[or]d D[unmor]e."

Read transcript of article

Virginia Gazette, ed. Pinkney, 27 July 1775, p. 3, cols. 2-3.


"AT the request of several of the volunteers, well-wishers and subscribers to you, I send enclosed a short piece for publication, which you are particularly desired to insert in your next paper.  I am, sir you friend, &c.

"To J - - n R - - - - - ph, esquire.

"THE too contemptible appearance you have hitherto cut is the only reason that your name has not been branded with ignominy before, and your person exhibited on the public theatre as a spectacle of reproach.

"Your very idea, like an unskilful [sic] actor, is enough to excite the aversion of the audience; and you will be hissed off the stage with that demerit you deserve.  The late passages of your life are so pitiful that the most ingenious attempt to ascribe something to your advantage would prove ineffectual.  To enfold the dark secrets of your diary or to descant upon so base and unembellished a theme, would disgrace the beauties of oratory, since silence best indicates disdain; and to expatiate upon your foibles in a florid harangue is too civil a compliment for your character, which of late has not been accustomed to over-much ceremony.  In as few words as possible I shall couch this address; your consequence, perhaps, is more trifling than you imagine.  Indeed, I look upon you less entitled to observation than beneath it; but as a public conspirator, your conscience should be racked.  In this light I shall proceed:  As a friend you are defective, as an enemy insignificant; from your folly who can presume, or from your inabilities who can fear?  The one cannot benefit, nor the other breed, any thing uncommon.  Your dependence on l - - d D - - - - e has indeed promoted your own disgrace, but it has not added to your interest.  If it has enriched you in imagination, it has robbed you in good earnest; if it has led you to the shadow,  it has lost you the certainty; if it has afforded you a transitory blessing, it has deprived you of a real happiness.  But I waste the lamp of Heaven in vain!  Yet a word:  If your principles are incorrigible, if you are rooted in the wrong, pray abscond yourself, push for some remote corner of the globe, where the imprecations  of your countrymen, and the invectives  of a much injured people, cannot assail your adamantine  ears.

close transcript of article

View Virginia Gazette, July 27, 1775, Page 3, bottom of column two and top of column three (Will open in new window)

If Randolph's associates in Williamsburg disagreed with his views, they nevertheless admired his integrity. Most Virginians referred to England as home; John Randolph meant it.

Returns to England

While Peyton chaired the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John sat in Williamsburg, a confidant of the pugnacious Governor Dunmore. As Peyton prepared to leave for the Second Continental Congress, John was closing up his house, Tazewell Hall. Renowned for its hospitality, Tazewell Hall sat at the southern end of South England Street commanding a 99-acre estate. It was a popular literary and social center frequented by the elite of the community. Its master had been a close friend of Governor Fauquier and Lord Botetourt.

John Randolph arranged passage across the Atlantic for himself, his wife, Ariana, and their two daughters, Susannah and Ariana. His son, Edmund, stayed behind; Edmund joined the American army and served as aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

Enjoyed music and gardening

Gardening and music were among John Randolph's avocations. About 1765 he wrote what is believed to be the earliest American book on kitchen gardening, A Treatise on Gardening by A Citizen of Virginia. Cousin Thomas Jefferson thought Randolph's violin was the finest in the colony and John, in turn, admired Tom's library. In 1771, they struck a lighthearted bargain. If Randolph died first, Jefferson was to have the fiddle; if Jefferson died first, Randolph was to have £100 worth of Jefferson's books. George Wythe and Patrick Henry witnessed the agreement.

In August 1775, Jefferson sent their mutual friend Carter Braxton to Williamsburg with £13 pounds and posted a letter saying he meant it for the instrument. The reply was Randolph's farewell, though the men corresponded after Randolph reached England.

The state government confiscated loyalist properties as the Revolution wore on, and an embittered Randolph spent years fruitlessly trying to reclaim his.

Died in England; buried in Virginia

John Randolph died at Brampton, England, in 1784. In death, as he could not in conscience do in life, Randolph returned to Williamsburg. He is interred beside his father and brother in the family vault in the chapel at the College of William & Mary.

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