November 2, 2008

Boyish Looks, Poison Tongue

Senator John Randolph of Virginia (1773–1883) may have been the most boyish-looking politician in U.S. history. Randolph was 26 when first elected, but was so baby-faced, the Clerk of the House asked if he was old enough to take the job.

Ask my constituents,” was the acid reply.

Despite his cherubic appearance, Randolph was a mean one who loved nothing more than zinging an opponent with a good line. Speaking of his two colleagues, Robert Wright and John Rae, the senator said, “A Wright always wrong and a Rae without light.”

John Quincy Adams on Randolph (via Ovid): “His face is ashen, gaunt his whole body, His breath is green with gall; His tongue drips poison.”

Even so, I shake my head centuries later in reluctant admiration at this criticism Randolph aimed at an opponent: “[He is] a man of splendid abilities, but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.”

A leading proponent of slavery, Randolph called anyone who disagreed with him on the matter a “dough-face.” So if the following story about him is true, it was nice payback.

When dining in New York one evening, Randolph ordered a black servant to leave the room. (He couldn't abide to be near blacks.) The servant bowed, but remained where he was.

The senator continued to harangue him to leave, until at last the man answered, “Excuse me, sir, but I must stay. The management holds me responsible for the silverware.”

The painting of Randolph above is by famed portraitist Gilbert Stuart. The silverware sketches are by Bartolomeo Scappi via the Library of Congress. My sources are here.

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