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Edmund Randolph

architect of the three-branch system of federal government and first Attorney General

Edmund Randolph

Edmund Randolph was born on August 10, 1753, at Tazewell Hall, in Williamsburg, Virginia. He attended the College of William and Mary, and then studied law under the tutelage of his father, John Randolph.

When the American Revolution broke out, John Randolph, a Loyalist, followed the royal governor to England. Edmund Randolph went to live with his uncle Peyton Randolph, a prominent figure in Virginia politics. During the war Randolph served as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

Randolph first became actively involved in politics when he attended the convention that adopted Virginia's first state constitution, in 1776. Just 23 years old at the time, he was the convention's youngest member. He subsequently became mayor of Williamsburg, Attorney General of Virginia (1776-1786), delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1779-1781), and Governor of Virginia (1786-1788). He was also a delegate to the Annapolis Convention of 1786.

On May 29, 1787, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Randolph presented what became known as the Virginia Plan for creating a new government. The plan proposed a strong central government composed of three branches -- legislative, executive and judicial -- and enabled the legislative branch to veto state laws and to use force against states that failed to fulfill their duties. After much debate and numerous revisions, the Virginia Plan became the major basis for the Constitution. However, Randolph refused to sign the final document because he believed it gave too much power to the President. Randolph believed that a one-man executive was too close to a monarchy, and that a three-man council would be much more appropriate. He also felt that the Constitution had to include a provision for amendment, and that without such a provision the states would fail to ratify the document. A second convention resulted in provisions for amendments being added to the Constitution, but his three-man executive proposal was not seriously addressed. Although he was still not completely satisfied with the final document, Randolph supported its ratification by Virginia because the issue had become one of "Union or no Union."

Soon after George Washington took office as our nation's first President, he named Randolph as the first Attorney General. He held that office until 1794, when he succeeded Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. In the latter capacity Randolph played a prominent part in the negotiations connected with the controversial Jay's Treaty with Britain in 1794. In August 1795, Randolph was forced to resign because of accusations that he would welcome a bribe from the French government; the accusations were later proved false.

After leaving public service, Randolph resumed his law practice and became a leading figure in the legal community. During his retirement he wrote a history of Virginia. When Aaron Burr went on trial for treason in 1807, Randolph acted as his senior counsel.

Edmund Randolph died at Carter Hall, Virginia, on September 12, 1813, and is buried in the cemetery of a nearby chapel.


From Revolution to Reconstruction

See Also

American Revolution
Constitutional Convention
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
Secretary of State
Jay's Treaty
Aaron Burr

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The Robinson Library >> Revolution to Civil War >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 12, 2018.