REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
By WILLIAM H. RHODES.
A NAME radiant with revolutionary glories, a lineage famed for great men in great causes, for more than five generations. Edmund Randolph was born in Virginia in the year 1818, and died at San Francisco at the early age of forty-two. He was an offshoot of the Virginia Randolphs, and inherited the chief traits of character of those extraordinary men. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather, were lawyers, and he himself early studied the same profession. He was liberally educated, having graduated at William and Mary's College shortly before settling in New Orleans, where he read law, and received the appointment of Clerk of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Circuit of Louisiana. During his residence in New Orleans, he married the daughter of a leading physician of that city, Dr. Meaux.
He continued to practice law until the news from California woke up within his aspirations of a broader usefulness and a loftier ambition than he could gratify at home; and early in 1849 he turned his eyes towards the West, and reached these shores in the course of that year. Before he left New Orleans, he began to exhibit talents of a very superior order, both as a learned lawyer and an eloquent advocate, and gave promise of those splendid attributes of a finished debater that lifted him above all competitors. He had scarcely landed in California ere he was elected a member of the lower branch of the first Legislature that convened under the State constitution.
But his heart was not in politics. His mind looked more lovingly at the honors of his profession than towards those gathered in the political arena. He was very often importuned by those most intimately acquainted with him, and who knew his great parts, to permit his name to be used in connection with high legislative offices in this State, but always ineffectually. He became a partner of the noted lawyer, R. A. Lockwood, Esq., and of Frank Tilford, and the firm soon led the ranks of the profession in the city of San Francisco.
One of the most significant acts of his life was his opposition to the first Vigilance Committee in this city, in 1851. He publicly and boldly denounced that organization, its leaders, abettors, and sympathizers; and so terrible became his anathemas that a sub-committee from that body was appointed to wait upon him and Mr. Lockwood, and request them to cease their denunciations, or quit the city. The reply received by the parent committee was such that the request was not renewed, nor the penalty imposed.
Edmund Randolph hated oppression, fraud, cruelty, and wrong, with a vehemence that bordered upon sublimity. It looked, to some of his more prudent friends, like a species of insanity. In the argument of his cause, if the testimony brought out any fact that threw a suspicion of corruption upon his opponents, the floodgates of his soul were at once opened, and he broke forth in a torrent of indignant eloquence that bore away every impediment in its course. But his heart was just as susceptible to the kindlier emotions, and he would plead the cause of innocence with a tenderness and sincerity that drowned his audience in tears.
His familiarity with the early history of California gave him great advantages over most of his brethren at the bar, and he was usually retained in all the important suits where such knowledge was most valuable. It was this superiority, as much perhaps as his fame as advocate, that secured for him a retainer in the cause celébre of the United States vs. Castillero; usually known as the New Almaden Quicksilver Case. The trial of this stupendous suit—for it was gigantic in all its parts: in the amount involved, in the principle at stake, in the number and reputation of the counsel employed, and in the length and duration of its various sessions—was the acme and the flower of his fame.
Titans were all around him. Judah P. Benjamin, the greatest civilian in the United States, was his chief opponent. At his right hand sat Reverdy Johnson, the worthy successor of William Pinckney at the Baltimore bar; on his left, the no less renowned champion of the Philadelphia forum, Edwin M. Stanton, his coadjutor in the cause. The most noted men of the coast were his auditors. He rose fully up to the dignity and importance of the occasion, and vindicated his right to be there. Indeed, for a full mastery of his case in all its bearings, for varied and useful learning, for quick and unsleeping vigilance, for powerful and splendid oratory, and above all for success, he was not surpassed by either of the great advocates about him. The government took the wise precaution to have the entire proceedings reported and printed. They form in themselves almost a whole library on the subjects discussed; and he who would study the ancient mining codes of Spain and Mexico, and consequently of California, cannot find so rich and exhaustive a treatise in any other repository. But the most precious portions of that vast magazine must be sought in the speeches and arguments of Edmund Randolph. His early indoctrination into the Justinian Code, which indeed has formed the substratum of the jurisprudence of all Europe, except England, for two thousand years, fitted him peculiarly for the task before him. But to this he superadded perfect familiarity with the modern codes of Spain and Mexico, in the original tongue; and thus armed, defied the entire arsenals of his opponents. No other cause has ever attracted so much attention on this coast, and it is quite safe to assert that none henceforth ever will. It forms the most enduring monument to his fame, and like the trial of Warren Hastings, constitutes an epoch in judicial history.
The efforts of Mr. Randolph in the Castillero suit were so untiring and self-sacrificing that they left him with a weakened constitution and an incipient disease. Aggravated by two or three other conflicts at the bar hardly less laborious, it soon assumed a dangerous aspect, and he became conscious, when too late to remedy the disorder, that pulmonary consumption had set in. Brave, buoyant, and hopeful to the last, he fought his distemper with the same fortitude that he ever exhibited in his great moral combats, but unfortunately with less success. He continued to fail monthly until the fatal day approached (September 8th, 1861); then folding his arms in mute but dignified repose, he slept with his fathers.
The annals of California do not furnish a more brilliant name than that of Edmund Randolph. His historical studies can be best appreciated by consulting the case above named, and by a perusal of his ADDRESS TO THE PIONEERS, portions of which follow this sketch. This was afterwards republished in pamphlet form, and is an indispensable adjunct to a correct knowledge of the subject.
Towards the close of Mr. Randolph's career, he was prevailed on to make a few political speeches, especially in the great conflict between the Lecompton and anti-Lecompton wings of the Democratic party. In this controversy he warmly espoused the cause of Douglas, in opposition to the then President of the United States, James Buchanan; and in 1859 was defeated as the anti-Lecompton candidate for Attorney General of California. But as the country was evidently drifting into war—a war of sections, a fight for supremacy betwixt North and South— true to his hereditary instincts, to the home of his youth and to the land of his nativity, he did not, could not hesitate where he was to be found. He bitterly opposed the successive measures of the Lincoln administration, and denounced them with energy. His whole soul seemed to become one vast volcano of molten rage, and he spoke more vehemently than ever before during his whole life. The last speech he ever delivered in public was perhaps the greatest proof which he ever displayed of his power of language when aroused. It was delivered at Sacramento on the 5th day of August, 1861, and on the 8th of September following he was no more.
The writer of this sketch was present at the time the speech was delivered, in company with the late Judge Baldwin of the Supreme Court. During the mid-day recess of the Court, we strolled into the Democratic convention then in session, and reached there just in time to witness the terrible invective of Mr. Randolph—concentrating in itself the fury of an inflamed patriot and the frenzy of an inspired prophet. The tone, the gesture, the action, the expression of lip and eye, can ne'er be forgotten. "Great God!" exclaimed Judge Baldwin, "did you ever hear eloquence like that? Randolph seen to be on fire." And so indeed he was. But the flame was the last flickerings of life's candle. The intensity of the passion, uttered in half hysteric shrieks, overcame the shattered bulwarks of a constitution almost gone, and from that hour he sank rapidly to the tomb.
Bitter as were partizans at the period when he died, no one could find it in his heart to censure the dead Virginian in his grave. Even his political foes paused over his remains, and gave a tear to the splendid genius and the brave heart that had perished. All men believed in his sincerity, and knew but too well that if he loved the Federal government less than his native Virginia, it was the fault of early prejudices, the bias of political training, and the recollections of ancestral partiality. In the grave, the fault—if fault it be—lies buried. Amid the dazzling effulgence of so much to commend and so little to reprove, we can well afford to pardon one slight speck upon his fame.
In domestic life, Mr. Randolph was eminently blest. His wife sympathized with him in all his toils and all his triumphs. She still survives him, with a bevy of beautiful children, whose inheritance, though it were a throne, could not be greater than that which they now enjoy—the heritage of their father's glory.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 591-595.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.