Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Daniel Feller

Committee Members

Stephen Ash, Ernest Freeberg, Michael Fitzgerald


In 1979, Robert Dawidoff wrote that it “was on the question of slavery that John Randolph contributed most decisively to American history.” Randolph’s stance on slavery has perplexed historians and biographers since his death in 1833. This dissertation examines the paradox of slavery in the life and career of John Randolph from the American Revolution until the Missouri Compromise. In an attempt to understand his public and private contradictions concerning slavery and the role of intense sectionalism in his politics, I have attempted to correlate his words with his actions. An examination of his letters reveal a man decidedly devoted to the belief that slavery was wrong, but a closer look of his public actions expose his commitment to preventing anyone from challenging that institution. Randolph’s cognitive dissonance over slavery is revealed in his letters and speeches, which often display alternating strands of brutal honesty and masterful self-deception. In his life as a member of the Virginia gentry, he struggled with deep-seated feelings of regret and angst over holding slaves. In his public career, Randolph’s attitudes about slavery, slaveholding, and sectionalism cultivated countless public debates in which he participated. Randolph considered the interests of Southern slaveholders above all else during his political career. Though in September 1815, he insisted that he wanted to be the American counterpart to British abolitionist William Wilberforce, he resisted any public effort to free American slaves. He devoted himself to the public defense of slavery, while privately planning the freedom for his own slaves. He saw himself as slavery’s severest critic while he acted as the most ardent defender of Virginia’s slave power. For Randolph, that transformation occurred primarily in the political realm and was informed by the declining fortunes of Virginia’s planter gentry. Examining Randolph’s contradictions on slavery is a means of examining the transformation of antislavery principles in the South during the Early Republic.

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