The University Bookman


Volume 18, Number 4 (Summer 1978)

The Household Gods of Freedom

book cover imageJohn Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics
by Russell Kirk.
Third ed., with select letters & speeches.
Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1978.
[Fourth edition, 1997, cloth $24, paper $14.50.]

M. E. Bradford

For Southerners of my antique persuasion, Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke is a locus classicus. And for most American conservatives, it is a work of decisive importance, a path leading into a neglected portion of our common patrimony, a portion now not well understood, even in the South. For in this book is organized and preserved, with grace and economy, the still persuasive testimony of the most noble and disinterested of the Old Republicans, the American political figure who, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, set his face most resolutely against the great god Whirl. John Randolph embodied the wisdom of the Antifederalists. And in that role acted out, bespoke, what now appears to be our most durable inheritance from the Virginia dynasty. To see Kirk’s study of Randolph’s career (first published in 1951) reissued in one of the handsome editions of the Liberty Press is therefore an occasion for real rejoicing. For, in this era of unchallenged statism, we stand in need of Randolph’s public example as never before: his searching critique of the “metaphysical madness” which comes from an ideological reading of the Revolution. Dialectics and abstraction threaten the very foundations of our civil order. And require of us that we be able, through the study of his language and his thought, to invoke the shade of the American Burke.

Though it is a study of Randolph’s political thought, and not a biography per se, Kirk’s analysis contains a judicious account of his subject’s life, both in Congress and at home in the Southside of Virginia, plus a thorough explanation of his personal and intellectual relations with many of his contemporaries: his cousin Mr. Jefferson, Taylor, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calhoun, and Jackson. The role of religion and of humane letters in the formation of his mind, his reaction to the radical teachers of his youth, and the prudence and charity of his posture as a reluctant slaveholder are fully detailed. But what distinguishes this Kirk opus is its scholarly acumen. It is, with his Eliot, a monument to his learning, in that much abused word’s proper sense. As a Southerner, I have always been amazed that a young man from central Michigan should have been able to penetrate the formidable barriers which separated him and the agrarian, slave-holding world of John Randolph. But there is a ready explanation. For Dr. Kirk has been throughout his career, the American interpreter of the English Old Whigs and of their master spirit, Edmund Burke. Only in the context of this tradition may John Randolph be understood.

That Randolph has been an influence throughout the political history of the South is only now receiving its proper recognition: in recent studies of the conservative Democrats in Missouri; in introductions to the South Carolina edition of the papers of Calhoun; in the biographies of the statesmen who sought to give the region a total independence from Federalist heresies with the secession of 1860–61. Nor has his voice been ever silent below the Potomac and the Ohio, even though the legitimate sons of the Tertium Quids grow to be fewer and fewer with the ominous declensions of our time. Yet, whenever a Byrd, a Stennis, or an Allen thunders his own delenda est Carthago at the “energetic government” of this day, wherever theft by taxation or the worship of King Numbers is protested in principle and by prescription, we hear in the background the voice of the planter/statesman of Roanoke—that faithful steward of “the household gods of freedom.” Of course, the Jacobins of today continue to “feed the cauldron and make it bubble,” continue to translate “natural rights” into “patronage and debt.” But the results of their policy have done nothing to discredit the prescience of Randolph and Taylor, Calhoun and Stephens. Or to make us less appreciative of having available to our consideration and reflection so fine a collection of Randolph’s public papers and political correspondence, prefaced by so thoughtful a commentary upon the changeless truths which they contain. 

Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas.

Posted: May 13, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

Did you see this one? book cover

The Sexual Revolution and the Will to Disbelieve
Eve Tushnet
Spring 2012

A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.

Russell Kirk


Subscribe & Follow


More from the Bookman!

book cover book cover book cover

The Wonder of Medieval Europe
Timothy D. Lusch

Keeper of the Cosmopolitian Flame
Gilbert NMO Morris

What Popper Saw in Churchill
Daniel J. Mahoney

The Unwritten Constitution Today
Ted McAllister

A Quiet American in Vietnam
John C. Chalberg

Tomboys and Magic
Eve Tushnet

book cover book cover book cover

Bookman Contributors Elsewhere

Jeff Bilbro who recently reviewed the new Library of America edition of Wendell Berry for us, is now taking over editorial duties at Front Porch Republic.

Joseph Bottum has a new book out for children, on our everyday blessings.

Samuel Gregg writes on Alexander Hamilton, revolutionary conservative lawyer.

Gerald Russello on a new biography of John Marshall.

Yuval Levin on how democracies panic.

Gracy Olmstead on how politics is being used to fill the gap left by the loss of more substantial human connections.

More …


We are pleased to announce the release of The University Bookman on Edmund Burke, now available for Kindle. Collecting 21 reviews, essays, and interviews from the Bookman on the life and thought of Edmund Burke, this book is only $2.99, and purchases support our ongoing work to provide an imaginative defense of the Permanent Things. (3 Mar 2015)

Other Sites of Interest

Publisher Sites


Copyright © 2007–2018 The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal