Peyton Randolph – Continental Congressman – Virginia


Peyton Randolph (September 10, 1721 – October 22, 1775) was a planter and public official from the Colony of Virginia. He served as speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, chairman of the Virginia Conventions, and the first President of the Continental Congress.

==Early life==

Randolph was born in Tazewell Hall, Williamsburg, Virginia to a prominent family. His parents were Sir John Randolph, the son of William Randolph, and Susannah Beverley, the daughter of Peter Beverley; his brother was John Randolph. His father died when he was 16.

Randolph attended the College of William and Mary, and later studied law at Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London, becoming a member of the bar in 1743.

==Political career==

Randolph returned to Williamsburg after he became a member of the bar, and was appointed Attorney General of the Colony of Virginia the next year.

He served several terms in the Virginia House of Burgesses, beginning in 1748. It was Randolph’s dual roles as attorney general and as burgess that would lead to an extraordinary conflict of interest in 1751.

The new governor, Robert Dinwiddie, had imposed a fee for the certification of land patents, which the House of Burgesses strongly objected to. The House selected Peyton Randolph to represent their cause to Crown authorities in London. In his role as attorney general, though, he was responsible for defending actions taken by the governor. Randolph left for London, over the objections of Governor Dinwiddie, and was replaced for a short time as attorney general by George Wythe. Randolph resumed his post on his return at the behest of Wythe as well as officials in London, who also recommended the Governor drop the new fee.

In 1765 Randolph found himself at odds with a freshman burgess, Patrick Henry, over the matter of a response to the Stamp Act. The House appointed Randolph to draft objections to the act, but his more conservative plan was trumped when Henry obtained passage of five of his seven Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions. This was accomplished at a meeting of the House in which most of the members were absent, and over which Randolph was presiding in the absence of the Speaker.

Randolph resigned as king’s attorney (attorney general) in 1766, as fellow Burgesses elected him as their Speaker upon the death of his relative, the powerful Speaker John Robinson. Sitting as the General Court, they also appointed Randolph one of the executors (with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton) of the former speaker’s estate, which was a major financial scandal. As friction between Britain and the colonies progressed, Randolph grew to favor independence. In 1769 the House of Burgesses was dissolved by the Governor in response to its actions against the Townshend Acts. Randolph was thus its last Speaker. Afterwards, Randolph chaired meetings of a group of former House members, principally at a Williamsburg tavern, which worked toward responses to the unwelcome tax measures imposed by the British government. In 1773, he chaired the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, and on March 21, 1775 he chaired a meeting in Richmond that debated independence (the site of Patrick Henry’s famous “give me liberty” speech). A few months later, Randolph negotiated with Lord Dunmore for gunpowder removed from the Williamsburg arsenal.

Virginia selected Randolph as one of its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774 and 1775. Fellow delegates elected him their President (Speaker) of both the First Continental Congress (which requested that King George III repeal the Coercive Acts) as well as Second Continental Congress (which extended the Olive Branch Petition as a final attempt at reconciliation). However, Randolph fell ill during each term. Henry Middleton of South Carolina succeeded him as President from his resignation on October 22, 1774 until his return on May 10, 1775. Randolph suffered a fit of apoplexy and died in Philadelphia on October 22, eventually succeeded by John Hancock of Massachusetts as President of the Continental Congress.

==Death and legacy==

His remains were returned to Williamsburg, where they remain in the chapel of the College of William and Mary. Because the Continental Congress assumed governmental duties for the American colonies as a whole, such as appointing ambassadors, some consider Randolph to have been the first President of the United States, even though he died before the Declaration of Independence.

The Continental Congress honored their late speaker by naming one of the first frigates for him (USS Randolph (1776)), as well as a crucial fort at the junction of the Ohio and Kanawa Rivers (Fort Randolph (West Virginia)). Randolph County, North Carolina and Randolph County, Indiana were named to honor the colonial statesman.

More recently, during World War II, the early (Essex-Class) Aircraft Carrier USS Randolph (CV-15) was named for Peyton Randolph. Furthermore, the Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

==Notable relatives==

* His wife (m. March 8, 1745/1746) Elizabeth “Betty” Harrison (Berkeley Plantation, Charles City County, Virginia, c. 1723 – Williamsburg, Virginia, January 31, 1783) was the sister of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
* His nephew, Peyton Randolph, of Wilton (Virginia, unknown – Virginia, May 16, 1784) was a Major in the American Revolution and aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette and married (May 1775) his first cousin Lucy Harrison (Berkeley Plantation, Charles City County, Virginia – Staunton, Virginia, September 1809).
* His nephew, Edmund Randolph, became the first United States Attorney General.
* His first cousin once removed was President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. was a lineal descendant of Pocahontas.
* His first cousin twice removed was Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.
* His niece Lucy Grymes married Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson Jr. Her first cousin once removed, also named Lucy Grymes, married Henry Lee II (who was in fact Peyton Randolph’s first cousin once removed), and was the mother of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who was the father of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee.
* He is also related to the Confederate Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Edmund Jennings Lee, Nelson Pendelton Lee, and Richard L. Page; and to US Admiral Samuel P. Lee.
* Confederate General John Pegram married Hetty Cary, a paternal cousin to the Randolphs. She was also a lineal descendant of Pocahontas.