“Return to your Family & indeed to yourself”: The American Revolution of One Virginia Family

On this date in 1775, John Randolph, a Virginia loyalist, wrote his final extant letter to his patriot son, Edmund.  This letter is remarkable in several ways, not least for the pathos that pervades it.  Edmund had turned 22 only two days before but was already well on his way to Massachusetts to join George Washington’s staff as aide-de-camp, recommended by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee. Edmund’s new life, tied so closely to that of the new nation, eventually lead to the first President’s cabinet as America’s first Attorney General and second Secretary of State.  But in 1775, that was all just beginning as the old world of his family was collapsing–they were readying themselves to depart Virginia for London and uncertainty. The only member of his family whom Edmund would ever see again was his youngest sister, Ariana, who returned to Virginia with their father’s body in the spring of 1784. His sister, Susanna (one traveler in 1775 recorded her and her sister as “the two greatest beautys in America”), died in London in 1791. His mother, also called Ariana, was buried with Susanna, her husband, and her children, at St. Mary Abbott’s in Kensington in 1801 (buried with Ariana was also the mystery of a lost correspondence of more than 20 missing letters between her and Thomas Jefferson written in the last decade of her life). Their story after they left Williamsburg reflects the high expectations and dashed hopes of many loyalists.

The language of the letter exudes a sense of desperation. It is full of spelling mistakes, crossed-out words, and insertions. Whatever the reasons for the sloppiness of the text, this was clearly not an easy letter for the 48-year-old John Randolph to write, in the midst of the greatest personal and public struggle of his life.

My dear Edmund,

I wrote you a long letter recommended to the care of Mr Willing at Philadelphia, wherein I pointed out my Reasons why I thought your military undertaking will not suit your situation or be so advantageous to you as residing in Wmburg. Your Uncle we hear is dangerously ill at Richmond. His Legs swell very much, & his asthma increases. It is thought his Duration here will be but short. You should never be out of the way when so much depends on your Presence. I shall certainly go to Engld with my Family before October. I want you very much to take my Place at the Capitol. His Majesty will provide for me at Home & you may certainly get into my Office. I propose selling all my Estate both real & personal at the next meeting in October. You have often told me that you wd relinquish your Legacy given by Mr Jennings. As an equivalent I shall give you the full Contents of my Study, & propose giving my Bonds for the Remainder. I have appointed yourself & Uncle my Trustees for selling my Estate & shall join Mr Blair with you. Consider what an honorable & advantageous outset you will make in the Law. Is not the Glory of the Cabinet equal to that of the Field? Is not this better than broken Limbs, fatigue, Shatterd Health, & an eternal want of money? For God’s sake return to your Family & indeed to yourself Abandon not your Sisters who are wretched about you, Come back & Heaven will protect all your Undertakings.

August 12. 1775  I am your affect. & afflicted Father J. Randolph

[Misc. Mss of Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan, CW Rock microfilm M-1031]