Randolph's Predicament

The following is taken from The Whiskey Rebellion by Thomas P. Slaughter, 1986, by Oxford University Press:

At nine o'clock on Wednesday morning, August 19, 1795, Secretary of State Edmund Randolph was on his way to the President's house. Randolph was stopped on the street by Washington's steward who delivered the message that the scheduled meeting had been postponed until later in the day. When Randolph returned at the appointed hour, he found Washington, Timothy Pickering, and Oliver Wolcott waiting for him. The President was curt with his old friend and asked him to read and interpret a letter that he drew from his pocket. Randolph unfolded the large paper and began to read French Minister Joseph Fauchet's dispatch number ten to his home government, dated October 31, 1794. The letter purported to analyze the underlying causes of the Whiskey Rebellion, and to explain the "repressive means" employed by the American government to crush the insurgency. At points the dispatch asserted, and in others it seemed to imply, that Randolph was the source for the information that it contained. It portrayed Washington as the puppet of Anglophilic ministers (most notably Alexander Hamilton) who despised the citizenry and who had monarchical ambitions for the President. The letter intimated that the government consciously provoked violence in the western country, magnified the danger to the republic, and used the occasion as an excuse for assaulting the administration's political enemies. The dispatch also referred to two other letters-numbers three and six-that were not included with the document that Randolph was reading for the first time.

When the Secretary of State had finished his perusal and initial analysis of the letter's content, President Washington invited the other men present to ask questions. At this point, Randolph perceived that more was amiss than he had detected from a quick reading of the dispatch. He was deeply offended by Washington's manner, and by the President's handling of this initial inquiry with others present in the room. "I came to this conclusion," Randolph later recalled; "if the President had not been worked up to prejudge the case, he would not have acted in a manner so precipitate in itself, and so injurious and humiliating to me." Under the circumstances, Randolph saw no recourse for himself but immediate resignation from the cabinet and the publication of a vindication of his conduct.

Randolph did not interpret the letter as implicating him in improper communications with a foreign minister; and he was incensed by the charge that he had solicited a bribe. Randolph read Fauchet's correspondence as overstating the confidential relationship between the two men, but not as claiming that the Secretary of State had compromised either himself or his government. Randolph's political foes, among whom he now counted the President, understood it differently, though, and discovered evidence within Fauchet's obscure prose that Randolph sought aid for the rebels and attempted to enrich himself in the process. Fauchet and Randolph certainly had different recollections of their conversation on August 5, 1794, at the height of the administration's concern over the Rebellion. They agreed, however, that Randolph had sought to diminish rather than increase the chances for civil war. Fauchet remembered that Randolph sought money to pay informants knowledgeable about Great Britain's role in the affair. Randolph recalled vaguely only a suggestion that Fauchet pursue their mutual suspicions about the British, and share the information with the United States. Randolph was convinced that Fauchet embellished the story to impress his superiors about his influence among American ministers of state; he was certain that political enemies within the administration-and also outside it, now that Alexander Hamilton was retired from office-purposefully misconstrued the dispatches to bring about his political ruin.

In retrospect, it seems that Randolph was probably indiscreet in his conversations with the French minister, but no more so than Hamilton had been in his long relationship with British Ambassador George Hammond. Randolph, however, got caught by his political enemies. The proposition that Randolph solicited a bribe appears absurd. There is no evidence within the dispatches to support the charge, and Fauchet did not even imply that Randolph sought to profit financially from their relationship. Nonetheless, the political atmosphere was such that anything seemed possible. And Washington's fears for the nation, and distrust of his political foes, had reached new heights in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion. Randolph believed, and probably rightly, that the President became enraged by rumors that Randolph was actively campaigning for Thomas Jefferson's succession to the presidency. Washington's suspicion of his Secretary of State's personal loyalty, a mistrust confirmed by Fauchet's dispatches, was enough to require Randolph's resignation from the administration. Randolph had not shared Washington's and Hamilton's enthusiasm for armed repression of the Rebellion, and now the President thought he understood why.

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