Such an unspeakable crime!
The accusation was this: A blameless babe had been torn from its screaming mother's womb, either strangled or stabbed (the method of its murder had not been determined), its bleeding body hustled down the cold stairs into the still, starlit night and flung like the contents of a chamber pot onto the nearest trash pile.
The defendants were so obviously guilty that people would wonder why the great
Patrick Henry would represent such wretches. How could Henry take these monsters' money without bloodying his own hands and good name?
And Henry may well have wondered if the esteem in which he was held by his countrymen -- esteem for which he had struggled so hard for so many years - could withstand the sheer tawdriness of it all. Would he not be irretrievably dragged, along with his dishonored clients, through the muck and mire?
The girl accused of this awful deed was just eighteen -- a coldhearted young female, if the charges were true. Her family, which included the man she had been with that cold, clear September night, swore that nothing had happened. They claimed that there had been no baby born, so there had been no baby killed. They said ignorant slaves had concocted the tale, which had started in the quarters, then spread with maddening ferocity until it was whispered at every racetrack and dancing academy in Virginia.
Before the year was out, the girl had become the Jezebel of the Old Dominion, and the young man who was the alleged father had become its laughingstock. Idlers in taverns made ribald jokes at his expense; in stables and tailor shops, sons of the great planters remembered how they had danced with the little slut but swore they would never make that mistake again.
Her name was Nancy Randolph. The fetching daughter of one of the greatest of the great planters, Nancy had surely been one of the most marriageable and evidently desirable girls on the plantations, but no more. Even if she were to be exonerated of the charges, no man would ever look at her the same way again. She was ruined.
The young man's name was Richard Randolph. Richard of Bizarre, they called him,
after the plantation he owned. He had married Nancy's sister Judith. Nancy had
shown up at Bizarre, and they had taken her in. There, the gossips said, Nancy
had managed to seduce her own sister's husband and was soon pregnant. Suddenly there was hell to pay. Richard got thrown in Cumberland County jail, on charges
of murdering Nancy's baby. In mid-April, shortly after he was locked up, a messenger galloped up to Patrick Henry's plantation with a note from Richard begging the old trial lawyer to take the case and offering him 250 guineas to do so.
Richard was no doubt outraged that anyone would dare lay a hand on him, yet terrified he would hang. Henry knew the type. Richard was a Randolph, a member
of as an illustrious a clan of Virginia bluebloods as had ever looked down their aquiline noses at the likes of an upcountry tavern keeper like Patrick Henry.
For almost a century, the Randolphs had made their own rules and carried on with what ordinary folks deemed astonishing license. For as long as Henry could remember, the overbred young men of the gentry families had run amok in the slave quarters and had their way with the young ladies of their own set, and no
one had dared question it. But now that one of these haughty princelings had been called to answer for his conduct, he needed Henry to save him. Henry declined Richard's offer, but a few days later, the messenger returned with another note. Henry put on his eyeglasses, read it, and looked up at his wife.
Not much older than Henry's eldest daughter, Dorothea was a Dandridge, the daughter of Martha Washington's first cousin and, as such, irrefutable evidence
that Patrick Henry -- no matter what the Randolphs might say -- was no inconsequential backwoods demagogue.
"Dolly, Mr. Randolph seems very anxious that I should appear for him, and five
hundred guineas is a large sum," he said. "Don't you think I could make the trip in the carriage?"
Within days, Henry's one-horse gig was rattling out of the wilderness and down the trail alongside the tobacco fields, where patches of muddy bottomland extended as far as he could see. It would be this way, more or less, all the way to Cumberland Court House. Where the seedlings had begun to break through monotonous rows of mud hillocks, barefoot slaves, ankle-deep in mire, had covered the young plants with bundles of green brush; until warmer weather arrived, a frost could kill them. Once the threat of frost passed, swarms of deadly tobacco flies would descend, and then the only thing to do was send the
Negroes out to flood the fields, in hope that the flies would be washed away. If the plants survived until midsummer, worming would begin. This meant trudging along, plant by plant, row by row, usually in steamy and malarial conditions, picking off the worms by hand and mashing the odious lumps underfoot.
Forty years before, when he was not yet twenty, Henry had learned all he cared
to know about tobacco by working a small farm called Pine Slash in Hanover County, north of Richmond. The property was part of his first wife, Sallie Shelton's, dowry. There, with six slaves whom he had also received through marriage, Henry did the plowing and planting and worming himself. Today, as master of a 3,500-acre plantation, he owned close to a hundred Negroes who did
the dirty work for him.
Henry had discovered something along the way that an astonishing number of the proprietors of the great estates and inheritors of proud old Virginia names
did not yet realize or would not face: their great golden age was drawing to a
close. It was virtually impossible to make a profit in tobacco. Its price was collapsing; exports had been falling for thirty-five years and would probably continue to do so until all the great planters went broke.
Just thirty years before, when Henry was coming up in the world, people feared
the great planters. They had to doff their hats whenever they met these so-called aristocrats prancing down the road on their fine imported saddle horses, but that was changing. Now most of the big planters lived off credit
extended on the value of next year's crop, and year after year, their
precious soil was wearing out, which meant smaller and less desirable yields. And although the grandees still adorned themselves in the finest fabrics and
still furnished their mansions with Hepplewhite tea tables and Scottish carpets, nobody took them quite so seriously. Merchants no longer feared approaching them on the streets of Petersburg or Richmond in the harsh and unforgiving light of midday to demand payment for goods their servants had carted off weeks before.
The great estates -- cracked windowpanes, falling-down fences and all -- had
begun to reflect the precarious foundation of the planters' putative wealth. Even their churches seemed all but abandoned as folks flocked to new ones in the woods, where they cringed in fear of God and sought His healing hand with a fervor unheard of in the bloodless murmurings of the Randolphs' English church. Nowadays, more and more men like Henry, who had not studied at the Inns of Court but had read their Bibles, were practicing law, entering politics, and questioning the way things had been done in Virginia for the past hundred years.
Convinced that dependence on tobacco would bankrupt a man, Henry grew wheat and
other grains at his plantation where the soil was so rich that folks said he
could feed everybody in the county. He had become one of the largest landholders in Virginia, owning huge tracts in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia, and he had grown richer than some of the grandees who scorned him. But he knew you could never be rich enough, especially when you were the father of sixteen children and had scores of Africans to feed and clothe, so he still practiced law when his health would allow it, the price was right and the case offered him the opportunity to advance himself. The prospect of extricating the Randolphs from the mess they had gotten themselves into surely gratified the still ambitious old man. For most of Henry's life, the Randolphs had been the most important family in Virginia, and because Virginia had been the largest and richest of the colonies, many people considered the Randolphs the most important family in America.
Energetic and industrious men, the Randolphs had come to the sandy shores of the Chesapeake and built their baronial manor houses in primeval wilderness. They had cleared vast stretches of fertile acreage, chased off the Indians and put African slaves to work in the fields. In what seemed an instant, they had established a civilization on a single cash crop three thousand miles from supplies of the manufactured goods on which they relied. The great manor houses had not gone up until the 1700s, scarcely a century before. Rome might not have been built in a day, but Virginia was, and for a great many years Randolphs ran it, as Henry had discovered when he was still a young man.
Shortly after Henry's first failure at farming, he showed up in Williamsburg still wearing the linsey-woolsey of the backwoodsman, seeking a license to practice law. He was directed to Tazewell Hall, an estate on the edge of town, to be examined by its master, one John Randolph, the king's attorney and son of a colonist of the same name who, a generation earlier, had pleaded the cause of
Virginia tobacco planters before the British Crown.
For what seemed like hours, John of Tazewell Hall bombarded the tavern keeper with questions on every aspect of the common law, the more abstruse the better. When the interrogation was complete (or Randolph tired of the game), he waggled his head back and forth, chuckled, and swore he would never trust appearances again. He dipped his quill pen into ink, signed the parchment that would serve as Henry's law license and affixed his seal.
By the time Henry was thirty-five, he was a member of the House of Burgesses, an orator whose power was recognized throughout the colonies and a lawyer with a brisk practice. He was also master of Scotchtown, a plantation as impressive as any in Virginia, but he still refused to live like a grandee. Henry covered
his floors with animal skins, in the manner of an honest farmer.
Henry did not like to think about Scotchtown, however. His family -- Sallie Shelton had borne him six children by the time they moved to the plantation -- had lived there from 1771 until 1778. Henry did not spend as much time at home as Sallie would have liked, but those were busy years, and things are never perfect in any family.
In 1772, after giving birth to her sixth child, Sallie became deeply melancholic and, finally, violent. For the next three years, Henry confined her to a room in the basement. In time she was strapped down to prevent her from harming others and herself, and she was attended day and night by a slave woman. When Sallie died in 1775, at the age of thirty-seven, Henry stashed away everything that reminded him of his loss, put Scotchtown up for sale and found a new wife. She was the daughter of Nathaniel Dandridge, one of the leading men of Hanover County. In 1777, when Henry married her, Dorothea was twenty-two, the same age as his own son John.
Less than a month after the marriage, John, who was a captain in the American
army, was walking across the field of battle after the victory at Saratoga. Recognizing the faces of his friends among the dead, the boy snapped his sword into pieces, flung it to the ground and, as Henry was told, went "raving mad." In September of 1778, General Washington wrote to Henry enclosing a letter, still unopened, that Henry had written to his son. The boy's "ill state of Health," the general wrote, "obliged him to quit the service about three months past. I therefore return you the letter."
Whether Henry knew it or not, the young man's miseries appear to have started well before he saw his comrades littering the ground at Saratoga. When his father began to court Dorothea, what might have happened did happen. John fell in love with the young woman, and it no doubt unhinged him when his own father
Henry would need to bear in mind how vexing family affections could be as he prepared to defend Nancy Randolph and her alleged paramour. Perhaps people were being unfair to this young woman. Henry had made his share of compromises as he
rose in the world, but there was still something in him of the idealistic stripling who read the law when trade was slow at his father-in-law's tavern. He had been moved by injustice then, and no matter how far he had cone in the world and how rich he had grown, he could be moved by injustice still.
Perhaps this girl -- for she was not much more than a child when the scandal erupted -- was the victim of an unscrupulous brother-in-law. Perhaps she really was innocent. Who, at this point, could say?
Henry would know more when he reached Cumberland Court House. John Marshall had also agreed to appear for the defense, and they would interrogate witnesses, compare notes and ready their case. There were a great many questions to answer. What had led to this horrendous mess? What really had happened that night? Who was this girl?
Copyright © 2000 by Alan Pell Crawford