Who Kicked the Dogs Out?

John Randolph of Roanoke/tiles/non-collection/1/11-14-text-johnrandolph_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Known for his Southern elegance and for his caustic wit, John Randolph of Virginia rarely faced opposition to his antics on the House Floor until Henry Clay of Kentucky assumed the Speakership in 1811.
Eccentric and quick-tempered, Virginia Representative John Randolph spent his early House service in a chamber that had quite literally gone to the dogs—his dogs, in fact. Randolph often brought his hunting dogs into the House Chamber, leaving them to lope and lounge about the floor during the session’s proceedings, much to the ire of some of his colleagues . . . especially a new Speaker of the House named Henry Clay of Kentucky.

A Member since the 6th Congress (1799—1801), Randolph held himself apart from other Representatives in a multitude of ways. He led an informal caucus referred to as the Tertium Quids (“third somethings”) who drifted between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican labels of the time. Victim of a childhood disease that left him beardless and high-voiced, Randolph wore flashy clothing, wielded a sharp tongue, and had a short fuse on the House Floor. When Representative Willis Alston of North Carolina once bitterly protested his animals’ presence, Randolph took the complaint as a personal affront. He stormed up to Congressman Alston, rapped him with his cane, and returned to his seat. The dogs stayed.

Upon Clay’s election to the Speakership at the opening of the 12th Congress (1811—1813), Randolph encountered sudden and harsh resistance to his antics on the floor. He disliked Clay early on, viewing him as an upstart who “strided [sic] from the door of the Hall as soon as he entered it to the Speaker’s Chair.” For his part, Clay—an unrepentant war hawk in the lead-up to the War of 1812—enjoyed the more energetic House to the somber Senate, where he had served two brief, partial terms already. But he drew the line at Randolph’s behavior. Unlike his predecessor Speaker Joseph Bradley Varnum of Massachusetts, Clay approached his job with a clear agenda. Whereas prior Speakers had primarily served parliamentary purposes, Clay waded into debate, exerted his influence on congressional committees, and raised the profile and prestige of the Speaker’s Office. He drove his critics in the minority to exasperation. The noted Federalist Representative Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts described him as “bold, aspiring, [and] presumptuous,” attributing his rough hold on the reins of the House to his Kentucky-bred manners.

While consolidating power early in his Speakership, Clay took a symbolic stand against one of the House’s most rowdy wildcards. A few weeks into the first session, Randolph entered the chamber trailed by one of his dogs. Clay quietly instructed longtime Doorkeeper Thomas Claxton to remove the offending animal. The Members present, including Randolph, watched silently as Claxton escorted Randolph’s dog from the House Floor, a move that seemed to please everyone but John Randolph. “Mr. R. has brought his dog into the House only once this Session,” noted Representative John Adams Harper of New Hampshire later that Congress, “and then the Speaker immediately ordered the Doorkeeper to take her out.”

Clay and Randolph engaged in a war of wits and words for many years thereafter, sparring over the War of 1812 toward which the Kentuckian steered the House and country, and the Missouri Compromise which he craftily engineered and brought to passage. Their rivalry even included a duel after Randolph, then a Senator, accused Clay, then Secretary of State, of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.” During that duel on April 8, 1826, both parties missed the target before calling a draw and shaking hands.

For sure, Randolph retained a grudge. But in bringing the House to heel, Clay sent Randolph's hounds packing once and for all.

Sources: Paul F. Boller, Jr., Congressional Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 226; David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American (New York: Random House, 2010), 87-88; Bernard Mayo, Henry Clay: Spokesman of the New West (United States: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937), 424; Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991), 82-84.