'With gangly arms and a small head'

Published:December 3, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

John Randolph [Library of Congress LC-USZ62-49169]

Some historians are particularly good at sketching characters. Case in point: David S. Reynolds, author of the just-released Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. (Read a review.)

Here he distinguishes the two Virginians, Monroe and Madison:

Whereas Madison (the smallest president in American history) stood five feet five and weighed only a hundred pounds, Monroe was over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a massive frame. Monroe, who had frank gray-blue eyes, was plodding and pragmatic, as opposed to Madison, known for his rapid mind and wide-ranging intellect.

On Old Man Eloquent, John Quincy Adams, Reynolds defers to Emerson: “He is no literary old gentleman,” Emerson observed, “but a bruiser, & loves the mêlée. He is an old roué who cannot live on slops, but must have sulphuric acid in his tea.”

From a biographer of Andrew Jackson we get this: “He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged round his little, dim enclosure like a tiger in a den.”

Emerson again on the great Bay State orator Daniel Webster: He was “a great cannon loaded to the lips” whose words were “like blows of an axe” and “as real as a blast furnace.”

South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, meanwhile, was “the cast-iron man who looks as if he had never been born, and never could be extinguished.” (That’s according to Harriet Martineau.)

My favorite description, though, is of the U.S. senator from Virginia, John Randolph:

The cantankerous Randolph veered between brilliance and ridiculousness. Over six feet tall, with gangly arms and a small head, he typically wore an oversized coat that hung to the top of his white boots. He would stride into the Senate wearing spurs and carrying a horsewhip, trailed by a hunting hound who curled up under his desk. Part Native American (he claimed to be descended from Pocahontas) he was paradoxically both anglophile and pro-Southern. In a high squeaky voice, he delivered rambling speeches that sometimes lasted ten hours. Every fifteen minutes or so he paused to swig from a glass of malt liquor or a brandy-and-water concoction; he could go through several quarts in an afternoon. Well lubricated, he lambasted his enemies with abandon.

I’ll bet he did. The story of his duel with Henry Clay is one for the ages.

IMAGE: Click on the image above to see the gangly-armed Randolph.