The first president of the Continental Congress was George Washington’s close friend and Thomas Jefferson’s cousin. So who was this mostly forgotten forefather, and why was he a crucial Revolutionary figure?
Randolph was 54 years old when he died from a stroke on October 22, 1775, while the Congress was in session. He was held in such high regard as a Revolutionary leader that the entire Congress ceased work to attend his funeral.
Randolph twice served as president of the Continental Congress, and he was in Philadelphia when he died suddenly. Randolph was first buried at Christ Church in Philadelphia. His body was later taken home to Virginia and interred on November 26, 1776.
The delegate from Virginia was elected unanimously as the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774. He stepped down after a month to attend to political business back in Virginia. When Congress met in a second session, Randolph was again named president. He resigned again to return to Virginia to lead the movement against the colony’s royal governor.
When Randolph came back to Congress for a third time, John Hancock kept the president’s chair while in session, while Randolph sat with the Virginia delegation. Randolph had gone to a friend’s home for a meal after Congress one night, sat down at the table, and was stricken. He passed away a few hours later.
Jefferson was Randolph’s first cousin once removed. He initially became a member of the Continental Congress when he replaced Randolph in the Second Continental Congress at its start. In later writings, Jefferson praised Randolph as a fine person, but hinted that he had health issues due to his size. "He was indeed a most excellent man," Jefferson said, but "heavy and inert in body, he was rather too indolent and careless for business." Randolph also survived a near-fatal encounter with smallpox while he was studying law in England.
Contemporary records show that Randolph was ill in early 1775, which led to Jefferson assuming his role at the Congress. Another illness delayed Randolph’s return to Congress again that summer. Randolph was part of a political dynasty in Virginia that included other Randolphs, Jefferson, and members of the Lee family. He was educated in law in England and served as the colony’s attorney general. Seen as a moderate voice, Randolph’s presence in the Revolutionary movement gave it more legitimacy.
Randolph usually headed the Virginia delegation in Congress. The British had placed him on a death list for being a radical, while Randolph’s biggest critic, Patrick Henry, said Randolph wasn’t radical enough. It was also Randolph, historians say, who started the custom of opening Congress with a prayer, a tradition that has extended to the Supreme Court.
Although Randolph didn’t live to see the Declaration of Independence come alive, he played a key role in the formation of the Continental Congress and was a patriot in every sense of the word.