As difficult and ornery a man as Randolph was in many respects, he had one highly unusual quality: he seems to have truly detested slavery. Unlike Jefferson, Randolph even freed all of his slaves upon his death.
Although at least one biographer attributes Randolph’s dislike of slavery in part to moral qualms, it seems safe to say that his principal motivation may be ascribed to more practical concerns: he was convinced that slavery was devastating to the prosperity of the white society that harbored it.
The most well-known manifestation of Randolph’s stance came in 1803. On February 8 of that year, the House of Representatives received a petition from a convention held in Vincennes, Indiana Territory in December 1802, chaired by future president William Henry Harrison. The petition sought the suspension, for ten years, of Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery from the Territory. The petition apparently argued that the Territory was suffering from a shortage of labor and that it was necessary, for the time being, to import slaves until a sufficient white population became available.
The House referred the petition to a Select Committee headed by Randolph. The other members were Roger Griswold (Fed - CT), Robert Williams (Rep - NC), Lewis R. Morris (Fed - VT) and William Hoge (Rep - PA).
On March 2, 1803, Randolph delivered to the House the Committee’s Report, written apparently by Randolph himself, which strongly endorsed the exclusion of slavery as “wisely calculated to promote the happiness and prosperity of the Northwestern country.” It was the Committee’s view
That the rapid population of the State of Ohio sufficiently evinces, in the opinion of your Committee, that the labor of slaves is not necessary to promote the growth and settlement of colonies in that region. That this labor, demonstrably the dearest of any, can only be employed to advantage in the cultivation of products more valuable than any known to that quarter of the United States. That the committee deem it highly dangerous and inexpedient to impair a provision wisely calculated to promote the happiness and prosperity of the Northwestern country, and to give strength and security to that extensive frontier. In the salutary operation of this sagacious and benevolent restraint, it is believed that the inhabitants of Indiana will, at no very distant day, find ample remuneration for a temporary privation of labor and emigration.
For these reasons, the Committee recommended rejection of the petition:
Resolved, that it is inexpedient to suspend, for a limited time, the operation of the sixth article of compact between the original States, and the people and States west of the river Ohio.
How odd it is to think that fierce John Randolph of Roanoke played a potentially key role in preserving the free-labor status of the old Northwest. It is also worth noting that, Old Republican though Randolph was, it clearly did not occur to him that the federal government lacked the power to exclude slavery from the Territories.