The Men Behind Our Name
by Meredith Minter, class of 1984
R-MWC. The letters are so familiar that they blur into a name, the signature of a red-brick college in Lynchburg. Indeed, most of us, when we think "R-M," mean our own school and nothing more. Actually, though, R-M is the College's family name; it once designated a whole network of colleges and prep schools. Only the "W," a mark of cadence, is our own.So, to learn R-M's source, we must go back to 1830, sixty years before our school was thought of. In that year, on the thirteenth of January, a bill was proposed in the House of Delegates for the creation of "Henry and Macon College." By the time it got out of committee, it had become the unhyphenated "Randolph Macon College," doubtless by way of "Randolph and Macon."
Who, then, were Randolph and Macon, that trustees should name a college for them? Both congressmen, they were as different as two close friends could be. Macon was sober, silent, methodical and diplomatic; his younger colleague was flamboyant and uncompromising, and more than a little strange. Macon spent years as Speaker of the House, unobtrusively and competently exerting great power. Randolph, for a time House Majority Leader, contributed the not inconsiderable resources of his wit to a cause not only lost but non-existent—the preservation of an English class system in America. He probably did more to destroy the causes he favored than his opponents did. He had, by the end of his life, very few friends among his colleagues. But Nathaniel Macon was one of them.
Macon's career was precocious but uneventful. He never graduated from college—thanks to the Revolution—but then, he didn't need to. At 21, he became a state senator. At 31, he was within a year of becoming a freshman Congressman. At 41, he was Speaker of the House. His quiet competence probably did more to consolidate the new legislature than anyone else's, and in the 10 years before his Speakership, only once did the Speaker feel compelled to call him to order—which may easily be a record. He has been called "the Father of the House."
Most of the things Randolph has been called are unprintable. His incisive, cynical speeches were disconcerting even in college. He, too, never graduated, but his reason was different—he was expelled from William and Mary for fighting a duel. At 25, he debated the venerable Patrick Henry at Charlotte Courthouse; at 26 he became a Congressman.
There, in the House, he met Macon, who was then beginning his third term. There also, some years later, he met with political corruption, and his horror at its prevalence, trumpeted through the penny press, shattered the election hopes of his own party. From then on, though he was nominally a Republican, neither side cared to own him. He was a party unto himself for 40 years.
So why were these men chosen? Neither was Methodist. As one J. K. Paulding once said, "the life and character of Mr. Macon young men may safely make the objects of their imitation throughout," but, he was compelled to add, "Mr. Randolph is rather a subject of admiration and wonder."
Perhaps, as Macon's biographer Dodd suggests, it was a combination of precedent and proximity—most important Virginia colleges, at least of that day, were named for important men, and Randolph and Macon were residents of nearby counties. Cornelius suggests a further reason: both men were elderly, rich, and heirless. But any hopes of inheritance went unrewarded, though Macon went so far as to endorse the college to the young men of his district.
It is irrelevant but tempting to end this column with a sample of Randolph rebuttal, which, though it sounds apocryphal, apparently really happened. It seems Randolph was on a narrow sidewalk in Washington when his chief political opponent came up to him. "I never give way to scoundrels," the man proclaimed loudly, blocking the path.
Oh, but I always do!" Randolph responded, and stepped promptly into the street.
Originally published in The Sundial on September 10, 1982 (Vol. 67, no. 1, p. 3)
This article is taken from "The Past Master," a column written by Meredith Minter Dixon, class of 1984, for the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student newspaper, The Sundial. It is published here with her permission.
Mrs. Dixon has written an invaluable multi-volume set, Maconiana: A Social History of Randolph-Macon Woman's College. For additional information, please visit her author's page on Amazon.
Please contact Mrs. Dixon (dixonm at pobox dot com) if you have comments or questions about her articles.