J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The situation of my wife was very alarming”

In February 1790, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) became the first attorney general of the U.S. of A.

As a young lawyer, Randolph had been one of Gen. George Washington’s first aides de camp to during the siege of Boston. He didn’t stay long, however. The death of his uncle Peyton Randolph in October 1775 took him back to Virginia to manage family affairs.

The next year, Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas. He remained in Virginia during the war, serving in political posts, and won a term as governor in 1786.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Randolph declined to sign the document. Nonetheless, as chair of his state’s ratifying convention, Randolph convinced some fellow skeptics to vote for the document while hoping for amendments.

President Washington pressed Randolph to join him in setting up the federal government in New York. Randolph started work as attorney general, then returned to his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to fetch his family. On 10 March, he wrote back to a fellow Virginian in the capital, James Madison:
After a fatiguing journey we arrived here on sunday evening, when I found all my family well, except my wife, who, I fear, is incumbered with a dead fœtus of more than seven months old. I am endeavouring to ward off by medical aid the consequences of this event. She is now in good spirits, and therefore I trust, that the mischief will not be fatal.
Five days later, the attorney general wrote with more anxiety about Elizabeth Randolph:
When I came home, I found my family in a really deplorable condition. Not to mention my children, most of whom were sick, the situation of my wife was very alarming. She gave every symptom of a painful and dangerous abortion being at hand. It is now a fortnight since she was first confined to her room, and every appearance grows more and more critical. It is almost certain, that the fœtus, now about six months old, is dead.
At this time “abortion” meant what we call a miscarriage; it could be either natural or induced. [I came across these letters while searching for what the correspondents on Founders Online had to say about what we call abortion.]

Randolph had something else on his mind: what would Washington think of his extended absence? And how to tell him?
Altho’ I know your readiness to sympathize with me, I should not have troubled you with this detail, were it not for a wish, that the outlines of it should be conveyed to the ears of the president. I would write to him; but the subject does not become an official letter, to be filed away in the public archives; and a private letter, does not seem adviseable, when the design is to premonish him of the cause of any delay, which may occur in my return. But I do not mean by this, that it is improbable that my return should be by the stipulated day; for if an abortion should take place, or there is a likelihood of a mature delivery, or in short if my absence would not precipitate her death I shall leave home, without any hesitation, that my family may follow in the summer.

I feel this request, not a little awkward to me, by being perhaps not less so to you. But the peculiarity of my situation will, I hope, apologize for the intrusion. Let me have a single line from you, as soon as you receive this.
But no response came for weeks.

TOMORROW: Madison’s advice at last.

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