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Early Life

Jonathan Bryan was born in 1806 off the coast of Georgia, on one of the barrier islands owned by his father, Joseph Bryan. Joseph Bryan was a close friend of Congressman John Randolph of Virginia. Joseph named John Randolph guardian of his two sons, Thomas and Jonathan, shortly before he died in 1812, when Jonathan was just six years old. The two boys went to Virginia where they were schooled under the supervision of John Randolph. Jonathan changed his name to John Randolph Bryan. He was called Randolph. The following notes on Randolph Bryan’s life were written by his youngest son, Corbin Braxton Bryan.

I met a very old clergyman in Danville in 1881, the Rev. William Page, who was very deaf . When he heard my name he said, “Are you a son of Randolph Bryan? I went to school in Charlotte County with your father and your Uncle Tom when they were little fellows. They were hard boys I tell you! And great fighters! They could take care of themselves.”

It was just as well that they could. Their father was dead, their mother in Georgia. Their old friend Mr. Randolph was kind to them, whatever others may at times have found him, but he was in Congress from whence he would now and then head his letters to them as “From Babel.” It was well for them that they were strong and independent. Certainly the situation did not supply an ideal training for an imperious wilful hotheaded boy. I suppose it was some boyish difficulty at the time which came to his Mr. Randolph’s ears and led to a bit of characteristic advice.

Bryan Manuscript“My son, if anyone insults you and you can for the love of God forgive him, always do it. But take care sir never to mistake the fear of man for the love of God.”

Father was a fine swimmer, and when he was at Yale College undertook on a wager to swim across a sheet of water of considerable width against wind and tide. The other party to the bet was to follow or meet him with his clothes. But it seems this one had no idea the feat would be accomplished, and when he saw that he would lose his bet, went off leaving young Bryan to finish the course alone, and what was worse, in his exhausted condition to get back as best he could to his starting place. When all was done he was so impressed with the folly of his own action and the meanness of his opponent that he never spoke to him or claimed the stake.

Father’s ship, the Peacock, was struck by lightning on his first voyage. His boat was lifted upon a whale’s back and played with like a toy in Calao Harbour. He crossed and recrossed the Andes at three passes, and in South America he saw great mountains, condors, silver mines, Indians, Spaniards, and sea fights. He told of terrible weather and dreary weeks around Cape Horn, with small pox on board, and of the glorious sky and sea and lands he saw while in the Mediterranean.

Very much no doubt he left untold! Now and then hints would fall which would lead us to infer that, in the language of the plantation, he had carried a wide row in his youth, especially when in the navy.

I remember the very spot in the road where we were driving one day. The horse was going his own gait, and Father was in a brown study. All at once he said out loud in a tone of intense anxiety and deprecation which evidently marked a crisis, “O Captain! O Captain! You are jesting with me!” Then he came to, gathered up the reins, which he always held like a fishing line, and drove on. By and by I asked him what that remark referred to. “Never you mind, sir.”

Though I referred to it again after long intervals, and he invariably recognized the subject, he never would tell that story. But a letter turned up in an old trunk at Cousin Ada’s in New Jersey and was brought down to Virginia by his granddaughter Bessie Grinnan. The letter, from Mr. Randolph to his mother, gives a circumstantial account of a duel he fought in ‘24. Here is the letter:

Sunday March 26, 1824

My Dear Madam,

In passing Old Point Comfort yesterday I boarded the Peacock, but your son had been sent to the fort in the boat. And while I was waiting for his return Captain Carter briefly informed me of (what I had never heard a syllable of before) his late rencontre with Midshipman Doyle.

Randolph acted rashly but honorably, and Captain C. has had them separated, D. being sent to the West India Station. R. was quarantined for five weeks, and on his inquiring of Capt. C. “Why he was not permitted to go ashore,” he was answered that he had disobeyed the regulations of the ship in going ashore without leave or orders.

Captain C. mentioned nothing of the duel to R., who had shot off the butt of his adversary’s pistol, and himself escaped unhurt. Mr. Doyle’s right hand was severely wounded. Captain C. is a particular acquaintance of mine. He spoke in the handsomest of terms of your son, who he said required only severe discipline to become a valuable officer.

Before my furlough had expired Randolph came on board, and I had the gratification to shake him by the hand. He was much affected by the interview. But few words could pass between us. The frigate was under way, and I returned to the steamboat while she bore down for the Capes and went to sea. I have barely time to write this note.

Sincerely yours,
J.R. of R.

P.S. to JR’s letter to Mrs. Bryan: He is much grown and improved in person since 1822. You perceive that R. makes no mention of the trip to North Carolina with Doyle in the letter which I sent you. I am on my way to Richmond to see after 47 hogs heads of my tobacco that have been lost, but shall return in the next boat to Washington. The Peacock will touch at Rio.

Some boats had originally been built for harbour and inland water protection during the war of 1812. Mr. Randolph had thought very poorly of the scheme at the time, and had such contemptuous antipathy to the boats that he had said he believed they would do him a personal injury. And so it turned out, when the war was over, and they had been converted into freight boats. One or more of them sunk with 47 hogsheads of his tobacco. Next

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