Tucker was born and raised in Bermuda, where half the population was enslaved. He moved to Virginia in 1772, around age nineteen, to attend the College of William and Mary and study law under the direction of, one of the colony’s foremost legal minds. (Wythe had also tutored in the .) During the American Revolution, Tucker brought salt and gunpowder from Bermuda for the troops and served in the Virginia militia. He set up a legal practice in Petersburg after the war and was appointed to the General Court in 1788. In 1790, he took up Wythe’s law professorship while maintaining his position on the bench.
Tucker began to research and write his Dissertation in 1795, and it took him more than a year to complete. He began by corresponding with Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a clergyman and historian whom Tucker hoped could tell him how Massachusetts had managed the peaceful. Belknap passed along the professor’s questions to a number of prominent correspondents. Several of them noted that the end of slavery came not with a formal decree, but with the interpretation—or in the view of one correspondent, James Winthrop, the “misconstruction”—of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. That document declares: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.” Belknap synthesized these various responses into a report.
In replying to this report, Tucker in effect provided a draft for his Dissertation on Slavery. He included in his response a plan of abolition that he thought his fellow Virginians might accept. By proposing a slow-moving course of action, Tucker hoped that he could convince the world—as he wrote in a letter to Belknap in 1795—”that the existence of slavery in this country is no longer to be deemed a reproach to the present generation.”
Tucker begins the essay by noting the “incompatibility” of slavery with the natural rights principles of the American Revolution. He therefore finds it impossible to justify the enslavement of black people “unless we first degrade them below the rank of human beings, not only politically, but also physically and morally.” Unwilling to take this step, Tucker argues that the time had come to accept the “moral truth” of the wrongness of slavery.
This assertion of modern natural rights seems a singularly inauspicious ground from which to defend slavery, but Tucker manages to do just that. He begins with an appeal to the right of self-preservation. The “recent history of the French West Indies”—referring to the slave revolt that began in Haiti in 1791 and led to Haitian independence in 1804—indicated the disastrous results that might follow large-scale emancipation. Employing the information he acquired from his correspondence with members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Tucker notes that mass abolition had only proven successful in those states with a low ratio of slaves to free people. According to Tucker, Virginia had too high a ratio of slaves to free people. In some parts of the state “it is probable that there are four slaves for one free white man.” He argues that under such conditions, full-scale emancipation would produce famine at best and race war at worst.
With these considerations in mind, Tucker sets forth a very complicated plan of gradual emancipation. He pitches it as a revised version of gradual emancipation plans used in several northern states. First, all females born to slaves would serve twenty-eight-year indentures, after which their employers would give them twenty dollars and two suits of clothes. Children born to those serving such indentures must “be bound to service by the overseers of the poor, until they shall attain the age of twenty-one years.” This same agency would receive 15 percent of their wages when hired out for the short term, and 10 percent of their wages if they received an apprenticeship lasting for a year or more. If the master refused to pay freedom wages upon the arrival of the twenty-eighth year, he would have to pay the court a five-dollar fee.
Tucker’s plan denied freed slaves their basic civil liberties, including the right to keep weapons, to serve on juries, to testify against or marry white people, or even to write a will. Tucker justifies this course of action in the same way he had justified the continuance of slavery: by employing natural rights arguments and by noting the dangers created by the Haitian Revolution. Tucker argues that when dealing with people entering “into a state of society,” those already in the society have a right to “admit or exclude” anyone they wish. Thus he finds it consonant with natural rights to deny freed slaves the basic rights of citizens. He argues that the “recent scenes transacted” in Haiti “are enough to make one shudder with the apprehension of realizing similar calamities in this country.” Finding it impossible to propose a plan of emancipation that does not “either encounter, or accommodate [it]self to prejudice,” Tucker proposes a course that would negotiate what he saw as an acceptable mean between the evils of slavery and a mass emancipation that would “turn loose a numerous, starving, and enraged banditti upon the innocent descendants of their former oppressors.”
By restricting the civil liberties of freed slaves, Tucker hoped that he might encourage them to leave the state. “There is an immense unsettled territory on this continent more congenial to their natural constitutions than ours,” he writes, “where they may perhaps be received upon more favourable terms than we can permit them to remain with us.” Tucker saw the right to property as a natural right, but he doubted that the slave owner had a property right to an unborn child; besides, he argues, the planter would get at least fourteen years of good labor out of every slave born on his plantation. Tucker thought that his plan would win over skeptical slave owners. He enumerates the most surprising features of it: “the number of slaves will not be diminished for forty years after it takes place; that it will even increase for thirty years; that at the distance of sixty years, there will be one-third of the number at its first commencement; that it will require above a century to complete it; and that the number of blacks under twenty-eight, and consequently bound to service, in the families they are born in, will always be at least as great, as the present number of slaves.”
Tucker, who published his 106-page essay in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, submitted a copy to the General Assembly in 1796. The House of Delegates quickly tabled it. Members of the Senate, having no power to propose legislation, saw the essay as less of a threat, and responded with a polite letter noting that they had received it. In a letter to Belknap in 1797, Tucker cites “mistaken self-interest and prejudice” as the primary enemies of the plan, and he tried “to elude, rather than invite, their attacks.” The effort failed; his essay remained virtually unknown. “Nobody, I believe has read it,” he complained to Belknap; “nobody could explain its contents.” Even if they had read it, Tucker doubted that anyone in the assembly would have been willing to take a stand on its behalf. That body was “split into factions, debating upon federal politics, and neither side probably wished to weaken its own influence by a division of sentiment among its partizans on any point whatever.”
Tucker also sent a copy of the Dissertation to Thomas Jefferson. The future president agreed with Tucker on both the means of emancipation and the urgency of the question. According to Jefferson, history would decide the question of emancipation for itself, regardless of the answer given by the slave owners. Jefferson believed that the consequences of failing to plan for emancipation would be disastrous. He saw all of America and Europe as ripe for insurrection, but he noted that only the southern states had to concern themselves with slave uprisings, which “a single spark” could produce at any time. If such an uprising were to come, Jefferson held out little hope that the other states would be of any assistance in putting it down.
Many scholars have emphasized the connection between Tucker’s Dissertation and the ideology of natural rights. In All Honor to Jefferson? The Virginia Slavery Debates and the Positive Good Thesis (2008), Erik S. Root sees Tucker’s essay as evidence of the seriousness and consistency with which the Founding Fathers took these ideas. Similarly, the historian Phillip Hamilton, in an article published in 1998, argued that, “Tucker sought a middle ground on which to reconcile liberalism’s twin beliefs in basic human equality and the sanctity of all property.” In other words, Tucker wanted to find a way to end slavery without defrauding any creditors. Hamilton also places Tucker’s Dissertation in the context of a movement away from landed property as the basis of elite power in Virginia. Instead of this traditional mode of social organization, Tucker tried to base his independence on professional training for himself and his children.
In an article published in 2006, the legal historian Paul Finkelman assigns both praise and blame to Tucker’s Dissertation. On the one hand, “No other southerner of his generation offered a concrete proposal for ending slavery.” On the other hand, Tucker presented “a recipe for creating a permanent peasantry that Virginia’s landowners could exploit perpetually.” Tucker did so, however, in the hope that his proposal would “make Virginia a white person’s state in the long run.” Finkelman argues that if Tucker had followed this ideology through to conclusion he would have realized that a black peasantry also presented a threat to the self-preservation of white Virginians. “The peasants would provide more expensive labor but would not provide much greater safety.” Specifically, Virginia elites would find it easier to control slaves than they would to control a dispossessed class of free people.
Historians have long noted other ironies of this type surrounding the Dissertation. Winthrop Jordan, for instance, recognized Tucker’s essay as “startlingly portentous.” Tucker had called for a plan of emancipation that would take one hundred years. “A century later the Negro was free,” Jordan wrote in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro (1968), “and in many areas of the South in a condition which, in an informal way, materially resembled the one he proposed.” Tucker thus made the point that natural rights do not always lead to civil rights, a lesson that has proved a bitter pill for Americans. Similarly, the historian Gordon S. Wood has noticed the unintended consequences of the natural rights critique of slavery. It forced those who defended slavery to couch their position in racial terms. In Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009), Wood argues, therefore, that, “The anti-slavery movement that emerged out of the Revolution inadvertently produced racism in America.”