When he wrote George Balcombe, Beverley Tucker was a professor of law at the College of William and Mary, a position previously held by his father,, and . He had unsuccessfully run twice for Congress, once in Missouri and once in Virginia. Nevertheless, he was a prominent political essayist, publishing newspaper and journal articles that advocated for , secession, and slavery. In 1825, after a serious illness left him near death, Tucker underwent a religious conversion and embraced evangelical Christianity. His politics and his religion both left him preoccupied with ideas of public virtue and through his writing, he often attempted to create archetypes of just and villainous leadership.
The plot of George Balcombe turns on the restoration of order and fortune in a family disrupted by usurpation of a will. This situation roughly parallels events that occupied much of Tucker’s attention as a result of the will of his half-brother John Randolph of Roanoke, who died in 1833. This suggests that the bulk of the work must have been done after 1833, once Tucker had returned to Virginia after living seventeen years in Missouri. The complex plot places the principal characters in a range of settings from the well-established Virginia Tidewater to the Missouri frontier and may be read as a treatise on leadership reacting in some respects to President Andrew Jackson, whom Tucker regarded as an erring fellow southerner. He believed that the president might be brought back to the proper course with a gentle admonition and a positive model. The same admonition might provide the electorate a standard against which to measure candidates to succeed Jackson.
George Balcombe traces the efforts of William Napier to secure his inheritance, ensure the economic future of his mother and sisters, and marry his cousin Ann. Napier is a young Virginian who is descended from a distinguished line, but whose father had little wealth. In line to inherit a substantial estate from his grandfather, Charles Raby, Napier finds that the will has disappeared mysteriously. At the same time, his only inheritance from his father is a note suggesting that a man named Montague holds Raby’s will. As the novel begins, Napier sets off to find Montague on the Missouri frontier. Along the way he meets the title character, a native Virginian,, and gentleman whose education Raby had funded but whose lover—Mary Scott, the daughter of Raby’s overseer—Montague seduced and abandoned.
Montague’s actions have disordered the community. Families that should have lived comfortably are caught in poverty and have lost their standing in the community. Without the inheritance Raby set aside for them, young people who should have married for affection are instead forced to marry for financial survival. Montague’s unscrupulousness can only be matched by the moral authority of Balcombe, a man who always seeks justice rather than self-reward.
The efforts to resolve these conflicts span the United States from the Virginia Tidewater to Missouri. Balcombe and Napier are joined by James Scott, Mary’s younger brother and emissary, and together they narrowly escape death and imprisonment several times as they pursue their adversary. Montague sets up numerous obstacles for his pursuers, but the protagonists invariably prevail. After returning to Virginia, Montague seeks to retrieve the will—now in the hands of Mary Scott—but Edward Raby’s plantation manager seizes the document so that a court can determine the rightful owner. As James Scott and William Napier are taking the issue to court, Montague makes one last effort to waylay them, but Scott kills him in a fit of rage inspired by hearing how the villain dishonored his sister. Balcombe retrieves the packet.
In due course, letters arrive from Edward Raby, the supposed heir in England who has benefited from Montague’s suppression of the true last will. Raby is mortified to learn that he has been cheated and has been a party to cheating others. Having received from Napier’s great-grandfather the “rights and duties of head of the family,” he is eager to set matters right financially and in familial relationships. This entails transferring land to Napier and Balcombe, although the latter returns to Missouri because he cannot afford to maintain the estate without accepting charity from Napier. Thus, what Tucker represents as a natural and desirable order is maintained.
At the very end of the work—fifteen years after the end of the main action—the family has drawn closer and is about to reunite. Balcombe, a wealthy man after his father-in-law’s death, is on his way back to Virginia with James Scott, who has married Balcombe’s daughter. Various characters marry one another as deemed just, including Napier and Ann. And to fulfill the last condition of Charles Raby’s will, Napier has changed his name to William Napier Raby.
Womanhood and Slavery
Tucker’s view of civic virtue was deeply conservative and rooted in the idea of hierarchy. According to Tucker, men ought to rule women (through marriage) and whites ought to rule blacks (through slavery). Leadership must be wise, of course, and those in subordinate positions should be humble and grateful. George Balcombe demonstrates these principles to his protégé, William Napier. In the novel’s second volume, the two return to a family plantation and find the enslaved community lined up to meet them. As Napier approaches them, “each bowed himself with reverence and affection before me.”
For Balcombe, the loyalty of enslaved people only makes sense. “Nothing is more certain,” said Balcombe, “and nothing more natural than the prevalence of this feeling. Here is a race of men incapable of tracing themselves beyond ancestors who, a hundred years ago, came out of a slave ship into the family of Mr. Raby. They know nothing of themselves but in connection with that family, and that connection has become, by tradition and use, to be regarded as one of the conditions of their very existence.”
Balcombe goes on to suggest that black people do not chafe at their inferior condition. Rather, “right or wrong, they feel themselves inferior” and need the white man’s protection. For Balcombe, this is the world as it should be. “For my part,” he tells Napier, “I am well pleased with the established order of the universe. I see gradations in everything. I see subordination everywhere”—including in women. He likens white women to enslaved people, arguing that both groups should be humble in their servitude. “Let women and negroes alone,” he says, “and instead of quacking with them, physic your own diseases. Leave them in their humility, their grateful affection, their self-renouncing loyalty, their subordination of the heart, and let it be your study to become worthy to be the object of these sentiments.”
Friends and relatives wrote to Tucker about George Balcombe and may suggest how his contemporaries read the work. For example, St. George Coalter, Tucker’s nephew, wrote that Henry St. George Tucker, the author’s brother, thought George Balcombe to be one of the best books of its kind that he had read. Coalter found the work gripping because of “the variety of incident, the diversity of character, and the varying scenes,” but thought its real greatness lay in “the bright portraits of human character, in its rarest and most difficult forms.” The importance of Balcombe himself might be a flaw, Coalter believed, because the hero struck him as implausibly virtuous.
Similarly, Coalter worried that the book was “only faulty in the too plain tale of M. Scott’s fall in bringing it too close in time, place, and circumstance.” This may be a reference to a Randolph-Tucker family scandal of the 1790s. Anne Gary Randolph, called Nancy, had an affair with Richard Randolph. Richard Randolph was her cousin, her husband’s sister, and the brother of her deceased financé, Theodorick Randolph. Both Richard and Theodorick Randolph were half-brothers of Beverley Tucker. The details of this affair differ significantly from those of the Mary Scott story, but Coalter, the son of Beverley Tucker’s sister, Ann Tucker Coalter, may have feared that the inclusion of a sex scandal could recall to readers that the Tucker family had not been far removed from a similar occurrence.
Other relatives provided more detailed readings and pointed out other concerns. Elizabeth Tucker Bryan, a niece, complained that Montague professed to be a Christian while Balcombe “might have been a moral Deist, a Jew, a Universalist” because he never “[recognized] our Saviour and religion without a Saviour such as we are told of in the Bible is a thing of nothing.” She was chiefly concerned, that is, with the principal characters as representatives of different ethical foundations.
George Balcombe was popular enough that not all of Tucker’s friends were able to obtain copies of the book. T. M. Robinson complained that he had found only two copies in Philadelphia because the supplies sent to that city had sold immediately after their arrival. William C. Preston, a South Carolinian friend, suggested the work was popular because unlike other American works of the period, it did not follow the model of Sir Walter Scott but went “forth with a free and confident step.”
Reviewers such as the novelist William Gilmore Simms praised the work as a strong representation of the frontier, while Edgar Allan Poe, in the January 1837 issue of the, wrote that he was “induced to regard it, upon the whole, as the best American novel.” These contemporary readers saw George Balcombe as a novel about a distinctively American character in distinctively American settings. While Tucker reminded the readers throughout the text that his principal characters—good and evil—were Virginians, his readers seem to have seen them as Americans, or as Americans should be, with Balcombe himself a man of heroic character who could identify and organize the interests of his subordinates and help them maintain social order.
More recent commentators have been less impressed. Writing in 1954, Jay B. Hubbell praised Tucker’s representation of the frontier on the whole; however, he argued that George Balcombe was little more than an extended local color piece. William R. Taylor saw the point of the novel as promoting the relocation of the plantation aristocracy to the West and Southwest—even though the principal characters are all in Virginia at the end and they seem to transplant little of Virginian culture. He saw Balcombe as a “new man,” a “bastard hero” who was half Virginian gentleman and half frontiersman. J. V. Ridgely, writing in 1980, dismissed the work as a “drearily conventional narrative which is only partially redeemed by some genre pictures of the border territory.” In his biography of Tucker, published in 1978, Robert J. Brugger argued that the novel was part of Tucker’s broad attempt to define southern manners and values as distinctive and worthy of preservation. This is in keeping with Tucker’s literary values and explains Balcombe’s heroic stature as well as the novel’s emphasis on maintenance of social order.