When he wrote The Partisan Leader, Beverley Tucker was professor of law at the College of William and Mary, a position previously held by his father, St. George Tucker, and George Wythe. He had run twice for Congress, once in Missouri and once in Virginia, but never held elective office. Nevertheless, he was a prominent political essayist who published newspaper and journal articles that advocated for states’ rights, secession, and slavery. He opposed the administration of President Andrew Jackson and especially Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina in 1832–1833. Although Tucker opposed Jackson’s assertion of federal power, he also argued that secession, not nullification, was the most proper response.
The Partisan Leader, published under the pseudonym Edward William Sidney, came out of Tucker’s concern that Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, would succeed him as president. The novel, set during a Van Buren presidency, was intended as a cautionary tale and distributed with the intention of affecting the election’s outcome. Duff Green, a newspaper editor and states’ rights advocate whom Tucker had met in Missouri, published 2,000 copies of the book, selling them from Boston to New Orleans. However, a quarter of the books ended up in cities where no national candidate opposed Van Buren, who won the election easily.
The Partisan Leader is set in 1849, thirteen years after its publication date. Andrew Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, has just won an unprecedented fourth term as U.S. president and, in response, the states in the Deep South have seceded. Although Virginia still remains in the Union, opposition to Van Buren is widespread and a statewide referendum on secession has been scheduled. For the moment, the president holds Virginia in the Union only through political chicanery and the deployment of U.S. troops to counties known to favor secession.
The novel centers around the Trevor family. Hugh Trevor is a moderate Unionist with two sons who are army officers, Owen and Douglas. Hugh’s brother Bernard is an ardent secessionist. His daughter Delia has long been close to her first cousin Douglas who, as a military man, remains aloof from politics. When a rejected Unionist suitor insults Delia’s father and therefore Delia, Douglas steps in to defend her honor. A romance blooms, and Douglas seeks permission to marry his cousin. Delia’s father refuses to allow her to marry anyone in the U.S. Army. If Virginia secedes, he points out, Douglas might be torn between duty to state, duty to father, and duty to the Union. Why complicate that decision any further through marriage? Douglas eventually resigns his commission even as his brother, Owen, is promoted to colonel.
In the meantime, Van Buren seeks to sway the outcome of elections to the General Assembly through subterfuge and military intimidation. The president sends troops to several counties, including the one where Bernard Trevor lives, in an effort to close the polls. With assistance from Douglas and a company of armed slaves and anti-administration voters, he fights them off and wins election to the assembly. Van Buren then orders the arrest of Bernard and Douglas on charges of treason. When troops arrive at the Trevor plantation to make the arrest, they find that he has prepared for their arrival by arming his enslaved workers. The next morning, Bernard, his household, and Douglas all flee to North Carolina.
There, Mr. B—, a secessionist leader, lays before Douglas a plan by which Virginia will be brought to her place in the Southern confederacy. He argues that all that is needed is a leader with sound military judgment to command a corps of partisans. This corps will maneuver in such a way that the General Assembly will be able to elude the federal troops around Richmond just long enough for members to vote the state out of the Union. Douglas accepts the mission on the condition he be allowed to marry Delia. Mr. B— performs the marriage.
Based in southwestern Virginia, the partisans are little more than a band of yeoman farmers and frontiersmen. But by combining Douglas Trevor’s sense of strategy with the frontiersmen’s notion of tactics, they force the Union troops opposing them back to their headquarters at Lynchburg. In an effort to defeat the partisans, whom Douglas commands under the nom de guerre of Captain Douglas, Van Buren sends Douglas’s brother, Colonel Owen Trevor, to command the Lynchburg forces. Owen, who has risen beyond his military competence, receives and accepts as valid disinformation given to a spy by Douglas and his men, and he sets out to defeat the partisans. When Owen and his regiments arrive on the scene, however, they march straight into a trap. Owen is captured and his forces defeated.
The remnants of his command retreat to Lynchburg and Owen’s deputy prepares to surrender. Before that can occur, however, Owen escapes from his captors, returns to Lynchburg, has Douglas abducted and carried to Washington, and dies trying to lead his command out of the surrounded city. Douglas, in Union hands, arrives in Washington, where he is to be tried and sentenced to death by a special court presided over by Delia’s former suitor. Although there is a conspiracy to help the young man escape, the novel ends with Hugh Trevor and Delia pleading for Douglas’s life before President Van Buren.
The novel was poorly received. While reviews provide little insight as to how the contemporary audience read the work, they leave little doubt that the novel was highly regarded chiefly by those who shared the author’s political views. In the January 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, which also contained Edgar Allan Poe‘s rave review of Tucker’s George Balcombe, Abel P. Upshur praised The Partisan Leader. Pretending he did not know the author, Upshur, a friend and political ally of Tucker, suggested that “whatever be his real name, [he] is no novice in writing, and no sophomore in scholarship.” Like Upshur, the Richmond Whig held that the book was worthy because of its political message, with an “agreeable under-play of love, which cannot fail to interest.” On February 9, 1837, the rival Richmond Enquirer mocked the Whig, suggesting the entire book, love story included, “shall fill every sensible man and woman with mortification and disgust.”
Outside of Richmond, some reviewers were horrified by the author’s eager support for secession; others dismissed the work as badly written. Even those who were close to Tucker had reservations about the work. His niece, Elizabeth Tucker Bryan, worried because the characterization of Van Buren might “excite a prejudice against the cause that [her uncle proposed] to serve [with the work].” St. George Coalter, his nephew, believed that the work was “a very bold conception” as a political work and regarded it as powerful, prophetic, and fearful.
A. S. Johnston, a South Carolina newspaper publisher, commented that the plan of the work was similar to one that he had considered himself, although he believed that the real personages who appeared in the pages would have aged more over a decade than Tucker’s work showed. William Preston, who helped to arrange for publication of the work, praised the characters and the style of the work, but he found “inherent difficulties” in the plan of a work that was “at once fiction and prophecy and thus [opposed] a double difficulty to that belief or acquiescence in the narrative which is to be the foundation of the novelist’s passion.” Overall, it appears that readers felt some discomfort with the blend of reality and prediction; The Partisan Leader never enjoyed commercial success.
Modern commentators have found the work more intriguing, largely because it seems to have predicted secession a quarter century before it occurred. Writing in 1927, Vernon L. Parrington held that Tucker wrote to remind Virginians of the dangers of democracy, but he was on weaker ground when he held that the work was “an obvious attempt to dramatize the political philosophy of [John C.] Calhoun,” whom Tucker considered an over ambitious and dangerous man. Two and a half decades later, Jay Hubbell was similarly intrigued by Tucker’s efforts at prophecy, although he was quick to point out that “The Partisan Leader was in many respects wide of the mark” as a prediction of the Civil War, and he had little comment beyond an attempt to identify characters in the novel with historical personages.
Introducing a new edition for the Southern Literary Classics series in 1971, C. Hugh Holman treated the novel as a campaign document from the 1836 election that would have little enduring interest except for its embodiment of the sentiments that empowered the secession movement; however, few of the issues he identifies are mentioned in the novel. Writing in 1980, the critic J. V. Ridgley saw the work as a warning to Virginians that was driven by a political intent so strong that it led Tucker to lay aside narrative technique in a novel featuring a murky plot, a powerful political message, and a somewhat inaccurate prophecy of fratricidal war. Ridgely also noted that the resurrection of the work in New York in 1862 and Richmond in 1863 contributed greatly to the modern scholar’s sense of the novel’s importance. Finally, Robert J. Brugger, Tucker’s modern biographer, argued that The Partisan Leader was a sermon on nobility that was intended for Virginians who were watching the decline of public leadership.