Beverley Tucker (1784–1851)


Beverley Tucker was a law professor, an advocate of slavery and states’ rights, and a writer who is best known for his novel The Partisan Leader (1836), a prediction of civil war that proved remarkably prescient. Born in Chesterfield County to a prominent slaveholding family, Tucker was educated at the College of William and Mary and then read law before opening a practice in Charlotte County. From 1816 to 1833, Tucker lived in Missouri, where he established a settlement for slaveholders and, in response to sectional strife over slavery in the territories, publicly argued for states’ rights and secession. In 1834, he was appointed a professor of law at William and Mary, a position previously held by his father, St. George Tucker, and that year delivered a major lecture there in defense of slavery. Over time Beverley Tucker became a leading architect of proslavery ideology and he often employed extreme rhetoric, once publicly referring to his opponents as “bloated vampyres,” for instance. In 1836, he published The Partisan Leader, a fictional piece of political propaganda, timed to influence the presidential election, that in many respects anticipated the American Civil War (1861–1865). In 1850, Tucker served as a delegate to the Nashville Convention, a meeting of southern states, during which he called for a new slaveholding republic that stretched from the American South to Cuba and Jamaica. Tucker died in 1851.

Early Years

Frances Bland Randolph Tucker

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker was born on September 6, 1784, at Matoax, the Chesterfield County plantation of his mother, Frances Bland Randolph Tucker. His father was St. George Tucker, then the county’s commonwealth’s attorney and later a judge and professor of law at the College of William and Mary. Beverley Tucker, as he was known, had three half-brothers from the Randolph family, including John Randolph of Roanoke, with whom he was close. His surviving full siblings included a sister and a brother, Henry St. George Tucker.

After the death of Frances Tucker in 1788, the family moved to Williamsburg, and biographers have commented on the change of setting as perhaps important to Beverley Tucker’s future worldview. “While Matoax was a kind of Eden that gripped his consciousness,” Robert J. Brugger has written, “Williamsburg represented the Fall.” In the city, Tucker resisted his father’s strict regime—the elder Tucker referred to their home as “Fort St. George”—and began to idealize plantation life, finding in it a source of republican virtue.

Judge John Coalter

Tucker received tutelage from his father’s law student John Coalter before entering the Reverend John Bracken‘s grammar school at the College of William and Mary in 1791. A decade later Tucker transferred from the grammar school to the college but withdrew in February 1802 to read law. He studied with Coalter in Staunton, and then in the summer of 1806 opened a law practice in Charlotte County in order to be close to John Randolph of Roanoke. Tucker struggled financially during these years, but on December 19, 1808, his father gifted him $500, 500 acres of land in Lunenburg County, and two enslaved men named Abram and Jimmy. Now with the means to raise a family, Beverley Tucker married his former tutor’s daughter, Mary “Polly” Coalter, on February 9, 1809, at the Coalter family home, Elm Grove, near Staunton. None of their children survived to adulthood.

On October 1, 1810, Tucker was appointed commonwealth’s attorney for Charlotte County. In March 1812 he was commissioned a lieutenant in the county militia and later was promoted to captain. During the War of 1812 he served with an infantry company in Charlotte County, on garrison duty in Norfolk, and as assistant adjutant general under John Pegram in Petersburg.


Scene from Frontier Missouri

During the winter of 1815–1816 Tucker and his family moved to Saint Charles County (later Pike County), Missouri Territory, north of Saint Louis, where he had purchased 6,000 acres of land from a Virginia friend. In September 1817 he began a law practice in Saint Louis, that winter served on the board of directors for the Bank of Saint Louis, and in 1818 was elected president of the Missouri Auxiliary Bible Society. From 1818 to 1820 he served as judge of the Northern Circuit of Missouri.

In January 1819, Tucker located bottomland between Dardenne and Peruque creeks, near the town of Saint Charles, as a settlement site for slaveholders from Virginia and South Carolina. At a time when the future of slavery in Missouri and other territories was being fiercely debated locally and in Washington, D.C., Tucker sought to create what he described in a letter to his father as a “true Virginia settlement” with slavery at its core. He defended the spread of slavery in five essays published from April to June 1819 in the Missouri Gazette under the pseudonym Hampden. On December 11 of that year, the Richmond Enquirer excerpted an unsigned letter by “a Virginian” in Missouri that nevertheless was widely understood to have been written by Tucker. The next month the Missouri Gazette attacked the letter, which defended Tucker’s settlement, as pompous, condescending, and elitist.

Although Tucker’s influence temporarily waned, he remained a public figure. In July 1820 he attended Missouri’s statehood convention in Saint Louis as an observer. Then in December 1820 he became a judge of the Third Judicial Circuit. During an economic downturn in 1822, Tucker issued judicial decisions that invalidated relief efforts by the state, resulting in a backlash against the judiciary. Candidates sympathetic to Tucker’s position won elections that autumn, however, and the judge’s influence began to wax again.

Lucy Ann Smith Tucker

In 1825, Tucker became seriously ill and underwent a religious conversion, embracing evangelicalism. His wife died on September 22, 1827. On October 11, 1828, he married her niece, Eliza Naylor, who was already ill with tuberculosis and who died on March 14, 1829. In February and March 1830 Tucker sold his land in Saint Charles and moved west to Franklin, Missouri, resigning his seat on the circuit court. On April 13, 1830, he married Lucy Ann Smith, the seventeen-year-old daughter of an old Virginia friend then living in Franklin. The couple had a daughter and two sons, and in December 1830 moved to Ardmore, a plantation in Saline County.

Over the next few years Tucker became a leading defender of states’ rights against the power of the federal government, especially when it came to the regulation of slavery. From August to December 1830 he published a series of pseudonymous essays on the subject in the Western Monitor newspaper. Tucker often employed extreme rhetoric, referring, for instance, to “Northern grandees” as “bloated vampyres sucking at the heart’s blood.” This time, however, his writing won him political friends, and on March 6, 1832, he announced a run for Congress. He withdrew the next summer. On December 26, 1832, in the midst of the nullification crisis in South Carolina, he published an essay in the Saint Louis Free Press arguing that secession, not nullification, was the proper response to the states’-rights crisis.

On a return trip to Virginia to visit his ailing half-brother, John Randolph of Roanoke, Tucker joined him at a Charlotte Court House rally on February 4, 1833. The congressman addressed the crowd and presented eleven resolves written by Tucker that asserted Virginia’s sovereignty and the corruption of President Andrew Jackson’s administration. On February 20, Tucker visited the White House and engaged the president in a long, private discussion that failed to bring Jackson to his side.

Law and Slavery

In June 1833 Tucker and his family returned to Virginia permanently. On March 10, 1834, states’-rights supporters in Buckingham County nominated him to run for his recently deceased half-brother’s seat in Congress, representing the Fifth District. Five days later James Wood Bouldin, a Jackson supporter, defeated Tucker by a vote of 1,038 to 737.

Officials and Professors at the College of William and Mary in 1840

This was Tucker’s last try at elected office. Instead, on July 5, 1834, he was appointed professor of law at the College of William and Mary, a position held first by George Wythe and then by Tucker’s father. For a salary of $600 per year, plus $30 for each student who attended his lectures, he taught using the five-volume edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that was edited by St. George Tucker in 1803; it was the first major treatise on America law.

On December 2, 1834, Beverley Tucker delivered a lecture on slavery that was published a month later in the Southern Literary Messenger. Responding to Blackstone’s arguments against the institution in Commentaries, Tucker reasoned that black men, women, and children were actually better off enslaved, and that slavery, in turn, was crucial to the American republic because a citizen who kept himself well informed could not be expected also to perform hard labor. Freedom was a privilege, not a right, Tucker argued, and those fit only for labor would, if allowed to participate, ruin free government. As such, slavery did not contradict freedom but was necessary for its proper exercise.

The Horrors of Slavery in Black and White.

A decade later Tucker expanded on this argument in a two-part article published in the Southern Literary Messenger, “An Essay on the Moral and Political Effect of the Relation between the Caucasian Master and the African Slave.” By then Tucker had become an architect of a proslavery ideology that no longer accepted the enslavement of black people as a necessary evil; it was, instead, a positive good. Comparing the lives of industrial workers in the North with those of enslaved laborers in the South, Tucker argued that slavery provided a better life. It introduced enslaved people to the civilizing and protective influence of the southern plantation while encouraging white men to be more vigilant in protecting their own freedoms.

Tucker became an increasingly outspoken and radical proslavery secessionist. Early in the 1840s he wrote letters to President John Tyler, a fellow Virginian, attempting to advise him on issues from banking to the annexation of Texas. The latter issue helped lead Tucker away from a reliance on constitutionalism, which he believed had been abandoned by northern abolitionists. This was in contrast to his brother, Henry St. George Tucker, who began teaching law at the University of Virginia in 1841 and who still thought compromise on slavery could be secured through the U.S. Constitution. Beverley Tucker continued to publish, including several books: Discourse on the Importance of the Study of Political Science as a Branch of Academic Education in the United States (1840), Lectures Intended to Prepare the Student for the Study of the Constitution of the United States (1845), and Principles of Pleading(1846).


In 1836, Tucker published two novels, George Balcombe and The Partisan Leader; a Tale of the Future, both without his name attached. In George Balcombe a Virginian named William Napier travels to Missouri to recover his grandfather’s lost will and to thwart attempts to steal his inheritance. (For his plot, Tucker likely borrowed from his own experiences with the will of John Randolph of Roanoke.) The title character assists Napier in obtaining justice and serves, for Tucker, as an idealized hero—the sort of virtuous southern leader Tucker sought but failed to find in Andrew Jackson and others. In a review published in the January 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that he was “induced to regard it, upon the whole, as the best American novel.” He noted that the anonymous author could be none other than Beverley Tucker and that it was odd that the book didn’t carry his name.

Martin Van Buren

The Partisan Leader was more explicitly political. In fact, its publication, under the name Edward William Sidney, was timed and its distribution organized to influence the results of the 1836 presidential election. Tucker worried that Jackson’s vice president, Martin Van Buren, would succeed him as president and devised, as a cautionary tale, a near-future world in which Van Buren has just won a fourth term in office and the Deep South states have seceded. Around this scenario Tucker wove the story of the Trevor family, a romance between cousins, armed and loyal Virginia slaves who battle corrupt federal forces, and a guerrilla war in southwestern Virginia. The book’s few contemporary readers found its politics shrill and its predictions about the fate of the republic disconcerting, while modern scholars have marveled at its prescience. It had no effect on the 1836 election, which Van Buren, the Democrat, easily won against a divided Whig opposition. In 1861 The Partisan Leader was republished in New York City, this time under Tucker’s name and with the title amended to read, A Key to the Disunion Conspiracy. The Partisan Leader. Supporters of the Union argued that the novel was evidence of a secessionist plot going back decades. A Confederate edition, titled The Partisan Leader: A Novel, and an Apocalypse of the Origin and Struggles of the Southern Confederacy, was published in Richmond the next year.

Tucker published a final piece of fiction, Gertrude, in serial form in the Southern Literary Messenger. Appearing in 1844–1845, the romance centers on the title character, who leaves her impoverished family in Virginia in order to find a new life in the city. Setting Gertrude against the machinations of her mother, Tucker painted archetypes of virtue and villainy he may have wanted his readers to apply to the political sphere. His subplots also gave him the means to comment on pressing issues such as banking and womanhood. Unlike his other fiction, Gertrude was popular with readers but was never published as a book.

Later Years

Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law

In the midst of a fierce congressional debate over the spread of slavery in 1850, Tucker published eleven pseudonymous essays in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner arguing for states’ rights and the potential need for secession. A convention of nine slaveholding states was called to meet in Nashville, Tennessee, to respond to any action by Congress, and in May 1850 Henry A. Wise was elected Virginia’s delegate. When Wise could not travel, Tucker attended in his place. His address to the convention, on June 12, envisioned a new and independent republic of slave states and newly acquired territories stretching from the American South to Cuba and Jamaica. Tucker was out of step with the convention, however. He was a radical secessionist—a so-called fire eater—among those who sought a more conciliatory approach. The convention did not call for secession, as Tucker had hoped, and in September 1850 Congress passed and President Millard Fillmore signed into law a package of seventy-two bills that came to be known as the Compromise of 1850. It included concessions to slaveholders such as a new Fugitive Slave Act.

Tucker wrote his will on May 23, 1850, leaving everything to his wife. He died on August 26, 1851, at the Winchester home of his late brother. He was buried at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church Cemetery in Williamsburg.

  • Brugger, Robert J. Beverley Tucker: Heart Over Head in the Old South. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840–1860. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
  • Tate, Adam L. Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals, 1789–1861. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
  • Tucker, Beverley D. Nathaniel Beverley Tucker: Prophet of the Confederacy, 1754–1851.Tokyo, Japan: Nan’un-do, 1979.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Beverley Tucker (1784–1851). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/tucker-beverley-1784-1851.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Beverley Tucker (1784–1851)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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