Tucker was born near Port Royal, Bermuda, on July 10, 1752, the youngest of six children. His parents were Colonel Henry Tucker, a prominent merchant, and Anne Butterfield, the daughter of a future chief justice of Bermuda. The English made Bermuda a colony early in the 1600s, and a Tucker—Captain Daniel Tucker—served as its second governor (1616–1619). St. George Tucker’s direct relatives had lived on the island since the 1640s and became one of its most important families. Colonel Tucker served for a time as Speaker of the colony’s assembly and ran a shipping business, which prospered in a place where land was too scarce for anything but subsistence farming. About 1763, his eldest son, Henry Tucker Jr., joined him in Henry Tucker & Son, based in the capital of Saint George’s. Another brother, Thomas Tudor Tucker, later served as a congressman and treasurer of the United States (1801–1828).
St. George Tucker, named for his great-grandfather, attended a grammar school in Saint George’s from 1768 until 1770. There the Reverend Alexander Richardson, rector of Saint Peter’s Church, taught Enlightenment values and instructed his pupils in the great writers. For his part, Tucker appears to have loved practical jokes, earning a stern reminder from his father to stay focused on his studies. “Youth are too apt to be drawn away by folly,” Colonel Tucker wrote. “Let not that be your case.”
St. George Tucker hoped to study law at the Inns of Court, in London, but a financial downturn made paying for it difficult, at least in the short term. For that reason, he decided to attend‘s more affordable College of William and Mary. St. George Tucker sailed for America on October 14, 1771, stopping in New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before arriving in Williamsburg about the end of the year. Rather than immediately pursue the law, he studied natural and moral philosophy with the Reverend Thomas Gwatkin at William and Mary. Short of money, Tucker left the college at the end of 1772 and began an apprenticeship in the office of George Wythe, an eminent lawyer and to many prominent young Virginians, including . On April 4, 1774, Tucker was admitted to the Virginia bar.
Smuggler, Soldier, Planter
Tucker immediately took a position as clerk of Dinwiddie County, but when Great Britain closed the port of Boston, Massachusetts, Virginia responded by closing its county courts to certain kinds of business involving debts to British creditors. By this time Tucker had been accepted to study law at London’s Inner Temple, but rather than attend, he became involved in a family-run smuggling operation in behalf of the American revolutionaries. Although admitted to practice at the bar of Virginia’s General Court in April 1775, Tucker returned to Bermuda in June and used his social and professional ties in Virginia to negotiate contracts for smuggled goods. With financial support from several prominent Virginians, including the president of the, the Tuckers and another Bermuda shipping family transported salt, sugar, rice, indigo, , and munitions between America, the Caribbean, and Europe from 1776 to 1779. Business was profitable until the British became more skilled at intercepting company ships. Wildly fluctuating prices of goods in wartime also hurt the bottom line.
Members of the St. George Tucker Family
In the spring of 1779, about the same time that twenty-eight British ships with 1,800 troops anchored near Norfolk, Tucker joined the Virginia militia. He enlisted as a private but political connections soon earned him a major’s commission. On March 15, 1781, accompanied in battle by his enslaved body servant Syphax, Tucker fought at Guilford Court House, in North Carolina, and was wounded by a bayonet. Later that year, he earned a new commission, this time as a lieutenant colonel in command of a volunteer regiment.
On September 16, 1781, just before the siege of Yorktown, General Thomas Nelson appointed Tucker to his staff as a French interpreter. For the next month, Tucker kept a meticulous journal of the events that led the British general Charles Cornwallis to surrender his army to George Washington, noting correctly that “the present Campaign will probably be more important than any other since the commencement of the American War.”
Lawyer and General Court Judge
The Bodleian Plate
Tucker also resumed, or rather finally started, his law practice. He did so somewhat grudgingly, according to the historian Philip Hamilton. Although he preferred the status associated with being a planter, the social and economic circumstances after the war were too uncertain. Many new attorneys found it difficult to attract clients, but Tucker’s friend, Jerman Baker, who was transferring his practice to the General Court in Richmond, gave Tucker his caseload—more than 500 cases in Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Amelia counties. Practicing before the county courts could be as tedious as it was busy, and the judges often had no legal training. Tucker prospered, however, learning to translate complicated arguments into concise, accessible language. On March 7, 1783, he was named commonwealth’s attorney of Chesterfield County and the next year notary public of Petersburg. In April 1785, Governorappointed him county lieutenant, commanding the militia in Chesterfield, a position he reluctantly resigned the next year after a reorganization of the militia.
By this time, Tucker had grown restless with law at the county level. In the summer of 1785, he arranged for the publication in Richmond of a pamphlet he wrote on the new and complicated state of trade with Britain, Reflections on the Policy and Necessity of Encouraging the Commerce of the Citizens of the United States of America. This earned him enough notice that he was named a delegate—along withand Edmund Randolph—to a 1786 convention in Annapolis, Maryland, intended, as its formal title declared, “to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government.” He signed the delegates’ report that recommended holding another meeting of all the states, which resulted in the convention that met in Philadelphia the following year and wrote the Constitution.
After again qualifying to practice at the General Court in April 1786, Tucker resigned his county positions and temporarily moved to Richmond. “This town is the dullest place in the universe,” he wrote his wife on April 19, 1787. “I see no body but lawyers and judges—most of the former are like Mutes at a funeral.” Nevertheless, his esteem as a lawyer grew. In January 1788, the General Assembly established a new system of district courts and appointed Tucker one of the new judges of the General Court to preside at district courts and hear appeals. He took office in April 1789 after the assembly revised the new act and required that the ten General Court judges travel in pairs to serve on the regional courts and to meet occasionally in Richmond. In 1793, in Kamper v. Hawkins, Tucker ruled that the state’s constitution empowered the courts to determine whether acts of the assembly were unconstitutional. It became on of the leading cases affirming the doctrine of judicial review in the state. He served on the court and traveled regularly to courthouses throughout much of Virginia until January 1804, when he resigned.
Frances Tucker died on January 18, 1788, following the birth of a daughter. Over the next few years, St. George Tucker sold off the plantations he had acquired during their marriage, as well as Matoax in 1795, primarily as a result of declining land values in the aftermath of the Revolution. In the autumn of 1788, he moved his children andto Williamsburg. On October 8, 1791, he married Lelia Skipwith Carter, the daughter of Sir Peyton Skipwith and the widow of George Carter, of Corotoman. She brought a son and a daughter to the marriage and Tucker took on management of the estate until the children came of age to inherit. Tucker and his wife had two daughters and one son, none of whom survived childhood.
In 1790, while Tucker was rector of the College of William and Mary, his old mentor, George Wythe, resigned his professorship. Tucker called a meeting of the board of visitors which, on March 6, awarded him a doctor of civil law and, on March 8, named him the college’s new professor of law and police, with an annual salary of £120.
Although he had learned the law by apprenticing in an office, Tucker now advocated a more formal, academic study of the discipline. He lectured primarily using his own marginal notes to the four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England by Sir William Blackstone (1765–1769). In 1803, he published a five-volume edition of the Commentaries based on these notes and lectures, which sought in part to identify where English and American law converged and diverged. Dubbed Tucker’s “American Blackstone,” it was the first major treatise on American law and was frequently cited by the U.S. Supreme Court during the nineteenth century.
Holding classes at his home when he was not riding circuit, Tucker lectured for three hours three and later four times a week, a routine that many, but not all, students found to be useful preparation for their law careers. In 1803, the college administration insisted that Tucker lecture only at the college and visit his students regularly in their rooms. Rather than comply, he resigned, effective March 1804.
This had been a particularly productive period for Tucker. In addition to helping influence how lawyers would be trained in America, he took part in rewriting Virginia’s laws. From 1789 to 1790, he helped compile all Virginia and English laws in effect in Virginia and prepare a report for the General Assembly on how they might be condensed and revised. Then, on December 23, 1790, the assembly tasked Tucker and five other men—Arthur Lee, William Nelson, Edmund Pendleton, Joseph Prentis, and Henry Tazewell—with writing a new edition of the state code. On August 18, 1792, the committee submitted the final portions of its draft, which amounted to ninety-one bills. The revised code of 1792, contained 150 chapters, including the Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution of 1776. It was printed in 1794 with the acts that had been passed at the two subsequent terms of the assembly.
In 1795, Tucker worked on a plan for gradually abolishing slavery in Virginia. Like Jefferson, Wythe, and other men influenced by the Enlightenment and the Revolution, he believed that African Americans were fully human and ideally should not be enslaved. In fact, he wrote, slavery was “ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained” during the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, Tucker doubted that blacks and whites could live together peacefully. His plan, A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia, would have taken a century to implement and denied freed African Americans their most basic civil rights as a means of encouraging them to emigrate.
Tucker published his essay in 1796 and submitted it that year to the General Assembly, which ignored the plan. Tucker complained that few if any of the members had even bothered to read it. Yet he did not even free his own slaves. As it happens, his stepson did. In the same year that A Dissertation on Slavery was published, twenty-six-year-old Richard Randolph died, leaving a will that begged his slaves for forgiveness and then emancipated them and provided land for them to live on as independent free farmers.
Poet and Inventor
Tucker wrote verse for most of his adult life. He composed poems to Frances Randolph during their courtship and marriage, addressing her as “Stella.” (Here Tucker was imitating Jonathan Swift, who wrote a series of poems to his own beloved, whom he nicknamed “Stella.”) And after his wife’s death, Tucker wrote two poems mourning her passing. In “To Sleep,” he wrote:
This bed the scene of all my joys and woes
Awakes Remembrance with her busy train,
Where Bliss unrivalled used to court repose,
Unrivalled Sorrow wakes to endless pain.
In 1781, he penned a satire after Lord Cornwallis distributed a haughty victory proclamation following the Battle of Guilford Court House. About the same time, he wrote the patriotic “Liberty, a Poem; On the Independence of America” (published in 1788) and in 1819 the more ribald “The Judge with the Sore Rump.” In 1793, he anonymously published fourteen poems in the National Gazette in Philadelphia. Known as “The Probationary Odes of Jonathan Pindar, Esq.,” the works for many years were assumed to have been authored by the Gazette‘s editor, Philip Freneau. In 1813, the former Federalist president John Adams read Tucker’s poem “Resignation” and praised its author. Tucker responded with an autobiographical sketch but did not admit to having penned “The Probationary Odes.”
Tucker’s brother, Nathaniel Tucker, a practicing physician, also was a poet, publishing “The Bermudian: a Poem,” a lengthy tribute to his childhood, in 1774. Unlike his brother, however, St. George Tucker rarely published his poems, and those he did employed a pseudonym. Tucker worried, as he wrote to a friend in 1812, that poetry “does not constitute anything estimable in the public eye, nor advance the author in the public estimation, but may have the contrary effect.” For this reason, few people outside his family and close circle of friends knew that Tucker wrote so prolifically. “He had the poet’s passion,” the scholar William S. Prince wrote, “if not the Muse’s blessing.”
Tucker also was an inventor, converting his dairy house into Williamsburg’s first bathroom. It featured a copper tub, heated water, and a drain. He also fashioned a steam-powered water pump, and, at the time of its founding in May 1773, had served as assistant secretary of the Virginian Society for the Promotion of Usefull Knowledge. In December 1794, Tucker tested a signaling device for communicating over long distances that he called a telegraph, after a similar French invention he had learned about, and sent a model to President James Madison during the War of 1812.
On October 23, 1803, Edmund Pendleton, a judge on the Court of Appeals, died. Tucker immediately began jockeying for support to replace him, and this ambition may have prompted his willingness to resign from the College of William and Mary that December. In November, Tucker learned that Robert Bailey, of Staunton, who had lost his appeal of a gambling conviction before Tucker, now accused him of accepting a bribe. The General Assembly dismissed the charge, however, and elected Tucker to the state’s highest court on January 6, 1804, by a vote of 115 to 82.
Tucker took his seat in April 1806. Later that year, he and the court’s four other justices ruled in the case of Hudgins v. Wright (rendered as Hudgins v. Wrights in the official court record). An enslaved woman sued for freedom for herself and her children on the claim that she was of Indian and not African descent. In the High Court of Chancery, George Wythe had determined that the woman and her family members looked white and, therefore, should be presumed free unless proved otherwise. (Prior courts consistently had ruled the opposite: that slaves, not their masters, bore the burden of proof in such matters.) Tucker and his fellow judges affirmed the earlier ruling and found the woman and her children to be free because of Indian ancestry, but they rejected Wythe’s other argument that the free and independent clause in the Declaration of Rights meant that all slaves in Virginia should be free. Tucker noted in his opinion that authors of the Declaration of Rights had carefully constructed the language to refer only to free citizens and therefore did not include enslaved people.
Tucker resigned from the Court of Appeals on April 2, 1811, in part because of increasing conflict between him and his fellow judge Spencer Roane. Tucker also opposed a recently passed act that increased the court’s workload. He was succeeded by, a former student of Tucker’s and the husband of his oldest daughter. Two years later, President James Madison nominated Tucker to the federal district court in Virginia. Tucker considered not accepting in part because of his age, poor health, and the fact that it had been more than two decades since he had practiced admiralty law, which composed a significant portion of the court’s case load. Attracted by the generous salary he accepted the post and the U.S. Senate confirmed him on January 19, 1813. He heard cases twice a year both at Norfolk and Richmond and also sat with Chief Justice John Marshall twice a year on the United States Circuit Court when it met in Richmond. The district court’s docket was often dominated with cases involving piracy and privateers as well as disputes arising from international commerce. In 1819, the district was split into eastern and western halves, with Tucker joining the bench of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Tucker’s health problems meant that he occasionally missed some sessions and he resigned on June 30, 1825.
Throughout his career as a lawyer, a professor, and a judge, Tucker kept careful notes about his cases. The extensive collection of arguments, opinions, memoranda, correspondence, and other records of his personal archive is a unique and invaluable resource for understanding the evolution of common law in Virginia and the new nation after the Revolution.
Tucker had a stroke and died on November 10, 1827. He had been staying at Edgewood, the home of his stepdaughter, Mary Carter Cabell and her husband, state senator, in Warminster, Nelson County, and is buried there.
- Reflections on the Policy and Necessity of Encouraging the Commerce of the Citizens of the United States of America, and of Granting Them Exclusive Privileges of Trade, as Columbus (1785)
- The Knight and Friars. An Historical Tale; After the Manner of John Gilpin (1786)
- Liberty, a Poem; on the Independence of America (1788)
- Cautionary Hints to Congress, Respecting the Sale of the Western Lands, Belonging to the United States, as Columbus (1795)
- A Letter, to the Rev. Jedediah Morse, A.M., Author of the “American Universal Geography” (1795)
- A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796)
- The Probationary Odes of Jonathan Pindar, esq. a Cousin of Peter’s, and Candidate for the Post of Poet Laureat to the C.U.S. In Two Parts (1796)
- Remarks on the Treaty of Amity, Navigation, and Commerce, Concluded between Lord Grenville and Mr. Jay, on the Part of Great Britain and the United States, Respectively … , as Columbus (1796)
- A Letter to a Member of Congress; Respecting The Alien and Sedition Laws (1799)
- Examination of the Question, “How far the Common Law of England is the Law of the Federal Government of the United States?” (1800)
- Blackstone’s Commentaries: with Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws, of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1803)
- Reflections on the Cession of Louisiana to the United States, as Sylvestris (1803)
- The Poems of St. George Tucker of Williamsburg, Virginia, 1752–1827 (1977)