Southampton-born St. George Tucker became a Virginia patriarch and a cornerstone of the American legal system.
Bermuda has become an island of lawyers. Given Bermuda’s devotion to real estate and commerce, legal matters have long been a national pastime.
Whether trained in Britain or North America, Bermuda’s lawyers hold certain things in common, none more central than a structured legal education rooted in a deep reverence for the common law. They are also united in acknowledging their intellectual debt to William Blackstone (1723–1780), the English legal writer and judge who first codified English common law. From his lofty perch as Vinerian professor of law at Oxford, Blackstone declared his ambition to “lay down a general and comprehensive Plan of the laws of England; to deduce their History and Antiquities; to select and illustrate their Leading Rules.” He succeeded brilliantly. His “rules” echo in courtrooms and law schools to this day.
And it was a Bermudian—a Tucker from the West End—who interpreted Blackstone to revolutionary America. St. George Tucker (1752–1827) thus became “America’s Blackstone,” and his name became etched in the mind of every American lawyer in the nineteenth century. Visiting his home on Nicholson Street in Colonial Williamsburg has become a pilgrimage for those venerating the genius and conflict of the early republic. Colonial Williamsburg presents Tucker as a polymath—a poet, plantation owner, inventor, judge, politician and merchant, but it is his 1803 rendering of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England to aspiring American lawyers that most powerfully reverberates through American life.
St. George Tucker had roots as deep as they could be in Bermuda. Distantly related to the colony’s second governor, Daniel Tucker, and other investors in the Somers Islands Company, the Tucker family prospered in Bermuda, infiltrating both commerce and politics. One branch of the family established itself in Somerset, close to Ely’s Harbour and easy access to the high seas and the profits of ocean trading. Somerset was also far from the colonial capital of St. George and the prying eyes of government revenue collectors.
The family home, The Grove, situated in the western end of Southampton, projected the commercial eminence of Colonel Henry Tucker, St. George’s father. Henry was as wily a trader as ever scoured the seas in search of profit. His partnership, Jennings, Tucker & Company, sent sturdy Bermuda sloops in search of cargoes ranging from salt to sugar—and quite possibly slaves—into the West Indies and along the American seaboard.
St. George was the youngest of the Colonel’s four sons. Kinship was the glue of colonial society; marriage could cement a family’s position in society and insure its commercial ambitions. The Colonel’s eldest son, Henry, played this game well, marrying Frances, the daughter of Governor Bruere. Henry soon found himself the colonial secretary, ensconced in a fine St. George home at the governor’s elbow.
But Bermuda was small and opportunity was limited. Henry’s brothers were, therefore, inclined to look beyond their island home for preferment, to adopt the transoceanic perspectives that had given Bermudian traders their reputation for shrewdness and nimbleness.
Having gained his early schooling at the knee of Rev. Alexander Richardson, the Anglican rector of St. Peter’s in the colonial capital, St. George focused his hopes on the law. Initially, he served as a lowly clerk to the island’s attorney general. A fuller initiation to the law, however, required a more structured education. London’s Inns of Court beckoned, but the cost and distance were formidable. His father’s commercial contacts indicated that Virginia’s College of William and Mary was both closer and cheaper. William and Mary, founded in the colonial capital of Williamsburg in 1693, had a colonial pedigree in education exceeded only by Boston’s Harvard.
On October 27, 1771, 19-year-old St. George Tucker stepped ashore in New York and, after visiting Philadelphia, headed for Williamsburg. Sensing the lad’s inexperience, the college insisted that the young Bermudian gain an understanding of moral philosophy. St. George was more than willing to comply. His subsequent studies introduced him to the ideas of the English moral philosopher John Locke, a man whose ideas would be used as a keystone for the revolution in America. Of all Locke’s ideas, the notions that all men were created equal and independent as well as the need for checks and balances in government had a lasting effect on St. George. Letters from home, however, coldly reminded him that his father’s finances were finite and subject to the whims of commerce. St. George consequently chaffed to study the law.
In 1773, fortune smiled and Tucker was admitted to study law under the tutelage of George Wythe (1726–1806). Wythe had served as a Virginia burgess and a mayor of Williamsburg; a friend of Thomas Jefferson, Wythe protested England’s high-handed rule of the American colonies. Later, he would sign the Declaration of Independence and help design Virginia’s state seal, emblazoning it with the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus Ever to Tyrants.) In 1779, Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia would appoint him professor of law and police at William and Mary, the first such appointment in America. Wythe taught the law, a sharp contrast to the on-the-job training colonial lawyers hitherto received. Wythe, for instance, employed moot, or mock, courts as a means of sharpening his students’ wits.
On April 4, 1774, Wythe granted St. George Tucker permission “to practice as an attorney in the country or inferior courts.” He was subsequently sworn in at Dinwiddie Courthouse in nearby Petersburg. Home in Bermuda that summer, he received a similar license for legal practice in the colony from Governor Bruere. Tucker had thus placed a professional foot in two colonial societies. And then fate, in the form of the American Revolution, intervened and obliged Tucker to make some life-shaping decisions.
As rebellion crept over the 13 colonies, two things—ambition and loyalty—coloured St. George’s affections. Life in Williamsburg had introduced some American ambition into his system. He aspired, for instance, to establish himself in Virginia’s so-called plantation aristocracy, landowners at the fulcrum of colonial power and privilege. He had candidly written home that he was on the lookout for a well-situated Virginian bride to connect him to the colonial elite. Yet Bermuda still tugged at his loyalty.
Bermudians were torn by the Revolution. Connected to America by trade, they could hardly afford to alienate so crucial a market. Yet rebellious America was a sea away and the Royal Navy ruled the waves. So Bermuda stayed “British” in the fray. The price of such loyalty was the threat of an American trade embargo on all British goods, a dire threat to the prosperity of mid-Atlantic Bermuda. But for pragmatic traders like Colonel Tucker and his Americanized sons, there was a pliable quality to their loyalty to the British flag.
In desperation, Colonel Henry and other merchants headed for Philadelphia to plead with the Continental Congress for some exemption from the draconian embargo. The American appetite for a deal had been whetted by St. George, who just before his return home in 1775 had intimated to Jefferson that the British had an inviting store of gunpowder in Bermuda—unguarded. Benjamin Franklin and the Colonel quickly struck an expedient deal: powder for the rebels in return for food for the beleaguered Bermudians.
In mid-August 1775, two American ships surreptitiously positioned themselves off the Bermuda coast, and under cover of darkness on August 14, a raiding party, orchestrated by the Tuckers of Somerset, stole 112 barrels of powder from a magazine in St. George, right under the nose of Governor Bruere. That evening, St. George strolled the streets of St. George town, thereby establishing an alibi for his whereabouts while the heist took place. In later years, however, Tucker would suggest to his American friends that he helped roll the barrels to the waiting American longboats. The British never left Bermuda ungarrisoned again, a safeguard that would persist until 1952.
With Bermuda’s Governor Bruere spitting venom (he labelled St. George “a mere rebel”), St. George’s affection for Bermuda continued to wane. Moreover, the colony’s war-depressed economy offered little opportunity to a young lawyer. Tucker did seize the chance of the lifting of the American embargo to trade salt from the Turks and Caicos Islands to Yorktown. The Virginians in turn commissioned Tucker to fetch salt and indigo to their ports.
Increasingly, Tucker itched to be part of the unfolding new American society. “… whilst I remain in this wretched spot,” he wrote from The Grove to John Page of the Virginia Council of Safety in 1776, “where every petty rascal in power may tyrannize with impunity and where the whole island is but a prison at large, I daily suffer ten thousand mortifying reflections.” Late that year, Tucker made his break for America.
St. George’s return to Virginia witnessed two developments: marriage and the beginnings of a legal career. He had vowed never to marry a widow, but when his eye fell on Frances Bland Randolph, his reservations vanished. Widowed with three boys, “Fanny” captivated the young Bermudian. Attached to her heart was a 1,300-acre estate—Matoax on the Appomattox River—and a sterling colonial name. One of Fanny sons, John, would achieve fame as “John Randolph of Roanoke,” a fiery orator and architect of the young republic.
Tucker married Fanny in 1778 and redirected his trading energies to the proposition of plantation tobacco. The happy marriage produced five children. A branch of the Tuckers of Somerset had rooted itself in Virginia, there to flourish through a web of prominent descendants.
Marriage or no, the British had to be vanquished. When Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia, St. George joined the revolutionary militia. “May the devil be their escort and pandemonium their headquarters!” he wrote to Fanny. He rose to the rank of colonel and sustained a bayonet wound repelling General Cornwallis from North Carolina. Ever the polymath, Tucker served as the translator for the French troops allied to the Americans at the Battle of Yorktown.
Patriotism did not, however, negate kinship. In 1785, the Matoax Tuckers sailed en masse for Bermuda for a five-month sojourn, principally to celebrate Colonel Henry’s seventy-second birthday. St. George proudly rode around the colony on a handsome Virginian bay as if to advertise his success in the new republic.
But luck is fickle. In 1787, death claimed Colonel Tucker and a year later returned for beloved Fanny. Left with eight motherless children and a plantation that refused to turn a profit, St. George refocused his ambition. He would forsake the kudos of plantation life and attach himself to America’s emerging professional class. Agriculture was no longer the nexus of colonial power; the law, commerce and politics increasingly lay at the republic’s crossroads of power.
In the autumn of 1788, Tucker bought a lot on the Courthouse Square in Williamsburg. The state capital had just been moved to Richmond. Tucker found the town “dull, forsaken and melancholy…no trade, no amusements.” But Williamsburg situated Tucker on the threshold of the new American legal system. In the wake of the Revolution, Virginia had passed an act reorganizing its General Court and establishing county courts. Tucker was elected a county-court judge and began circuit riding, thereby encountering the raw working of country justice. In 1779, he was appointed to a committee to revise Virginia’s laws. Politically, he sided passionately with Jefferson, arguing that the new republic must resist centralism and uphold states’ rights. For Tucker, the judiciary was the guardian of America’s newfound liberty.
When George Wythe resigned his professorship of law at William and Mary in 1789, the post passed to Tucker. With it came the handsome salary of ₤120 a year. A year later, St. George married another widow, Lelia Carter. The blended Tucker family became a focal point of Williamsburg life. In 1801, for instance, when news of Jefferson’s election to the presidency reached the town, William and Mary students paraded triumphantly to Tucker’s home, where their professor dispensed wine. Full of Yankee can-do, Tucker devised the first indoor plumbing in Williamsburg for his home: a copper bathtub and a water closet. He tinkered with hot-air balloons, signal systems and steam engines. His many children nicknamed the home “Fort St. George.” But it was the law that most felt Tucker’s zeal. The man who had once delivered gunpowder to America now helped to deliver its justice system.
The Revolution had disrupted the civil society on which the law rested and left in its wake a tangled mess of debts, disputed property, lost records and contested lawyers’ fees. As a county-court judge, Tucker experienced law at its rough-and-tumble worst. Lawyers guided themselves according to the vaguely perceived dictates of English common law, a facet to colonial life that the Revolution had not entirely disrupted. Here William Blackstone lent a helping hand. His Commentaries, which began appearing in the 1760s, brought some sense of order to the common law’s workings. Tucker later noted that, arranged under Blackstone’s masterful pen, “the laws of England, from a rudimentary chaos, instantly assumed the semblance of a regular system.”
But there was a huge gap between Blackstone’s Oxford lecture podium and the Dinwiddie courtroom in Virginia. Tucker complained that the laws of the young republic had been “stitched together” in a “slovenly” and “loose” fashion. Would-be lawyers “who have obtained licences to practice, discover upon their entrance into the profession a total want of information respecting the laws of their own country.”
Upon his elevation to the General Court of Virginia in 1788, Tucker encountered more daunting questions about the nature of law in America. The fundamental federalist-Jeffersonian tension was powerfully present in issues of law as it was in other aspects of the republic’s creation. Did national courts take precedence over states’ rights? Who regulated trade between the former colonies? Like his friend Jefferson, Tucker favoured healthy local autonomy in all things political, economic and judicial. Centralization of power was incipient tyranny.
It was these practical and philosophical conundrums that St. George Tucker sought to address from his judge’s bench and his William and Mary lectern. Surrounded by a library of over 500 legal texts in his Williamsburg study, Tucker pontificated to students, fashioned court rulings and penned essays. But it was Tucker’s abiding instinct that system had to be brought to the teaching and practice of American law that built his greatest monument. Without a legal system anchored to republican sensibilities, America might drift from its noble purpose. Blackstone, Tucker noted, had never attempted to “interweave” the legal needs of the colonies into his commentaries. Tucker thus set himself the huge task of interpreting Blackstone to an American audience. He would make himself “America’s Blackstone.”
In 1803, Birch and Small, a Philadelphia publisher, printed 5,000 copies of Tucker’s five-volume interpretation of Blackstone. The title was far from catchy: Blackstone’s Commentaries with Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws, of the Federal Government of the United States, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. But the book sold briskly. Tucker received a princely $4,000 in royalties. A second edition appeared in 1818.
No wonder sales were brisk. Tucker had produced the book that American lawyers wanted. He had placed in their hands a reference work that informed their education as legalists and their subsequent daily practice of the law. Blackstone had celebrated the common law as the abiding anchor of the English constitution; many had attacked him for his implicit defence of the status quo. Tucker in the New World had seen the common law in a more dynamic light. America was not dedicated to the statusquo. The law should be an active ingredient in the making of republican life.
“St. George Tucker’s influence on the law professoriate far exceeded his own years,” Craig Evan Klafter of University of Southampton has written. “His edition of the Commentaries and pamphlets began the American tradition of law professors publishing in the hope of influencing the law.”
Tucker’s centrality to the interpretation of American values is witnessed in two quintessentially American debates: slavery and the right to bear arms. Troubled by the “free and equal” dilemma surrounding slavery in the young republic, Tucker put forth his views in a 1796 pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on Slavery. One might note that since selling the Matoax plantation two years earlier, slaves were no longer necessary to his family economy beyond domestic service. Eager not to offend the property rights of Virginia slave owners but inclined to support emancipation, Tucker proposed a phased-in emancipation that would begin with the freeing of women slaves and the eventual emancipation of both sexes of slaves in subsequent generations. Virginia legislators spurned the plan, but the reconciliation of slavery to the founding principles of the republic would continue to bedevil American public life.
Tucker reprinted his slavery essay in his version of the Commentaries. In 1834, seven years after Tucker’s death, a lanky, newly elected Illinois state senator, Abraham Lincoln, determined to become a lawyer in order to bolster his reach in society. He purchased a copy of Tucker’s Commentaries and, he reported, “went at it in good earnest.” Lincoln’s biographer, David Herbert Donald, records that Lincoln read the five volumes twice and “did not merely memorize the arguments but rephrased them two or three times in his own language until he had mastered them.” Like just about every American lawyer in the late-nineteenth century, Lincoln could quote “St. George Tucker on Blackstone” at will. It was said that the one book that Lincoln always carried in his lawyer’s saddlebag was St. George Tucker on Blackstone.
Still relevant to the American experience is Tucker’s defence of the second amendment. Blackstone had acknowledged the citizen’s right to bear arms in defence of their freedom as an “auxiliary right of the subject.” But in England, Blackstone believed that society’s need for stability curtailed this freedom. Tucker begged to differ. Given America’s revolutionary beginnings and its fight with tyranny, he believed no “qualification” should be placed on the citizen’s right to bear arms. The second amendment of the American constitution—“a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”—was, in Tucker’s mind, “the true palladium of liberty.”
Bermudians today would recognize little that was “Bermudian” in St. George Tucker’s defence of the right to bear arms. If anything, the opinion suggests just how Americanized the trader’s son from Somerset had become by the early decades of the nineteenth century.
So where do we fit Tucker into the Bermuda panorama? Was he America’s greatest Bermudian? Some might champion other candidates. Francis Landy Patton, for instance, went from Bermuda to the presidency of Princeton University and became the friend of presidents and prime ministers. Others might forward the name of Joseph Rainey, an American refugee harboured by Bermuda who went home to become the first black elected to the House of Representatives. And what about St. George’s own brother, Thomas Tudor? He served as secretary of the treasury to four American presidents and as personal physician to President James Madison. But ask an American legal or constitutional expert about St. George Tucker and you will get immediate recognition, even if it is immediately followed by the query “You mean he was Bermudian?”
Tucker spent his last years in a cottage in Warminister, Virginia, by the banks of the James River. When he died in 1827, he was buried in Warminister under a tombstone bearing an inscription that echoed Virgil: Bermuda me genuit, Virginia fovit. “Bermuda produced me, Virginia nurtured me.”