An Early and Influential Advocate of Secession

By Scully, Sean | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

An Early and Influential Advocate of Secession


Scully, Sean, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Nathaniel Beverley Tucker died in despair. His cherished dream of Southern independence lay in ruins. The South, especially his native Virginia, appeared doomed to live forever under the heel of a Northern-dominated Union.

"But if the heart of Virginia is dead within her - if that spirit which has been to me the breath if life is fled - if that fountain of just principles and elevated sentiments from which, as the milk of childhood, my mind and heart have drawn their sentiment, is dried up," he said in one of his last public speeches, "then there is nothing left for me . . . but to lay my head in the cold bosom of my venerated and lamented mother and die there."

Had Tucker lived another decade, however, he would have seen a different South, a South deeply influenced by his vision and work. A South that was willing to go to war over Tucker's vision.

Tucker, who died in 1851, was one of the earliest proponents of Southern secession. In his writing, both as novelist and founding editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, Tucker called on his fellow Southerners to break with "the fierce philanthropy and malignant love of our Northern brethren."

"Let the people of the South once see distinctly that they must choose between the Union and all the rights and interests that the union was intended to protect," he told his fellow delegates at a conference of Southern states in 1850, "and they will not hesitate to renounce it."

Tucker was born in September 1784 in Virginia, the son of a Revolutionary War hero, St. George Tucker. He was the half-brother of the famous Virginia orator and congressman John Randolph and brother of Henry St. George Tucker, best known as a founding father of the honor system at the University of Virginia.

He was, at the time of his death, professor of law at the College of William and Mary. He had served as a judge in the territory of Missouri, where he was a founder of a colony of slave-owning Virginians who hoped to bring the territory into the Union as a slave state. The Virginia colonists gradually drifted home, as abolitionists gained a stronger hold in the West.

In 1832, Judge Tucker, as he would be known, returned home too and joined the faculty of William and Mary. Although he could not have known it at the time,Tucker was an influential figure in the founding of the Confederacy. In his law classes, he taught a generation of students a strict view of states rights that they would draw upon decades later when they decided to break with the North.

Through his editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger, he also helped develop a distinctive Southern culture and literature. But his most lasting contribution was a novel that rallied Southern youth to the cause of states rights and predicted the bloody and brutal war a quarter century before it erupted.

The novel, "The Partisan Leader," was published under an assumed name in 1836. In what seemed an outlandish plot, the book told the story of a band of gallant Virginia guerrillas in 1849 fighting against an occupying Northern army. The South had successfully seceded and Northern troops, led by an increasingly tyrannical president, stepped in to stop Virginia from joining her prosperous, happy and free sisters. …

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