Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Legacy of St. George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Legacy of St. George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897

Article excerpt

The Legacy of St. George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897. By Chad Vanderford. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015. Pp. x, 262. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-62190-216-4.)

Chad Vanderford has written an intellectual history of how white southern scholars viewed the Constitution, particularly regarding slavery and states' rights, in The Legacy of St George Tucker: College Professors in Virginia Confront Slavery and the Rights of States, 1771-1897. Vanderford analyzes how professors in Virginia--in particular, three generations of the Tucker family--addressed those contentious topics.

St. George Tucker, his son, Henry Tucker, and his grandson, John Randolph Tucker, are the central figures, although the writings of other contemporary intellectuals receive attention, too, such as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ruffner, and George Frederick Holmes. Two chapters are devoted to each generation of Tuckers and their contemporaries: the first chapter examines their views on slavery; the second focuses on their opinions on states' rights. Throughout, Vanderford makes the tenuous claim that southern arguments for the necessity of slavery and the rights of states were based on intellectual issues related to natural right, not motivated by racism or the economic benefits of slavery.

Vanderford draws a distinction between modern natural right and classic natural right. Modern natural right is the idea expressed at the founding of the United States that the consent of the governed is necessary to legitimate government and that all men are equal. In contrast, classic natural right is the theory that the wise should rule; it is drawn from ancient philosophers like Aristotle, who believed that men were inherently unequal. Vanderford asserts that St. George Tucker, in his role as a professor and a writer, was a strong defender of the concept of modern natural right.

How did St. George Tucker's championing of modern natural right relate to slavery? According to Vanderford, while Tucker did argue that Virginians should free their slaves, he and his like-minded contemporaries justified slavery because they feared retribution from manumitted slaves. …

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